Iwas comforted to see familiar faces at Hotel Le Phnom. There was Sydney Schanberg,
the New York Times correspondent, and Dith Pran, his interpreter and guide. Sydney
did not join the American evacuation even though his paper asked him to do so...
There were about a dozen Western journalists who had missed the American evacuation
for a variety of reasons. They were a diverse group, including the often-wounded
freelance photographer Al Rockoff, a former GI from Vietnam who was on about the
sixth of his nine lives.
... Five other Britons had stayed behind: a Scottish medical team brought out by
the Red Cross to alleviate some of the misery in the city's primitive, overcrowded
hospitals - Helen Fraser and Pat Ash, nurses; Michael Day, surgeon, Murray Carmichael,
anesthetist - and Major 'Spots' Leopard, field director of the Save the Children
In the past we had been somewhat cut off from the war in the Hotel Le Phnom - not
any more. The facade of the old colonial building was bedecked with giant white flags
and red crosses and surrounded with barbed-wire barricades. It had been declared
a "neutral zone" by the Red Cross. Outside, however, a squadron of armored
personnel carriers squatted menacingly on the wide avenue, arousing fear that the
government might be setting a strong-point up around the hotel in defense of the
city. The Red Cross finally got assurances that its neutrality would be respected
and it would be left in peace.
... At the hotel, rooms were being emptied of arms and even of military souvenirs
like rocket fragments, mortar finds, North Vietnamese pith helmets - mementos amassed
by guests over the years. Cambodian officers and other "non-neutrals" who
had moved in with their families and belongings in the hope of escaping Khmer Rouge
reprisals were being expelled by the Red Cross. They left reluctantly.
The Red Cross had given everyone in their "neutral zone" a list of rules
forbidding, among other things, bathing in the swimming pool. It was thought that
if there was a prolonged siege, the pool-water - turgid and soupy after months of
neglect - might have be filtered and drunk. The hotel, already out of bread and fresh
eggs, was now out of ice. [Hotel patron] Monsieur Loup was profusely apologetic.
"C'est la guerre," he said with a wring of his hands, as if anyone didn't
I found the Scottish medical team in a bungalow attached to the hotel which they
had converted into an operating theater complete with half a dozen camp beds. They
were exhausted, having spent the blackest day of the war at the Preah Ket Mealea
Hospital. In two hours in the morning they had performed 10 operations. "I didn't
have time to put on gloves or a gown. I simply splashed alcohol over my hands and
didn't even have time to change the instruments between operations," said Daly,
the Glaswegian surgeon.
The bungalow where the team planned to keep operating to the end was something else.
Throwing open a cupboard, Daly claimed he had enough equipment to operate on 12 patients
without having to pause even to wash up.
By early evening, the scenes of chaos and horror were mounting. Attempts to confine
refugees to the outskirts [of the city] ceased and they were converging on the center
from all sides, pushing, shoving, jostling, desperate to escape the fighting.
The trim walkways and flower-scented parks were submerged under a heaving mass of
homeless families; weeping, lost children; pigs; ducks; chickens; all increasingly
afraid. Part of this great crowd saw the Red Cross signs and, assuming our "neutral
zone" was a relief center, tried to push their way in.
I made my way to the converted volleyball court which served as a receiving center
for the wounded. It was overwhelmed. Uncontrollable shrieks and whimpers of pain
rent the sour, fetid air. A dozen doctors and nurses were dealing with more than
700 cases. The chief medic was in despair. The wounded were stacked like logs, two
or three to a bed. Blood streaked the floor. The bins overflowed with gory bandages
and field dressings. A human leg poked out of a cardboard box where a surgeon had
tossed it in a hurry. Its owner lay staring blankly on a stretcher crimson with blood.
A soldier staggered in, glassy-eyed and exhausted, cradling his baby daughter in
his arms. He laid her on a bed occupied by a soldier with a mangled foot - laid her
gently, almost apologetically, trying not to jolt the soldier. He pulled back the
red-checked scarf he had wound round her little head and his young face collapsed
as he saw she had already died - a lump of rocket had torn a hole through her.
I was overdosing on horror and headed back to the hotel, straight into a deeply unpleasant
argument. A few of the French colons and journalists could not stomach the prospect
of Le Phnom, this exclusive hangout of foreigners and rich Cambodians, being converted
into a refugee camp. They were rudely assailing Red Cross officials for giving refugees
shelter in the spacious hotel grounds.
Refugees were being admitted, family by family, after Red Cross officials, with commendable
patience, had searched their bodies and belongings for weapons. From under their
clothes and from innocent-looking bundles, poured out a fantastic array of arms -
rifles, pistols, knives, switch-blades, chains, even a knuckle-duster. The searchers
dumped them in a big wooden box for disposal later. This incredible collection proved
that some were army deserters who had quit their battlefield to get their families
Disarmed, they tramped through the high-ceilinged lobby into the garden on the other
side, where they spread out little mats beside the pool and fell into exhausted sleep.
A green plastic rod separated them from a handful of Westerners dining at La Sirène,
the open air restaurant on the far side of the pool. "That's what's called apartheid,"
said a French journalist, who had been in Johannesburg. It was not a moment any of
us felt proud of.
The protests from the grands messieurs, as the Cambodians call Westerners, continued.
Finally, André Pasquier, the chief Red Cross delegate, lost his temper. Shaking
with emotion and fatigue, he told them to shut up. "If you don't like it,"
he said, "get out." Few went.
... [The next morning], the city fell... Quickly, we moved back to join the other
foreigners in the hotel. The crackle of small-arms fire came closer. From a balcony
off Sydney's room on the second floor, we saw soldiers who had thrown away their
guns mingling with the refugees steaming into the city from the north. A squadron
of armored personnel carriers regrouped around the hotel. They had come from the
collapsed northern front. It was unclear whether they would fight or surrender.
The insurgent radio broadcasting a message "We are ready to welcome you"
was the first sign that the Khmer Rouge were entering the city. Then Pascal, a Red
Cross doctor, burst into the hotel lobby, saying insurgents were near the French
Embassy half a mile down the road. As he raced upstairs for his passport, mortars
fell a few streets away. The din of battle mounted to a crescendo and the refugees
in the hotel grounds huddled closer together. The government radio began playing
French military music, presumably to squeeze a last drop of patriotic fervor. Then
it went off the air.
... There was a commotion outside. Prince Sirik Matak was among scores of refugees
trying to fight their way into the hotel. Red Cross officials refused him entry on
the grounds that his presence would endanger the lives of the others. Matak, Sihanouk's
second cousin and a career civil servant, had played a key role in the 1970 coup
against the prince and became deputy prime minister under Lon Nol. He was one of
the seven "arch traitors" of the Lon Nol regime, condemned to death by
the Khmer Rouge. He spoke briefly to reporters about the fighting. "You see,
these are personalities who are determined to resist. We do not want a communist
government here." In evident distress at being turned away, he left and was
granted asylum in the French embassy, but first he handed out a copy of a letter
he had written to John Gunther Dean. The ambassador had invited Matak to join the
American evacuation the previous Saturday with other Cambodian leaders. He had refused
and this is what he wrote:
Dear Excellency and friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards
freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.
As for you and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment that
you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You
have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave and it
is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.
But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love,
it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed
this mistake in believing in you, the Americans.
Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
Without warning, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced their way into our quarters at the Hotel
Le Phnom and harshly told André Pasquier of the Red Cross to empty the place
within half an hour. Wild soldiers rushed through the Scottish medical team's operating
theater in black hordes, demanding cartons of medicine. They rummaged through the
cupboards. They drank bottles of intravenous serum. One of the nurses stripped a
wounded government soldier of his uniform and put it roughly over a dead man. Otherwise
the soldier would have been shot.
Pandemonium gripped the hotel. People ran in all directions. What did it mean? Where
would they go? The consensus among the foreigners was to seek the security of the
French embassy, half a mile down Monivong boulevard. The Cambodian refugees in the
garden had no such choice. Gathering their cooking pots, they set out for the countryside.
So, too, did the hotel staff who clutched imploringly at our arms. "Don't abandon
us." Their words come back to haunt me now, for most of them are dead.
[ Jon Swain was one of dozens of foreigners who holed up inside the French embassy,
before being trucked to the Thai border. At the demand of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodians
at the embassy, including Dith Pran and government officials, had earlier left the
compound into the waiting hands of the KR. Sirik Matak left the embassy with the
words "I am not afraid. I am ready to explain and to give account of what I
have done". He was executed.]
- Exracted from the book River of Time by Jon Swain, Minerva Paperback edition
published by Mandarin Paperbacks, 1996.