P hnom Penh Post reporters Mang Channo and Ker Munthit spent their
early teenage years under the Khmer Rouge regime. These are their memories; two
stories among millions.
Channo: On the night of April 16,
1975, everybody was talking about it. Tomorrow, they said, the Khmer Rouge at
the city's outskirts would take Phnom Penh.
The Khmer New Year had ended
the day before, celebrated with a mixture of sorrow and joy this year, and Phnom
Penh was literally pounding.
That night, there was almost constant
shelling of the city. It seemed like they hit almost everywhere. We picked up
sharp bits of shrapnel, so we would not step on them when we walked
There was no police control in the city. There were many
robberies, and much gambling. Around my house gamblers crouched together in
groups, along with refugee families from outside the city and wounded soldiers.
It was like anarchy.
Electricity supplies were poor. But the city was lit
up by the bright lights of parachute flares, dropped one after another. Packages
of food also fell from the planes overhead. I didn't know who was dropping it or
where it had come from.
Some people were happy because they sensed the
end of the war. Some people were afraid because tomorrow would see more
fighting, and more deaths.
I felt happy. There were a lot of people, a
lot of bright lights, and I didn't know about the dangers of war. When I heard
fighting, I tried to run to see it. But my parents told us not to go
That night, we slept in the large hole which had been dug in our
yard a month before. Afraid that the house would be shelled, my parents put our
clothes and other possessions into our well.
Munthit: It was the
morning of April 17, 1975. The Khmer New Year was just over, but I do not
remember how my family celebrated it. By then, the Tuol Kork area where we lived
had been shelled often. My school was closed, and my parents had evacuated us to
Ounnaloam Pagoda in central Phnom Penh two days earlier.
I was standing
behind the fence of the pagoda watching the "liberators" celebrating the victory
of their revolution. I never thought that, within the next few hours, a new
chapter - the Killing Fields - would open in Cambodia's history.
Rouge guerrillas marched in groups down the road outside the pagoda, from both
the north and the south. More came up the riverbank after crossing the Tonle
I was worried and a little panicked. I was thinking about whether I
would ever again see my parents, who had remained at home, looking after our
Most of the people at the pagoda remained inside, frightened.
Others who lived along the river bank, especially the children, were more
confident and came out to mingle with the Khmer Rouge, cheering
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. The black-uniformed liberators
went down in combat positions, pointing their guns. One kneeled against a
lamp-post with a big banana flower-shaped thing on his shoulder. I did not know
it was a B-40 rocket launcher, aimed at another group of men approaching from
the south of what is now Samdech Sothearos Blvd.
Onlookers, including me,
ran in disarray. From my hiding place, I watched two men walk toward each other,
one from each group of
Shortly afterward, I heard "Hold
fire. They are our Samakmit [comrades]". The two units came together to greet
each other. Enthusiastic, they cheered each other.
Channo: I got up early on the morning of April 17. We waited to see
what was going to happen, and listened to the government radio. It said the
Khmer Rouge were still here, and gave casualty figures of the night's
On my street, about 7am, crowds of people lined up to watch the
men who marched toward us. Wearing black uniforms with green and black caps, and
shoes made of tires, they carried hammocks, guns and ammunition. I thought they
were strange. I felt frightened at first but most of the people around me were
Outside President Lon Nol's house, a street or two from my own,
some government soldiers cheered as the Khmer Rouge approached, guns poised. The
soldiers, at gunpoint, still cheered as they took off their uniforms and helmets
and lay down their guns. Piles of uniforms and guns were soon scattered
The government soldiers were lined up and taken away. My parents
talked about the Khmer Rouge wanting the soldiers to be re-educated, though
no-one knew if that was true.
Rumors spread that a high-ranking
government soldier had been executed nearby, and I later saw other people who
had been shot. On April 17, I saw a lot of bodies, though my parents tried to
stop me from seeing them.
At about 10am we were listening to the
government radio appealing for the government and Khmer Rouge forces to shake
hands, and for national reconciliation. A moment later shots could be heard in
the radio studio and another voice said something like: "This victory comes not
from negotiation, but from the point of a gun." The broadcast was cut
A few hours later, a monk drove through our street with a
microphone, calling for an end to fighting and killing. I watched as Khmer Rouge
guerrillas took him away.
The Khmer Rouge themselves later walked around
with microphones, telling everyone to move out of Phnom Penh because the
Americans would bomb.
Munthit: They told us to leave the capital for three days to escape
the bombs of the American imperialists. Those three days turned out to be three
years, eight months and twenty days which claimed more than a million lives and
left the country physically and mentally paralyzed.
At the Ounnaloam
Pagoda, my six brothers and sisters and I, along with our grandmother, waited
anxiously for somebody from home to come and pick us up. I thought that we would
never see our parents again.
But Buddha did not punish us with that fate!
I saw my father's Peugeot 403 rolling into the pagoda's gates, driven by my
uncle. There were also three men in black uniform in it. We piled into the car
and I sat in the front seat with a man who appeared to be the boss of the other
two. On the way out of the temple, he ordered his subordinates to grab two cases
of Pepsi from a nearby factory. One of them opened a bottle with his teeth and
drank it in a gulp.
The guerrilla commander in the front seat with me, my
parents later said, was the cousin of a woman who lived opposite our house in
Tuol Kork. My parents had pleaded with him to go with my uncle to pick up us up
from the pagoda and take us home.
"He insisted that he had no
authorization to go outside his sector," my father said. "We almost lost hope of
seeing all of you again, but finally he agreed."
Back at home, we started
packing, while my mother cooked goose curry to take with us. We set out along
Route 5, my parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters in the Peugeot while my
uncle and I rode a motorcycle alongside.
The traffic was jammed worse
than Bangkok today. As we were stuck at the foot of Chroy Changvar bridge, a
lonely Chinese-looking woman got into my father's car in a panic. Having lost
her family, she begged for us to take her along. She opened her hand-basket,
revealing diamonds and gold, and said she would give us half if we agreed to
take her. My father told her to leave. I couldn't blame him for not having a
heart because there just wasn't enough room in the car.
Channo: The night of April 17 passed in silence, the streets deserted
except for roving Khmer Rouge patrols, and the next morning I played with my
brothers and sisters in the compound of our house.
My mother grabbed our
hands and dragged us inside when a man approached us. Suddenly we realized he
was a cousin who had joined the Khmer Rouge years earlier.
He told us
about the new Khmer Rouge government and how they looked forward to setting up
communes around the country with the help of something they called Angkar. He
told us we should leave Phnom Penh and suggested we take food, gasoline and farm
tools, but not money or valuables.
After he left, my brother-in-law, who
had been in the Phnom Penh police force, burnt his uniform, photographs and
other documents. My brother-in-law said Khmer Rouge soldiers were ordered to
kill anyone who was against Angkar, but he did not know who or what Angkar was.
My family decided to evacuate about 9am when they heard that an old
couple had been shot after refusing to leave their house nearby.
the President's house, posters promoting the Lon Nol government had been chopped
down or burnt and many bodies lay around. Nobody talked about the dead people.
Stench and mess covered the streets.
Hundreds of thousands of people,
their belongings loaded into cars, trucks, carts and anything else usable,
packed the roads leading out of the city. Some people fainted or died,
especially the old, in the summer heat. There was little water or food. Money
became worthless, and people began to barter things to try to get what they
Pushing a cart with our possessions on it, my family - mother and
father and six children - traveled about 3km that first day.
Munthit: Everywhere we went, there were scenes of tragedy. My father
witnessed the execution of a family trying to push their way back to Phnom Penh.
Swollen corpses lay on the sides of the road. The sick were carried on
stretchers, some abandoned, many with only death to look forward to. Children
and elderly cried for help but nobody cared.
My two-year-old brother Tol
saw someone holding a yellow-colored washing brush. "Pain, pain," he shouted in
French, thinking it was a bread roll similar to those he used to have every
morning for breakfast. He refused to listen to my mother's explanation, and
cried. Tears rolled down my mother's face as well. It would not be the last time
Day one, day two, day three, four and five passed. We arrived
at Batheay commune, on Route 6 about 60km north of Phnom Penh, where we
registered for resettlement. We were designated "April 17 People" or Pracheachon
Thmei (New People), as distinct from the Pracheachon Chah (Old People) who had
been living in the liberated zones for some time.
Channo: We spent about 15 days reaching our destination at my
grandmother's house, in a village in Sang district, Kandal province, about 40 or
50km south of Phnom Penh.
When we arrived, the villagers killed a cow to
welcome us. They liked us but later that changed. They hated us because we were
city people. As "evacuated people" or "April 17" people, we were called
capitalists or puppets of America.
The Khmer Rouge grouped people into
three categories: those who came from the cities; those from the provinces who
were considered wealthy; and poor rural people, who were picked to supervise the
They started to investigate our family's background. We had to be
sure they did not discover our history - my parents had worked for the
government - or else we knew we would not live to see tomorrow.
Munthit: An appeal was made by Angkar for intellectuals to declare
themselves, to be sent to work in Phnom Penh to support the revolution. People
were warned to tell the truth about their backgrounds. We were told: "Don't lie.
Angkar has as many 'eyes' as a pineapple."
My father was honest. When
registering with Angkar officials in Batheay commune, he produced his
identification showing he had been a financial officer of the Ministry of
Industry under Lon Nol. After we were moved to nearby Srah Pring village, he was
taken to be brainwashed. Mother cried, believing he would never return, but he
came back after four days.
During the early days, father was determined
we would have happier lives if we were reunited with his father, sister and
brothers in Kampong Chhnang province. To get officials to agree, he tried to
bribe them with his Parker pens, and nice shirts and pants... everything. He did
not realize the danger these symbols of wealth posed to us. We were never
allowed to return to Kampong Chhnang. Had we returned there, where everyone
would have known our background, we probably would have never
Angkar, we were told, had eyes everywhere. Among your
neighbors, friends, and even your family. (Rin, a militiaman of Batheay commune,
was an example of Angkar. Once he beat his own mother for stealing rice
seedling. To her question of how he could do that, he said: "I don't beat you, I
beat an enemy of Angkar.") Some of the Pracheachon Chah (Old People) kindly
warned us, telling that to survive we must dam deum kor (plant kapok trees) - a
Khmer saying that means "remain deaf and dumb."
Channo: From that time, everything was completely different. There
were no markets, no religion, no relationships and no excuses.
Rouge started to "educate" the villagers, especially the poor who hated the city
people as their enemy. For people accused of being politically-motivated, there
was discrimination, disciplining, torture or execution.
They began to
split families into "units" of men, women, teenagers or young children. My
brother was sent to one unit - and later my sister to another - to build
One night my brother crept back 6km to our house,
complaining that he was made to work hard but with very little food. My parents
cried as they fed him, before he returned.
The people started to work
harder and harder, to try to save their lives. But each day more people were
killed or died. No explanation was given.
Munthit: All of us were recruited for forced labor. Life was made
impossible for human beings. My grandfather fell sick and died in late 1976.
Grandmother followed him one year later.
I remember 1977 as the most
disastrous year - flood, starvation and mass executions. We felt more socially
equal with the Old People, who used to disgust us by eating tadpoles, crabs,
mice, lizards and geckos, but we all were forced to strive for survival in the
same way. Two orphans of my age ate earthworms after their parents had died of
Our daily ration from Angkar was a bowl of rice porridge -
three-quarters water and one-quarter rice. My youngest brother would tip out the
water and eat what was left - about four spoonfuls of rice. Every day at sunset,
he sneaked through bushes near our house to hunt for tadpoles to eat. Mother
watched him in tears. But he survived.
Everyone, including my father,
learnt how to thieve. We stole fish from the lake because we considered that
nobody's property, though Angkar would have disagreed. Once I was caught
red-handed stealing corn from a field by chhlop (militia). They said I had
betrayed Angkar and tied me to tree. They beat me with a wooden stick.
Channo: One evening, after more than a year of Khmer Rouge rule, my
sister found her husband crying outside our house. "Why are you crying?" she
asked. "The Angkar sends me to work at Toul Krasang," he replied. "I know I will
not come back."
Toul Krasang was a well-known work center in Sang
district. From Toul Krasang many people were sent to the prison called Koh Kor,
or Kor Island, a few kilometers away. Almost every day people were sent to Toul
Krasang and never returned. My brother-in-law became one of them.
day, as I was being sent to join a teenagers unit, my father told me: "My son,
from now on, you will have to be patient if you want to live longer." Several
months later he was sent to Toul Krasang. My family knew what would happen but,
though sad, kept smiling. He never came back, even though he had more patience
Munthit: At night cadre would hide by people's thatch houses to listen
in on their conversations. One night, my grandfather, who was too weak to work
in the fields, cursed the Angkar regime. The next morning, my mother was
summoned to explain why my grandfather had spoken such words. Thinking quickly,
she said that he was ill and delirious.
Channo: One day, after my father was sent to Toul Krasang, a
supervisor came to our house and found a photograph of him. She told my mother
she was dishonest to Angkar, and took the photograph away. My mother remained
In early 1978, when I was in the teenager's unit, I received the
order that I would be sent to the Toul Krasang center. I thought: "Who will be
next?" On the first day at the center, I saw bodies floating on a lake, and down
the Bassac River. We heard that they were "the enemy".
I decided to
escape. One night about 4am, along with four others, I ran away. When I reached
my parent's commune about 15km away, my mother was surprised because she had not
known I was sent to the center from my unit. She urged me to go back, to my
unit, not the center, and I agreed. Two of my friends who refused to return to
their unit, I later heard, were sent to Koh Kor prison. The militia had looked
for me at the commune, but did not go to my teenagers' unit, which allowed me to
stay. I survived.
Munthit: By the end of that year,1977, we were told of a resettlement
of the "April 17 people" in a commune in another village, where life would be
better for them. Many were enthusiastic to enroll for this journey. At night,
they were loaded into trucks and taken off. The next morning, new clothes - some
stained with blood - would be distributed around our village as gifts from
Angkar . By remembering who the clothes had been worn by, we realized that the
"resettled" had gone only to their graves.
As we waited for our turn, the
regime launched a countrywide purge of puok bopea (the easterners) - a reference
to a movement against the Khmer Rouge, particularly by those in the east of
Cambodia - they considered traitors. The village administration was completely
replaced by cadres from outside, as the Khmer Rouge turned on itself. My father
assumed that the event contributed to our lack of forced "resettlement". We did
not regret missing "the better life".
Channo: One day, the cadres of my teenagers' unit called us together
for a meeting. Three boys had stolen fruit, they said, and must be enemies of
Angkar. "Do we need to sentence these boys?" one cadre asked us. I understood
that I had to raise my hand because otherwise I would be an enemy of Angkar.
Everybody else did the same.
When we raised our hands, three militiamen,
one with an AK47, some rope and kramas, rushed to the three boys. They tied
their hands behind their backs, covered their eyes and marched them away. We
heard three shots. We were trembling. We were told that this was a lesson for
Munthit: The beginning of the end came, for our village, on Jan 5,
1979 when Vietnamese troops arrived. Our family was reunited when two of my
sisters returned from a labor camp near Kampong Thom province.
Militiaman Rin, the beater of his mother, came back from the front line
but could not stay in the village, but he could not stay there. Angry villagers
remembered his brutality, and stoned his house every day. He left, just
A Khmer Rouge official, Comrade Heng, approached my father a
day or two later, looking pale. He dropped some coconuts on the ground before
us, which days earlier we would have had no right to eat, and asked us not to
take any vengeance on him. My father, eating a coconut, gently told him:
"Retribution between us is over. You just let us go."
Channo: On January 7, I watched a huge crowd of people in black
uniforms on the roads from Phnom Penh. I heard that they were fleeing to the
mountains and western border. Our cadres tried to frighten us, saying we would
all be killed when the Vietnamese came.
But we were happy. Suddenly, we
had new freedom. Some children ran away to their families, and some to get food,
and nobody stopped them.
In the evening, most of the teenagers enjoyed
watching the flashes of light over the Phnom Penh in the distance. The pounding
noise sounded good to me. I climbed a roof, as I wanted to see as much as I
could. I thought: "Today is the same as April 17 ", and I felt happy.
Munthit: Of about 200 families of "New People" at our commune, there
were maybe 50 left. Only our family remained intact - father, mother, seven
children, two uncles and an aunt, except for our grandparents, survived. Today,
I realize that was a single piece of luck among a million dangers but I never
feel that anything about those times was good, or lucky.
I don't believe
much about heaven and hell. But, the madness of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Khieu
Samphan made hell become a reality. Their so-called "great-leap forward
revolution" made Cambodia the most humiliated nation in human history. They must
pay for the blood they spilled.