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Look back at the fall of Phnom Penh

Look back at the fall of Phnom Penh

april.jpg
april.jpg

THE GREAT DECEPTION: Jubilant Phnom Penhois welcome their young Khmer Rouge "liberators".

APRIL 17 marks the 26th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh

and the beginning of the three-year, eight-month and 20- day reign of terror that

eventually claimed the lives of at least 1.7 million Cambodians.

Phnom Penh Post staffer AUN PHEAP, 37, looks back at his own experiences of April

17, 1975, and the terrible Pol Pot years which followed.

I was an 11-year-old pupil in primary school at Stung Meanchey, Phnom Penh, when

the Khmer Rouge captured the city.

It was Khmer New Year and I was visiting my older sister's house with my mother.

On April 17, I saw KR soldiers pointing their guns at people as they walked down

the road, shouting, but I didn't know what they were saying.

My brother cheered them happily and said "Phnom Penh is liberated. We have peace".

My brother and I listened to the radio broadcast by the KR ordering people to lay

down their weapons and defect to Angkar.

Immediately after the KR took Phnom Penh they claimed they had made a negotiated

settlement with the Lon Nol government and asked its soldiers to lay down their arms.

But that was just a trick. When the soldiers laid down their weapons, the KR said

"No, Phnom Penh was liberated by arms" and they then arrested the former

government soldiers.

Then the KR announced that all people must leave their houses for few days so Angkar

could "clean" the city of their enemies. They said very politely: "Please

leave your house for a few days and then you will be able to come back home."

I was very scared and I ran to an older brother's house behind the Russian Hospital

(now called Sihanouk Hospital) where he worked as a doctor. My mother had gone to

visit him, but when I arrived there I learned she had already gone home. So I ran

back home.

On the way I saw people being forced out of the city by the young KR soldiers. People

who did not walk quickly enough were shot. I was so scared. I ran and hid behind

a truck parked on the sidewalk. I watched the KR soldiers, who did not know how to

drive, run over people in military jeeps they had captured. I did not find my mother.

That same morning, I was evacuated to Prek Eng village, about 10km from Phnom Penh.

I went with my older sister and her husband. As we left the city we passed many dismembered

bodies of soldiers. Heads and limbs were scattered everywhere. The smell was very

bad.

My sister gave birth one week later in Prek Eng. She tried to rent a boat for 50

grams of gold to take us back to Phnom Penh, but we were arrested by a KR militia

force.

They sent us to Koh Krabey. My sister also had a two-year-old baby. He became ill,

refused to eat and two months later he died.

Just after the baby died, Angkar said we could return to Phnom Penh. We boarded the

boat that we thought would take us to Phnom Penh. When we saw the Royal Palace we

were very happy, but the boat did not stop.

The boat continued on to Kampong Chhnang where we were dropped off. We were all very

disappointed and understood that Angkar only lied to us.

We stayed there for a few days before we were sent by truck to Boeng Riem, about

70km from Battambang.

My family was sent to live on a small hill. There was a grave on the side of a hill

where the bodies of some 500 people who had been evacuated from Phnom Penh and who

had reached this place before us had been killed and buried.

During the rainy season we could catch crabs and shellfish in puddles that formed

at the base of the hill. But in the dry season we had nothing to eat - just green

bananas distributed by Angkar. Each person was given just one banana a week.

I became very ill. My body began to swell. Other peoples' bodies began to swell too

and it was difficult to recognize each other. My feet were so swollen I could not

walk.

One day I lost consciousness, but my brother-in-law had just returned from the frontlines

with some rice he had managed to hide from the KR. They made a porridge with some

of the rice which they dripped down my throat. I slowly regained my strength and

survived.

At this same time a friend of mine died while trying to gather food. He had reached

into a crab's hole but was too weak to withdraw his hand from the mud. He eventually

collapsed and drowned in the shallow water. We found his body the next morning.

We stayed in Boeng Riem for three months. A week after my friend died, we were transferred

to Phum Thmei, about 70km from Battambang.

At Phum Thmei I saw the KR's village militia (Kang Chhlub) kill many people who they

accused of being enemies. They spied on people at night, listening to conversations.

Those they accused of betraying Angkar would be "sent for education". They

never returned.

I saw a man named Sok who was accused of stealing fruit from a tree. He was buried

up to his neck by the militia and we were called to witness his punishment. A militia

man said that if any of us were caught stealing fruit we would meet the same fate

as Sok. We watched as Sok's head was then smashed by a hoe.

I stayed there for three years. For one month after each harvest we ate boiled rice,

but for the rest of the year we lived on very watery rice porridge. It was not enough

to survive on.

But my sister had hidden some gold and we were able to use it to barter for sweet

potatoes. One day she tried to buy five kilos of sweet potatoes from a village of

"old people" at Phnom Choeung Tinh.

I was sent to collect the potatoes at night but was arrested by militia. I was tied

and beaten, then they threatened to kill me with a hoe. In the morning I was released,

but they warned me if I was caught again I would be killed for sure.

They told me: "Alive, you are of no benefit - dead, you are of no loss."

But I still had to go and collect food for my family. I was caught again, but I was

only beaten and had my potatoes confiscated.

Every night I cried for my parents whom I had not seen since we were in Phnom Penh.

When the Vietnamese invaded at the end of 1978, my brother-in-law and I made our

way back to Phnom Penh by foot. It took us two and a half months to reach the city.

In early 1979 I found my mother at the village of my birth near Kandal. At first

we did not say anything to each other. We only embraced and cried a lot.

Shortly after, I learned my father had died of starvation and two brothers and one

sister had been killed - murdered along with her husband and their four children.

Life was still very difficult, but the worst of the nightmare was over.

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