Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Twenty year reflections: April 17, 1975

Twenty year reflections: April 17, 1975

Twenty year reflections: April 17, 1975

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

Khmer Rouge.

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

she cried.

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.

The Khmer

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

irrigation systems.

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

than me.

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.


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