When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on Thursday, April 17, 1975 – 43 years ago today – there were still Khmer New Year offerings out in front of many people's homes.
The sound of guns and bombs, which had been heard for days, had disappeared. The sun was shining brilliantly on Phnom Penh, but few seemed to grasp the city, and soon the rest of the country, was about to fall into its darkest period.
That day, Khmer Rouge forces overthrew the government of General Lon Nol and took control of Phnom Penh, beginning a forced mass eviction of its residents to the countryside, a march that claimed countless lives, and for survivors led to a life of forced labour and fear under the watchful eye of the Angkar.
The ghost city left behind that day is difficult to imagine now, with Phnom Penh once again a bustling and dynamic urban centre. But for many residents, the memories of that day will never fade. To mark the anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, Rinith Taing spoke with a collection of people about their experiences that day, which for each changed the trajectory of their lives.
Ka Sunbaunat, Psychiatrist
A deadly bike trip
A 21-year-old medical student at that time, I was living with my aunt along with my older sister who was a nurse at Ong Doung Hospital and seven other relatives. At dawn on that day, we heard around the neighborhood in Boeung Keng Kang that Lon Nol’s last Marine Unit stationed at the bridge to Chroy Changvar had surrendered to the guerrilla force, but we had already expected that. The war was over, we thought.
At 8 in the morning I saw Khmer Rouge soldiers entering the neighborhood, and like most of my neighbours I went out to greet them with a white flag in my hand. The soldiers were all dressed in black, dirty clothes, and their expressionless faces were covered with dirt and mud. Most of them were carrying guns, from pistols to rocket launchers, while others were driving military jeeps or tanks.
After a while I was back in my house and turned on the radio, which was the main source of information at that time. On the national station there was a special broadcast, starting with a short speech from Samdech Huot Tat, then the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia.
He was asking all Cambodians to stop living in fear and unite to rebuild the country. Afterwards, he handed the mic over to a senior military official who gave a similar speech but added that “we are negotiating with brothers and sisters on the other side”. Suddenly, he was cut off by a Khmer Rouge cadre, who shouted: “We won thanks to our weaponry, not negotiation!” At 9am, our neighbours told us that the Khmer Rouge had ordered everyone to get out of their houses.
Curious about the new era and worried about my relatives, I got on my moto and drove to the houses of my two uncles and their families in TuolKork. At a traffic light I ran into a group of about 50 Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were celebrating their victory by shooting their AK-47s in the air. That was the first time I heard such rapid shooting so close, and I was so scared. I felt all over my body, searching for any blood. Finding none, I continued my journey carefully.
Along the way I saw many other shocking sights - soldiers pointing their guns and shouting at people, piles of guns which Khmer Rouge cadres ordered to be handled by residents, and looters taking whatever they wanted. What shocked me most were the piles of discarded riel banknotes at Central Market, which I was too afraid to pick up.
I was back home with my family at around noon, but we did not start our hard journey out of the city until the next morning because it was too crowded. We were travelling on National Road 6, along which we saw dead bodies, but it was not new to us after years of battles. We ran into one of my friends who had a gun being pointed at him by Khmer Rouge soldiers because he was wearing a jacket with an American flag on it. We told him to take it off, and they let him go.
I will never forget the trip I made on that day. To be honest, at the time I felt like the Khmer Rouge were like foreigners, but who spoke the language of guns.
Tang Muyly, Housewife
A white crow
On April 16, Chin Borin, my fiancée, was asking for my mother’s blessing before he went to fight against Khmer Rouge forces in Kandal. I was only 15 but I was engaged to him because my mother wanted a military official in the family, and he was a captain in Lon Nol’s army.
But the next morning Borin ran to my house on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard wearing only his underpants, crying that “the Khmer Rouge took over!” He said Khmer Rouge soldiers had forced him to put down his weapon and stripped him of his uniform.
At around 9am, we saw black-shirted soldiers entering our neighborhood, looking ferocious with their weapons. Those who were waiting to greet them were chanting, “Long Life, King Father!” We also heard guns. Scared of the loud noises, Borin, my widowed mother, my five siblings, my cousin, her husband and their son went to hide in a trench we had built inside our house.
Amid the fear and confusion, my cousin’s son wandered out of the house to play. He was seen by two Khmer Rouge soldiers who were standing guard. One of them shouted, “There are still people in that house!” Then he pointed his gun inside and threatened us to get out or he would shoot. We had to follow his order. When we were out, the other soldier told his comrade to put his gun down and stop threatening us, and spoke to us gently.
He said to my mother, “Auntie, we will have to leave the city for three days. Please bring as much rice and other food as you can.” When he saw our Lambretta car, he suggested we put our stuff in it and bring the car along.
We had already prepared emergency packages in our house, and that soldier’s kindness gave us the chance to get them. We did not have much rice or gasoline, but what we had with us helped us a lot in the next few days. I realised that at least some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were good people, and might not have wanted to harm us.
My older sister had to carry my mother, who did not want to leave because she did not want to give up her wealth, especially our house.
We were ordered to head east until we reached Kampong Thom, where we stayed until 1979. Anyone who refused was shot in front of us. Even the children selling snacks in the street were shown no mercy.
Although a Khmer Rouge soldier helped me and my family, I detest the Khmer Rouge and their ideology. April 17, 1975 was a day that my family and I literally went to hell alive.
Sambo Manara, Historian
“I never saw my father’s body”
At the age of 17, I was among the youth who hated Lon Nol’s government for its corruption and failure to rule the country wisely. At my school there had been demonstrations. But my father, Chab
Sambo, was a strict and serious high school teacher and always warned me not to be involved with any movement or Communism.
April 17, 1975 was at first a day of joy for me. I had not been thinking much about what would happen after the war, and I was celebrating the end of a bitter conflict and delighted to see the failure of those I hated. I was also happy that Prince Norodom Sihanouk would again rule the country and that I would no longer be afraid of being forced to join the army.
That morning I was dancing and singing happily with my friends in front of Tuol Tompoung Pagoda until my father came to call me home on his mobilette.
After a while, groups of Khmer Rouge soldiers were walking from house to house, telling the residents to leave for “only three days”. When they reached the front of my house they shot the coconuts on a tree with their AK-47s. We were all nervous since it was the first time someone was shooting near our house. Then they told us to leave, and asked us not to bring anything for the journey. But my father insisted on us bringing as many supplies as we could carry.
My father had sold all his assets, and gathered 25 million riel. When we left our house he asked me to carry all that money on a shoulder pole. He put bags of rice on top of the money to hide it.
We attempted to go to Takeo’s Prey Kabbas district, my mother’s hometown. On the way the traffic was very crowded, and at Kbal Thnal we saw a lot of dead bodies with bullet wounds in them.
It took us eight hours just to reach Prek Pra, a commune in the outskirt of Phnom Penh. It was the place where we heard the soldiers use the term Angkar. Shortly after arriving there, they called for the evictees to get a ration of rice. When we returned we found a child soldier searching our bags.
When he found my father’s money he called out for its owner. My father, who was standing next to me, gently pinched my arm and whispered, “Don’t say or do anything, my son.” After a while, with no one claiming to be the owner, the child took the money away.
I deeply regretted losing the money, which my dad had spent years making as both a teacher and a barber. But when I looked at him there was not a sign of sadness. Later he simply said softly to me, “We lost everything, my son.”
For almost four years we were moved from place to place, and our final destination was Battambang. Twenty-four of us left Phnom Penh, and by the end of the regime only four survived. We were always separated, so we never knew how and when others died. I never even saw my father’s body.
Kom Mary, Motodop
To survive meant following orders
I was only 13 when Khmer Rouge forces entered my neighborhood, which was a few kilometres east of the Olympic Stadium. Like most of our neighbors, I went out of my house to look at the soldiers in black clothes, which I had never seen before.
Their guns did not scare me because I was used to seeing people carrying weapons around during the war. I did not know why, but I kept my eyes on the red bandanas on their heads, their rolled-up trouser legs and their Ho Chi Minh sandals, which were made from car tires. Now I knew why they had been called tobprey (“jungle army”).
Along the road people were celebrating the end of the war. Many tried to make conversation and shake hands with Khmer Rouge soldiers but it was not successful. They kept their faces stern and did not even show a little friendliness to us. I became a little nervous, so I went back to my house.
At around 5 in the evening I was feeding my pigs at the house my family rented when I heard Khmer Rouge soldiers shouting that we had to leave our houses or we would be shot. This announcement caused confusion, but we did not dare to oppose the order from the soldiers with angry faces. Those who refused to leave really were killed.
Five of us headed north on National Road 5. Having not prepared, my parents only could bring a little rice and few clothes with us. We were always hungry over the next few days, and we could have starved if Khmer Rouge cadres did not give us some rice.
On the crowded road I had to step on and over corpses, some rotten and full of maggots. In a mosquito net on the side of the road, I saw the dead bodies of several Lon Nol soldiers. Although we had been through three years of war, this was the first time I saw something like this.
Those who were identified as soldiers from the old regime were killed at once in front of us, so were those who attempted to go back. We saw the people falling into bloody pools, and we did not want to be the same. We kept our faces down and kept walking, always following orders from Angkar.
Sa Kho, Vendor
My dad was a foot soldier in Lon Nol’s army who was killed in a battle in 1973, leaving my mother to work hard to support five children. Although they killed my father, I was also happy when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh because it meant the end of the war.
At around 7 in the morning, I was standing in front of my house in Steung Meanchey looking at the marching Khmer Rouge soldiers, whom I had only seen on TV. A 15 year-old student at that time, I did not think about anything that could happen on the first day of the new regime, and I was sure not many did since we were delighted with the newfound peace.
Later in the day we heard from people in our neighborhood that the Khmer Rouge had ordered us to leave the city to escape from American bombs. However we did not leave until the next day.
We travelled on National Road 6. I was scared and nauseous when I saw the corpses of hundreds of Lon Nol soldiers and saw piles of their uniforms.
When evening fell we stopped for rest at Chory Botom Pagoda and started preparing a meal. It was then we realised that our 10 kilograms of rice, the only supplies we had for six people, had been stolen. I was angry and upset. How could somebody steal from people who already had nothing?
Stealing was common on that day. Many people did not have time to prepare supplies, or brought only money which was no longer useful. Those who have gold and jewels used them to barter for food or clothes, but the poor like us had to go without anything. The poor had to force themselves to become thieves, to steal to survive.
Fortunately we found a sack of cornstarch, which fell from a fast-driving truck. We mixed it with water, fried the dough, and ate it instead of rice so that we could sleep with our stomachs full and have energy to continue the journey the next day.
Chan Sophat, Sugarcane juice seller
“Why do they need to clean our house for us?”
I was only five or six on the day that the Khmer Rouge forced us to leave the city. One of things I remember was that they told us, “Leave for three days because we are going to clean the city.”
I was holding my mother’s hand as she, my brother and sister and I set off for Svay Rieng, my mother’s hometown. The sun was very hot, and our trip was very difficult. I was crying, asking to go back to our home in Tuol Tompoung.
I said, “Mum! Why do they need to clean our house for us? We can clean it ourselves.” She covered my mouth with her hand, telling me to stop speaking or they would cut my throat. But I did not stop speaking until I saw the black-shirted soldiers with their guns.
I saw them kill people who opposed them. They showed no mercy even to the smallest children. One of the soldiers grabbed a baby by its leg and slammed it into a palm tree. I can still see that cruel image today. I still don’t understand what they meant by ‘cleaning the city’, but I am sure that they were not cleaning our houses.
Lead image: Young Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers atop of their US-made armoured vehicles enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. AFP