Forty years ago this Friday, Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh and emptied the city of its residents in what proved a death march for many. The Post spoke to some who were there that day and still bear its scars.
“Because of malnutrition and sickness, my three children, my husband and my mother died one by one. It was totally different from our life in Phnom Penh. I was in so much pain, and what I remember is that Phnom Penh was so quiet.
“The house where I had lived was gone, destroyed by a bomb. I had never really thought I could come back to Phnom Penh, because at that time, I only gave myself a one in 10 chance of living. I actually lost lots of my relatives. It was indescribable how hard our lives were for three years, 8 months, 20 days.” Kim Ly / 72 / retired
“I was with my seven siblings that day. When the rockets were dropping and the guns were firing, we were praying and hoping that we all would not be separated. However, things did not go as we hoped.
“The soldiers came in our room and hit my brothers. We did not oppose them, so we held each other’s hands and walked as they directed us. It was a hard time along the way. My brothers all were beaten to death, but my sisters and I kept walking to Pursat province.
“I was separated from my sisters eventually and was not sure if they were alive or not. I was small at that time, so I was not asked to work as hard as others. I arrived in Phnom Penh a few days after January 7, 1979. I walked around the city looking for my sisters, but I could not find anyone.
“I went to my house near O’Russey Market but found it empty. So I decided to come alone to my parents’ house at Kien Svay and have lived here til now. It was such a huge pain for me to lose all six siblings in just three years. I was alone until I met my husband.” Hong Sareth / 55 / Farmer
“My father was a university director and my husband was a professor at the Royal University of Law and Economics. I was just a housewife raising seven children at home. My husband was on duty in Switzerland during the evacuation.
“My house back then was rich. The soldiers took all the valuable items in our house and forced us to follow them. We were forced to keep on walking and rotating places, but the final destination was Kratie.
“My dad was asked to join them and work for the Khmer Rouge but he refused, so they killed him. My relatives one by one passed away because of torture and starvation. But myself and my seven children survived.
“We came back to our old, empty house in March 1979, but it had been taken by Vietnamese. We were too scared to demand it back. So we kept on moving and found a house in Tuol Kork. I could not describe how much sorrow I felt after the evacuation. All the things I had were gone.” Sun Sokty / 77 / Former official at ministry of post and telecommunications
“The Cambodians at the school that I knew, they were in a celebratory mood. They thought it was coming to an end and they could get back to reconstructing their lives. The Americans were making it out that there’s going to be a kind of blood bath.
“The journalists laughed at that … but they happened to be right.… I went out [after a February bombardment] … and one of the students was out on the street and he called me. I followed him and we went to the smoking ruins of his house.
“Then he introduced me to his family, who were all dead. There were no lights, just candles and their burning glow. I walked in behind him and he said, ‘This is my sister’.
“Then I saw this charred body with the bone showing through on the skull and I was in a state of shock. So was he, but he took me through like a guide. ‘This is my sister, this is my brother’.… I couldn’t get on the American evacuation list because I’m not American. The only option I had was to get into a rice plane. They were dropping munitions and rice and people were jumping on the plane at Pochentong Airport. But I still didn’t want to go, I wanted to stay and see it through.” Colin Grafton / 66 / former English teacher
“A week before April 17, Phnom Penh had become quiet and we all hid in our house. The rockets were being dropped all around Phnom Penh. It was hard to get out, and the items in the market had doubled in price and the schools were closed.
“All the houses hung white flags, which meant we surrendered. I remember when the Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the house, I, my siblings and my parents were hiding in one room. We did not fight back, since they had guns. We just listened to them and were told we were being evacuated.
“We were not sure where we were going at that time. Our final destination was Kratie province. I came back two months after the January 7 [victory by Vietnamese forces]. Along the way back, I was searching for my relatives, but could not find anyone.
“My first impression when I arrived back in Phnom Penh was how quiet it was, how few people were on the road. The buildings were destroyed. The memory of my torture was so hard to bear, and I did not have enough knowledge to find a job. I felt like the evacuation had taken away my future.” Um Sarin / 58 / journalist
As locals cheered the arrival of the Khmer Rouge militants on April 17, French national Roland Neveu, a young photographer and one of few press that had chosen to stay, was more apprehensive. But, after a while, he said, the relaxed atmosphere “kind of erased in my mind ideas of danger”.
Neveu confidently walked through the capital taking photographs. With little film and little comprehension of the significance of what he was witnessing, he let his “feeling and mood” drive what he should capture.
By early afternoon, he “sensed that change was coming”. Along with other foreigners, Neveu went to the French Embassy. From inside the compound, he watched as locals walked away from their homes – men, women, children, and doctors pulling a cart of patients – in almost complete silence, broken only by the sound of explosions and bursts of gunfire.
“I didn’t see any violence on the first day… I didn’t see people being forcibly being pushed on the street,” he recalled.
The day marked the beginning of more than two weeks confined inside the embassy. Roland Neveu / 64 / photographer
“A few days before the evacuation, I had been hiding at the university, which was closed. I was … hoping the teacher would come and I could continue my class. Early on the morning of April 17, I rode my bike home, but the sound of the guns scared me, so I went inside Yukunthor high school near Tuol Kork.
“There were so many people hiding there; we were so frightened and could not do anything when the Khmer Rouge soldiers came in with weapons and asked us to move. We had no clue where they were taking us. They kept rotating me from one province to another. It was a hard time.
“I was asked to work though I was sick sometimes. I came back to Phnom Penh in June 1979 to pursue my education again, but … there was no school or teacher. Then I was asked to continue my schooling in Vietnam, but life there was not easy. Finally, I decided to go Ratanakkiri, where I live now, farming and having children.” Pal Ratanak / 60 / KRT civil party
“I was carrying a gun (as a police officer) near Chaktomuk Hall when the Khmer Rouge soldiers came and asked me to surrender since there were so many of them. They put their gun behind me and told me to follow their direction.
“I was checked again and again by those soldiers to see if I had another gun. The road that I walked was completely different from others. I saw with my own eyes many officials shot or killed with a knife. I was so scared, but I just followed them.
“I saw lots of bodies, average people as well as soldiers and police. I was evacuated to Takeo. I remembered at that time I had to act like I did not know anything, just like a fool and listened to them. When I was sick, I had to make medicine from leaves. I didn’t come back to Phnom Penh until 1981. I was asked to join the police again, but I refused.” Yos Phal / 60 / high school teacher
Stories lurk in every corner of capital
Phnom Penh’s relentless march toward modernisation – characterised by mushrooming construction sites, cranes dotting the skyline and countless planned luxury developments – has left few visible landmarks of the fighting or the forced evacuation that followed the Khmer Rouge’s entrance into the city 40 years ago on Friday.
But while tourists typically confine their history lessons to former torture centre Tuol Sleng or the Choeung Ek killing fields on the city’s outskirts, there are seemingly innocuous avenues, pagodas and buildings all over Phnom Penh that tell lesser-known stories of a day that changed Cambodia’s history forever.
“Many places can be counted as landmarks of the Khmer Rouge takeover [of Phnom Penh],” says Sombo Manara, deputy head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s history department.
The city’s central market, known as Phsar Thmei, for example, is perhaps best known for its art deco design and myriad stalls and vendors. But on April 17, the market was bustling, albeit in a different sort of fashion: it was used by the Khmer Rouge as a central base for evacuating city dwellers.
Wat Lanka pagoda, with its gilded roofs poking above its walls on Sihanouk Boulevard, is passed each day by thousands who don’t give it a second thought. Yet its significance in the fall of Phnom Penh cannot be understated, demonstrated recently by the roughly 100 funeral urns discovered there.
Heavy shelling in the lead-up to April 17 forced many civilians to seek shelter in Phnom Penh’s Buddhist temples. They were considered safe havens, as before the Khmer Rouge took power, they nominally supported Buddhism to “save face”, according to Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.
“Most pagodas became shelters for refugees,” he said.
People arrived in droves, and in some cases, hid precious family valuables in the pagodas to hide from the encroaching Khmer Rouge army. The recently uncovered urns are thought by Youk to have been stowed away during this tumultuous time.
But, according to Manara, pagodas such as Wat Lanka also played host to secret Khmer Rouge agents embedded in the monkhood. When Khmer Rouge soldiers rolled into Phnom Penh’s pagodas and evacuated them, they actually had help from the inside, even if they didn’t know it.
“Civilians stayed in the pagoda, but some of the monks were affiliated with the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “Wat Lanka was a place where civilians and monks were arrested by the Khmer Rouge … soldiers who sought to evacuate people didn’t recognise the [KR-affiliated] monks or others that had been hiding in Phnom Penh since before April 1975.”
State officials and selected leaders of the Khmer Rouge opposition, on the other hand, holed up elsewhere. While many simply stayed in their homes – some of which still stand today – amid the chaos.
Francois Ponchaud, a French Catholic missionary and author of Cambodia: Year Zero, famously stayed in the French Embassy at the time of the takeover, huddled with Cambodian civilians and French citizens and trying to facilitate a peaceful transfer.
“I advised people to mingle with the crowd to avoid death,” he said. “There were many officers, some ministers … many civilians.… The Khmer Rouge officers greeted us in the name of Khieu Samphan and asked the Khmer men to leave the embassy.”
He went on to describe how the Cambodians – civilians and officers alike – were marched out, many to their deaths, “with much diginity”.
Lesser known, however, is the role the current Russian Embassy played at the time. It used to be an apartment complex for employees with the National Bank of Cambodia, and served as a hideout for many on April 17, including Youk’s uncle, who worked at the bank.
“The Khmer Republic used [this] as a location for the evacuation,” Youk says. “This is the place where Americans also evacuated.”
The original National Bank of Cambodia, meanwhile, was closed and eventually demolished by the Khmer Rouge “as a symbol of their rejection of capitalism”.
Away from the embassies and pagodas, the streets themselves were turned into mausoleums on April 17.
“On the way out of Phnom Penh, many bodies were lying on the roads and side roads,” says Manara, citing the Kbal Thnal Bridge, Street 5 in Russey Keo district and roads around Chbar Ampov.
Such carnage is almost unimaginable on the streets of today’s Phnom Penh. But beneath the city’s booming growth and changing character, the spectre of horrors past still lurk, occasionally right in the open.