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Snapshots from the edge of hell

Snapshots from the edge of hell

During the afternoon session at yesterday’s Khmer Rouge tribunal hearing, legendary war photographer Al Rockoff described how one of his photographs — a shot of a uniformed Lon Nol soldier, hands over his head, surrendering to a barefoot Khmer Rouge cadre — came to be.

Rockoff explained how he had been walking down Monivong Boulevard with a group of soldiers, positioning himself behind the Khmer Rouge fighter to capture the apparent surprise of the supporter of the just-toppled regime, saying that if the judges had been able to see the entire series of shots, the circumstances surrounding the picture would be obvious.

Although Rockoff was describing a series of photographs, he could very well have been describing his testimony — a series of vignettes that traced the arc of the fall of Phnom Penh, from the initial euphoria over the war’s end on the morning of April 17, 1975 to the subsequent letdown as the consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s victory set in.

“Huge crowds started gathering,” Rockoff said. “A cadre with a bullhorn was saying: ‘The war is over. The war is over.’ Everything was OK at that point. They weren’t panicking — they were happy, the soldiers, the civilians. About an hour later, the mood changed.”

In the days and weeks leading up to the capital’s fall, Phnom Penh had become, as Rockoff put it, “a giant refugee camp”.

“There were 23,000 people in the Cambodiana [Hotel]. The swimming pool you people use now used to be a huge septic tank. I mean, it was gross,” Rockoff said, noting that, nonetheless, the absence of random shelling made it preferable to other camps outside the city.  

With the refugees came the wounded, filling hospitals and makeshift surgical centres, like the one set up by the Red Cross at the Hotel le Phnom, formerly the Hotel Royale, and the current location of the Raffles Hotel, where, according to Rockoff, “there were thousands of people milling around waiting” for admittance.

“On April 17, regardless, they were kicked out of the hotel with everyone else,” he said.

Rockoff was briefly arrested along with a handful of other journalists and fixers – including New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg – after visiting another Phnom Penh hospital, and was put in the back of an armoured personnel carrier, where the group tried their best not to appear American.

“Sydney got very upset when I started speaking English in the APC, and he said, ‘Don’t speak English. You’re French,’” Rockoff testified, adding that their captors began searching Schanberg’s bag. “One Khmer Rouge held up a wad of $100 bills in one hand, and Sydney’s underwear in the other. He put the $100 bills back, and kept the underwear. I guess money had no value to him at that point.”

The group was eventually released, probably after receiving orders from their superiors, Rockoff said.  

When asked by civil party lawyer Elisabeth Simmoneau Fort if he knew any of the names of the Khmer Rouge leadership at that time, Rockoff replied, “Well, not exactly.”

“There was one Cambodian who worked in the Ministry of Information and he kept saying his brother would be here soon, his brother would be here soon,” Rockoff said. “His name was Saloth Chhay. His brother was Saloth Sar – Pol Pot.”

He later added Chhay had “no idea” of his brother’s importance in the Khmer Rouge.  

“I say that because in the exodus out of Phnom Penh, he was one of the many lost,” he said.

Ultimately, Rockoff took refuge in the French Embassy for about three weeks, shoulder to shoulder with practically every foreigner and asylum seeker in Phnom Penh – including some “very bitter” East German diplomats who had hoped to congratulate the Khmer Rouge.

“They had to give up their gourmet food, their pate, their sausages; it had to go into the common food store,” he said. “The East Germans were particularly angry, because they had flown in specifically for the victory and weren’t invited.”

Finally, at about the end of the first week of March, transport was arranged for the compound.

“‘You will leave, but you will leave by road,’” Rockoff said, remembering the words of a Khmer Rouge cadre who visited the compound.  

“‘Why can’t we fly?’” he continued, recalling the question asked by another asylum seeker.  “[The cadre] said, ‘Because we want to show you what we have done.’ Of course, the reality was that they never did.”

“We weren’t driven by the sites of any killings but, if the wind was blowing right, you could smell it. You could smell the bodies. They wouldn’t show us what they did.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at [email protected]


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