EMPTYING OF PHNOM PENH
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wasted no time in giving Cambodia a complete makeover. April 17, 1975 was declared the first day of the year Zero to signify a rebirth of Cambodian history. Phnom Penh was emptied; schools, post offices, telephone services, pagodas and businesses were closed; and banks were dynamited, raining worthless currency on the city streets. Before the American bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, Phnom Penh had a population of 600,000. During the Cambodian civil war refugees from the countryside poured into the capital and the population swelled to maybe two million people. When the Khmer Rouge showed up, everyone who was left was ordered out.
More than a million people, maybe a few million, were forced to leave Phnom Penh immediately to "return to the villages" to work. No one was exempt. If someone balked they were lead away at gunpoint or shot. Even 20,000 patients in Phnom Penh's hospitals were forced to leave the city. Many were seriously ill or maimed. Some were wheeled away in their beds. Prince Sihanouk was confined to his palace and later to a guest house. When Pol Pot entered Phnom Penh on April 23, 1975, the city was empty.
Evacuation of Phnom Penh began immediately. The black-clad troops told the residents that they would move only about "two or three kilometers" outside the city and would return in "two or three days." Other witnesses report being told that the evacuation was because of the threat of an American bombing and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. The roads out of the city were clogged with evacuees. Phnom Penh--the population of which, numbering 2.5 million people, included as many as 1.5 million wartime refugees living with relatives or in shantytowns around the urban center--was soon emptied. Similar evacuations occurred at Batdambang, Kampong Cham, Siemreab, Kampong Thum, and the country's other towns and cities. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]
The Khmer Rouge provided transportation for some of the aged and the disabled, and they set up stockpiles of food outside the city for the refugees; however, the supplies were inadequate to sustain the hundreds of thousands of people on the road. Even seriously injured hospital patients, many without any means of conveyance, were summarily forced to leave regardless of their condition. According to Khieu Samphan, the evacuation of Phnom Penh's famished and disease-racked population resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths, which is probably an understatement. The foreign community, about 800 persons, was quarantined in the French embassy compound, and by the end of the month the foreigners were taken by truck to the Thai border. Khmer women who were married to foreigners were allowed to accompany their husbands, but Khmer men were not permitted to leave with their foreign wives. *
Promises that urban residents forced into the countryside would be allowed to return home were never kept. Instead, the town dwellers, regarded as politically unreliable "new people," were put to work in forced labor battalions throughout the country. One refugee, for example, recalled that her family was sent to the region around Moung Roessei in Batdambang Province to clear land and grow rice. Aside from the alleged threat of United States air strikes, the Khmer Rouge justified the evacuations in terms of the impossibility of transporting sufficient food to feed an urban population of between 2 and 3 million people. Lack of adequate transportation meant that, instead of bringing food to the people (tons of it lay in storehouses in the port city of Kampong Saom, according to Father Ponchaud), the people had to be brought to (and had to grow) the food. But there were other, more basic motivations. The Khmer Rouge was determined to turn the country into a nation of peasants in which the corruption and parasitism of city life would be completely uprooted. In addition, Pol Pot wanted to break up the "enemy spy organizations" that allegedly were based in the urban areas. Finally, it seems that Pol Pot and his hard-line associates on the KCP Political Bureau used the forced evacuations to gain control of the city's population and to weaken the position of their factional rivals within the communist party. Had Phnom Penh been controlled by one of the more moderate communist leaders, the exodus might not have taken place when it did. *
A survivor named Sokhym Em wrote: “The first day the Khmer Rouge liberated the city of Phnom Penh, was the first day tears fell from the eyes of the Cambodian people who had hoped that the country would achieve peace. But the hope of everyone transformed into tears that fell from pity and pain. They felt remorse for the hundreds of thousands of small children who were traveling with crowds of people. Each person had their belongings attached to their bodies. Some carried their goods on their heads, some held their things close to their bodies, while others pushed old people in carts or wagons. Along the road, the voices of people shouted so chaotically it was impossible to hear each other. Only screams and cries of small children who had lost their parents could be heard. Also could be heard were the cries of the people who had lost their families and their parents. They were shot and killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers because they were unwilling to leave their homes as they were ordered. Even if they all heard the screams of the little children who were searching for their parents none of them could hear or notice what was going on or do anything about it. No matter what they could only think about trying to move quickly forward. Everyone tried to grab on to their own children, fearing their hands would slip and they would lose each other. The pain and misery endured by each person were caused by the terrible, barbarous and inhumane acts of all the Khmer Rouge soldiers who had no mercy for their own Cambodian people. They fired aimlessly at innocent civilians as long as someone offended them in any way. They cursed the older people without even thinking about sin and merit. [Source: Sokhym Em, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ]
Khmer Rouge Soldiers Order People to Evacuate Phnom Penh
Ky Lim reported: “Approximately 2:00 in the afternoon, when my family and I gathered and sat together in the house, two soldiers suddenly knocked on the door and commanded us to open up. When we opened the door, my older brother asked, “Brother, what business do you have?” The soldier answered, “All brothers and sisters in every house are requested to prepare their things and leave the city for three days so that we can organize and prepare the city and then you can return. Don’t take too many things with you. You are only leaving for three days and then you will come back.” When we heard this, everyone was scared and worried. We did not know what to think. We got together and asked, “We are leaving for three days, where are we going and where will we sleep? What will we have to eat?” [Source: Ky Lim, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/35<>]
The families next door observed each other back and forth, still afraid to leave. They wanted to know what others would do first. Not long after, a car filled with soldiers dressed in black, drove along the streets, commanding all citizens to move ten kilometers away from the city for three days so they could re-organize and prepare the city. After they made their announcement, I saw many people leaving from the roads on the East. My cousin was not yet satisfied. He ran and asked them, “Brother! Brother! Where are you going?” They answered him, “They are forcing us out of our homes for three days. No one can stay. They will kill you right there in front of everyone. I have seen it. Don’t stay. Leave with everyone else. Just follow everyone else.” When we heard this, my family and I prepared to leave like everyone else. At this time, I was completely terrified, I cried. I was so worried that I would be separated from my parents. I thought that perhaps they would not be able to find me, because we did not know where we were going. I missed my older sister who lived in Kilo 4. I didn’t know what it was like for her family and I wondered how the little children would fare along the journey. When I thought about how much they would suffer, I cried the entire time.<>
“I prepared my things and cried at the same time. When I thought about it, I wanted to go and try to find my older sister because I was only with my husband’s family. At that time I missed my older sister very much. I missed my mother and father who were in Takeo Province. I wasn’t sure if they were well or not. At this time we were all separated from each other. We did not know where everyone went. In front of the houses, the number of people began to increase. They were walking their children, carrying bundles of clothing. Some carried bundles on their shoulders while other carried their goods on their heads. Some cried loudly on the streets, because they had been separated from their parents and family. Some families had people on the cyclo and had their children push from behind. At that time I carried a suitcase of clothes, some important items, and medicine. My husband led the motorcycle with a bag of clothes placed in the front and a bag of rice in the back. Everyone was walking out with sad and unhappy faces and tears of remorse for the homes in which they had peacefully lived in everyday. The roads were filled and crowded with people. Even if we had a motorcycle or a car, we could not drive it, because the roads were so crowded. We could only walk one behind the other. The entire city that day was filled with people who had to leave their homes and go outside of the city for three days according to the command of the Liberation Army. <>
“Along the roads, after a while, I could see soldiers dressed in black. There were both men and women. They held bottles of soda in their hands for fun. Some raised the bottles and after they drank from it, they threw the bottle and shattered it on the ground. When people saw the soldiers like this everyone became increasingly afraid. They were scared of their brutality. At this time the city transformed into chaos as people screamed and cried. Some of the animals people brought with them were dogs and pigs. Little children were so hot they cried. Some were thirsty and some cried because they were hungry. On the street, I saw soldiers dressed in black walking and piercing the pillows and blankets and scattering the stuffing all over the place. <>
Khmer Rouge Orders People to Leave Phnom Penh
Survivor Huy Sophorn reported: “At 8:00 in the morning the Khmer Rouge army pointed their guns at my father’s family and ordered them to leave the house immediately. They said, “Go! Leave quickly! Everyone has already left!” They walked and told other neighboring houses to leave and not take many things with them. Approximately fifteen minutes later there was another group of soldiers that came and said, “Brothers and sisters, Angkar has ordered you to leave quickly!” My father’s family prepared their belongings such as mosquito nets, blankets, pillows, and two or three outfits for each person. They also brought with them foodstuffs like 15 kilograms of rice, 1 five liter bottle of water, and some dried foods that they had in the house like fermented fish, dried turnip, fish sauce, salt, etc. They prepared these things according to what the Khmer Rouge told them: “You don’t have to bring many things with you, because you are only leaving the city for three days and then you will return again. We are [evacuating this city] in order to clean out the Lon Nol soldiers and because we are afraid the American soldiers will bomb and kill everyone in the city.” [Source: Sophorn Huy, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ]
My father pleaded with a Khmer Rouge soldier to grant him more time so that he could wait for his younger brother who had gone to pick up their father who was having eye surgery performed at Ang Duong Hospital. But he said, “You don’t have to wait. You will soon meet them again.” My mother and father had not yet left the house. They were still waiting for his father to leave the hospital, so they could all be together and avoid being separated. My father saw their neighbors preparing their things and leaving. Some carried their belongings on their heads, some held them in their hands, some placed their goods on the bicycle, while others carried their possessions on their back.
When my grandfather returned from the hospital, we gathered together and finished our breakfast. A Khmer Rouge soldier drove up with a Honda CL-90 motorcycle that kept going on and off, as if he did not yet know how to drive a motorcycle. He yelled out to his fellow soldiers: “Order them all out of the house! Don’t let a single person stay behind!” Later on, my father’s family took the rice, a package of mosquito nets and blankets and placed a suitcase of clothes on the motorcycle. The things that were light were placed on the bicycle. They kept looking back at the house as if to say that they were not yet willing to abandon their homes. After they saw that everyone in the area had already left, then they were willing to leave their homes. When they left for about a hundred meters, my father saw a Khmer Rouge soldier tell his fellow soldiers: “After they leave, they will not be allowed to enter again.” When they reached Monivong Street, there were crowds of people along the streets. My father saw a tank M-113 and many cars carrying Khmer Rouge soldiers yelling, “Long live! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” They drove into the city. The Khmer Rouge soldiers then ordered the people to travel towards the north. My father was also among them.
Around Beoung Trabek, about 100 meters inward from the main road, my father saw many dead corpses. The houses smelled rotten and putrid. About 50 meters nearby, there were corpses dressed in bloody, military outfits. The journey along the road was crowded and bustling with people pushing and shoving each other so they could cross the bridge at the head of the road. At one time they would order people to move forward and at another time they would order people to move back. They threatened and forced people who were making their journey across the bridge or along the road to Ta Khmao. This was an important inspection point for the Khmer Rouge. They seized anyone they suspected and accused them of being a Lon Nol soldier. During that time, the Khmer Rouge walked around and inspected the faces, the legs and arms of the men who were standing and preparing to leave the inspection point and they questioned each person, “Comrade, what kind of work did you do and where did you work? Were you a Lon Nol soldier?” At that time, the people were scared and extremely terrified.
My father told me that after they had passed the inspection point, at four in the evening, his older sister who was a schoolteacher began to miss and feel remorse for her house and belongings. She walked and returned to her house. At that time, the Khmer Rouge soldiers seized and tied both of her hands back and walked her towards a small road about 10 meters west of the main road from Chak Ang Re Leu Village. My father heard 10 bullets explode. A moment later, my father walked in to see if his older sister was really dead. Such real events has made my father’s family suffer and feel great pity for his older sister who had to sacrifice her life to an act of injustice without laws or customs. The city transformed into a silent and quiet place without any inhabitants.
Khmer Rouge Orders the Evacuation of Phnom Penh’s Hospital
Survivor Huy Sophorn reported: My father “saw many sick patients being ordered out of the hospital. Some had no arms and no legs. Some were pushing their ill husbands who were lying on hospital beds with serum attached to their bodies. Husbands were pushing their wives who had just given birth, their faces dry and bitter. Others awkwardly carried their large belongings, while some pushed carts with their old or handicapped mothers and their possessions placed on top. Cars filled with supplies and things hanging from the roof, tagged behind. Many people sat on top of the car with dry and bitter expressions. Many people walked to and fro, separated from their spouses or family asking others if they knew where they were. Some children who lost their parents, filled the streets with their cries and screams. Those who were separated from their husband or wife waited for them along the road. Hundreds of bullets were being shot. On both sides of the road, people were running back and forth fanatically searching for rice along the granaries, salt, fish sauce, sugar, firewood, and water for cooking. Both sides of the road were filled with human feces and dirty trash thrown all over the place, making it easy for disease to spread. [Source: Sophorn Huy, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ]
Survivor Vichea Sopheak Tieng reported: “In the hospital, the number of injured people increased, but the number of hospital staff dissipated. In the morning, there were hardly any doctors and nurses at the hospital, who remained to take care of the injured. When a doctor or a nurse was getting ready to leave the hospital, many families of the injured begged for them to stay and help look after their relatives. Some people asked the medical staff to remove the serum that was hanging from the injured person, because they needed to take them out of the hospital. That morning, my family was also lucky in one way, because we were all together at the hospital. If my grandparents did not complain yesterday evening, perhaps, from that time on, all of us would have been separated from my parents forever. My family wanted to return to our home in Tuol Kork so we could meet with all our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our grandparents, and so we could gather all of our belongings. But along the road, a soldier prevented us from continuing on and at once evacuated us from Phnom Penh. At this time, my family only had a bag of things. [Source: Vichea Sopheak Tieng, Documentation Center of Cambodia d.dccam.org/Survivors/1 ]
Preparing to Evacuate Phnom Penh
Survivor Chhayrann Ra reported: I was still a small child, about ten years old. I was part of a family of nine people, including my mother. We lived in a house in front of the 6 Kilometer Market. I remember that not many hours after Phnom Penh was liberated, the Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated the people out of Phnom Penh. They announced, “People, Angkar has ordered for all brothers and sisters to leave Phnom Penh for three days so Angkar can easily clear out the enemies that still remain. You don’t have to take many things with you, because Angkar already knows how to care for you.” [Source: Chhayrann Ra, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/25 ]
Ky Lim reported: “I was in my cousin’s home near De Po Market because I had to escape from my house. For two or three days, there had been heavy shelling around my house. When I witnessed such events, I had many reasons to worry about my house and my few belongings. I wanted to return home in order to bring some things with me. Later in the day, everyone was silent. When I saw, in the silence, that there were no army cars driving back and forth I decided to return to my house which was near an alligator farm on Pochentong Street. When I left, I did not dare drive my motorcycle because I was afraid it would be stolen along the road. Some days earlier, I heard that a Lon Nol soldier seized the motorcycle of a civilian driving along the road. I rode my bicycle along the small shops. The large streets were usually filled with army cars driving fast and dangerously. Sometimes there were crowds of soldiers walking in large groups and I was afraid of them. I rode my bicycle along Doung Ham Street lining Tep Pan Street, until I reached my house. [Source: Ky Lim, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/35 <>]
“When I reached this area, it was so silent underneath the hot sun in the dry season. Once in a while, I heard the rumbling sound of bombs and this made me feel even more distressed. I could hear the sound of guns, sometimes from the distance and sometimes very nearby. Not long after, I ran up my house and quickly gathered my things, stuffed my clothes into a French bag, and collected half a bag of rice, dried fish, and two large tails of prah fish that my mother had salted for me in Takeo Province. When I finished preparing my things and while I was dragging a bag of clothes downstairs, one bullet flew into the air and barely missed my husband’s ears! He screamed to me, “Go, leave immediately! You cannot stay! They are certain to shoot and kill us!” When I heard this, I helped to quickly tie up the bags of clothes and rice and placed it on the bike. I led the bike out and left regretting I had to leave my home, standing there alone and silent. I felt sorry for the chickens nibbling on the rice I had given them, unaware of the chaotic events that were passing. I took one opportunity to pick four or five zucchinis in front of my house and brought it with me for cooking. I led my bicycle and ran so that I could quickly enter the small roads. There were also trees to hide me from the eyes of the soldiers that were shooting. I walked until I reached my cousin’s house in De Po Market. <>
Nean Yin reported: “After we heard the shot of the gun and the people in black declare that all civilians had to evacuate from their homes for three days, because the Americans had a plan to drop bombs on the city, everyone began to rush from the streets and enter their homes. Only the people who were separated from their wives and children and parents were left. My cousin and I traveled along with the others. When we reached the Mekong Theater and I saw that there were no Khmer Liberation soldiers, I turned my bicycle along the theater and toward the Olympic Market. Suddenly I heard the sound of three gunshots above my ahead again. I then returned to the same street. At that time, the situation was even more stirred and mixed up then before. Along the street, the Liberation Army screamed again and again for the people to flee from the city. When I reached the circle intersection in Daem Kor Market in front of the Chenla Theater, I turned left and led my bicycle along the side of Mao Tse Tung Street, creeping along the walls of Banteay Seh. Afterwards, I crossed the Cao Dai Market. Along the street I saw the activities of the armies in black carrying guns in each of their hands. Each of them stood along the corner of the streets. I reached the front of the Chinese Embassy. There was one street that could reach my Aunt’s house, which was on the eastern side of the Tuoltampong Market. As I turned my bicycle and walked along this street, one man with a large stature yelled to me, “Where are you going?” I answered, “I am going to my Aunt’s house in the front.” Once again he yelled, “That is not possible. Go back.” It was not just me and it was not just everyone else, they commanded everyone to continue the journey forward. [Source: Nean Yin, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/33 +++]
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, I reached the stoplight near Tuoltampong. I saw many people dressed in civilian clothing begging the people clothed in black for permission to first return and meet their wives before they leave the city. Suddenly a soldier came out and screamed, “You are only leaving the city for three days and then you will return to meet your family and children again.” I reached the Tuoltampong Temple and I saw the gate of the temple still ajar. Everyone gathered and entered the temple. After they entered for three or four meters the Khmer Rumdos people shot from the distance as a signal for them to move forward. At this time, they made the young people and my younger cousin and I cry because we did not know where we were going. In addition, we had nothing to eat and the sun was already beginning to set. I continued to travel along Mao Tse Tung Street along with the others until I reached the Bo Kor stoplight. The Liberation people then signaled for us to turn at Preah Monivong toward the head of the road. I also turned along with others. There was one street that turned into Tuoltampong Market. I saw one cyclo driving along the street to the market. I was able to regain enough energy to lead my bicycle and turn along this street. Along this quiet road, there was only one cyclo driver and my cousin and I. I thought that the 17th of April would be the day in which I would be separated from my mother and father. But with my good luck, we did not meet any soldier’s dressed in black along this road. At 5:00 in the evening, I reached my Aunt’s house. As soon as I got there, she asked me, “Where did you come from?” I answered, “I just returned from congratulating the Liberation Army. Now, they will not allow us to turn back.” She then said, “Nephew, don’t go anywhere else. Stay here. Tomorrow we will all journey back to our home village.” Afterwards she prepared food for the two of us to eat. After we ate, my Aunt told me, “You must take all your belongings.” At that time I remember I only took with me rice, a set of plates and cooking pots, a mosquito net, and a rug for the journey along the road, in case I would be separated from her again. +++
Eyewitness Account of the Emptying of Phnom Penh
Khmer Rouge fighters clad in black showed up at family houses and told the occupants to leave immediately. Youk Chhang, who was 14 at the time later wrote in Newsweek, "The Khmer Rouge chased me out of my house at gunpoint, forcing me on to the street to join the crowds that they were heading to the countryside. Because we were branded "unreliable" city people, the Khmer Rouge forced our family to march to... Battambang province.”
Sampeou Ros reported: “I continue to remember and hold close to my heart always, the events that passed on 17 April 1975. On no day can I forget. At that time I had another name: Rous Somanarak Videk. I was about 11 years old. My father’s name was Rous Somanarak and he was a government official in the Ministry of Estate in the Khmer Republic. My mother’s name was Chim Thong and she was a gem trader. I also had an older brother named Rous Somanarak Rong Reoung and he was a student at 18 Minear High School. My older sister’s name was Rous Somanarak Botum Reut and she was a student at the Baccalaureate High School. My family’s life was above average and we had a residence near De Po Market. [Source: Sampeou Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ==]
“At the time he was fixing his car in the garage on the side of the house. My mother, my older brother, and my older sister were in front of the house. Around 9:30 while I was sitting on the stairs in front of my house watching my father fixing his car, I heard the sound of explosion and racket and I saw smoke fluttering into the sky. I quickly got up and ran into the house for a moment. Afterwards I ran back outside and with fear and trepidation I walked over to find my father who was fixing his car. After my father tried to explain what was going on, I began to feel the way I felt before and I walked to the gate in front of the house. At that time I saw three people dressed in black, with one leg of their pants rolled up, carrying guns on each hand and walking towards a villa which belonged to a military general in the Khmer Republic. One soldier among the three removed his gun and shot three bullets at the gate of the house. They screamed and cursed at the house owner, “Puppet of the U.S. imperialists and traitor of the country!” After hearing the words and the actions of these people I felt both cold and hot at the same time. I could hardly speak, because I have never before seen or heard such awful and barbaric words expressed. Afterwards, I ran inside the house, locked the doors of the gate, and walked towards my father. Another moment later, the three soldiers dressed in black walked over to my house. They screamed for us to open the door of our gate. They threatened us to absolutely not lock our doors. If anyone does not listen, they will be shot and killed. After my father locked the doors of the gate, the three soldiers walked through the front door of the house. Afterwards, the eldest of the three asked my father, “Have you turned on and listened to the radio?” My father answered that he had not listened to the radio. They asked further, “Why did you not listen? Angkar made a declaration about the victory of 17 April 1975, in which we were able to destroy the U.S. imperialists and drive them from our country.” ==
“Because these people made so many threats, my father yelled to my brother to bring the radio over so we could turn it on and listen. The timing was fortunate, because as soon as we turned on the radio, this issue was raised. We heard, “This victory is achieved from negotiations and the united efforts of the Cambodian people.” But this voice had not yet ceased and there was another voice that yelled, “This victory was not achieved from negotiations or the united efforts of the people. It was from the struggle of guns and the sacrifice of fresh meat and the blood of our compatriots.” When he heard this, my father’s face transformed from one of joy to one that remained level. Afterwards, the one that had previously questioned my father said, “Were you a Lon Nol soldier?” At this time, my father told them, “I was not a soldier. I worked in the Ministry of Estate.” But whatever my father told them, did not seem to bear any meaning at all, because these people did not even understand what the Ministry of Estate was. My father also told these people that even though he served in the Khmer Republic, he also worked with efforts to liberate the country. He acted as a hidden force in order to work on the propaganda of the revolution. He also donated food and medicine to the movement force. After my father finished speaking these people asked him, “Has our Angkar ever given you a certified letter?” At this time, my father told them, “Before Angkar did give me a single letter, but afterwards I lost it and now I cannot find it. At that time, they searched my house for food that I was giving to the Khmer Rouge and for any Khmer Rouge I may have hidden.” After they listened to my father narrate his story, the other one who was the youngest of the three people, removed the gun he had hanging on his shoulders and he held it in his hands. Afterwards he told my father to prepare his belongings and a lot of food, because everyone in the city of Phnom Penh must evacuate from Phnom Penh for three days. But it could not be certain when we would be able to return. We should also remember that whatever they say is the truth.
“No one else in the city of Phnom Penh was aware of what was going on outside of my father. Afterwards, the three men walked out of my house. When they walked for about forty to fifty meters the youngest out of the three soldiers removed his gun from his waist and shot four or five bullets into the air and screamed out to all the residents in the area to absolutely leave within the day. At that time my father’s face became dark and dry and he did not utter a single word. My mother, my older brother, and my older sister were packing clothes into a bag. My father stuffed the bag full of clothes, pots and pans, and rice into the car. I felt like I had no weight inside my body, because I witnessed the tears on my parent’s faces staring at one another. Once in a while they would breathe deeply as if they had a secret they could not tell their children so they could understand how deep and extensive the love and compassion of their parents were at the time this divisive force entered the life of my family. ==
“My neighbors began to gradually leave their homes. People who’s station in life was above average loaded their belongings and food in cars and those who were average loaded their things on motorcycles or on other forms of transportation. Those who were poor packed their things onto bicycles or they carried their belongings on their backs and shoulders. Within four or five hours, the area around my house became silent and deserted. Once in a while I saw the soldiers dressed in black holding on to soda or liquor bottles. They drank and laughed at the same time. Some rode motorcycles or cars they did not even know how to drive themselves. More outstanding than this, some of their people drank liquor until they were drunk, their bodies covered in dirt, one hand grabbing on to a bottle of liquor and the other hand waving a gun shooting anything they pleased. ==
On the night of 17 April 1975, one part of the sky on the southwest side shone red like flames of fire. I still remember very clearly because my father told me the light shone from the flames of fire that exploded near Stung Meanchey and Pochentong. Once in a while I heard the sound of exploding arsenal. The entire night my mother and father were not able to sleep at all. They talked to each other endlessly about this and that. My older brother, my older sister, and I slept next to them.
March Out of Phnom Penh
Mardi Seng was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. She reported: “ On 17 April , the Khmer Rouge began evacuating and emptying people from all of the cities and towns in Cambodia. They told the people that the Americans would drop bombs in the city, so everyone had to leave. The streets were fill ed with a sea of faces. Traveling was slow; everyone walked. Occasionally people had to step off the street to let a GMC army truck pass by. Sadness reflected on the adults' faces. Children cried because of hunger and of exhaustion from the tropical he at. My father was weak because of his wound. My mother carried my five - month - old brother; my two other brothers and I assisted my grandparents and three aunts in carrying our belongings. [Source: Mardi Seng. www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day***]
In four hours we had traveled only about half a mile. My family wa s silent and anxious as we moved slowly. While we were deep in thought, a Khmer Rouge soldier crept up behind and jerked my father by the arm. ‘ Are you a Lon Nol soldier? ’ the soldier threatened. The world stopped during that eternal three second pause. ‘ No, I am a teacher ’ my father reluctantly replied. ‘ What happened to your eye and this band - aid? ’ he asked. My mother trembled. ‘ A rocket landed in m y school and debris hit my eye,’ my father replied. As the soldier walked away, we sighed with relief. ***
Sampeou Ros reported: “In the morning, my family decided to leave our house along National Road #2 with one car. Even along the crowded roads that were packed with people swarming and jamming into each other, we could still begin our journey little by little. On the journey from Phnom Penh on National Road #2, my family kept traveling without any idea where we were going. We were just following others. If many people stopped to rest somewhere, we also stopped and rest with them. If soldiers dressed in black came and pointed guns at us and forced us to continue our journey, we would get up and continue our journey until there was no one to prevent us from resting and we could then rest from out travels. Because of the events that passed on 17 April 1975, my family and hundreds and thousands of other families were forced to separate from each other. Husbands were separated from their wives. Mothers were separated from their children. Brothers separated from their sisters. Not only that, but the entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed and reduced to zero. Nearly 3 million people were killed without reason. Among those killed were my parents as well as two of my older brothers and sisters. More outstanding than this is the fact that hundreds and thousands of orphans were left without any understanding why their parents were killed and why they can not remember the true faces of their parents. But even more remarkable than this is the fact that these orphans must abandon the love and care of their parents. Among all these orphans, I am also one. [Source: Sampeou Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ==]
Sichan Siv, who later became an aid worker with CARE, wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Our family group of 16 left that night along with thousands of others. Imagine three million people trying to get out of the city. Among the forced evacuees were huge numbers of women, children, elderly and infirm...The forced march was desperately slow. It took 10 days to get to Tonle Bati, usually reached from Phnom Penh in an hour. No arrangements were made for food or housing, and many old and ill people died within a few days. An estimated 20,000 died in the evacuation.”
Mony Visal Khouy reported: “For three days they would leave Phnom Penh. The Khmer Liberation Army said, “The Americans are going to drop bombs on the city of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Liberation Army will stay to clear out all the imperialists in the city of Phnom Penh and then you can return. Therefore, we ask all brothers and sisters to leave without taking any of your belongings, because you will only leave for three days.” With the threats of their guns, the Khmer Liberation Army forced my family and our neighbors to quickly leave our homes. Anybody or any family that was not willing to leave, the Khmer Rouge Liberation Army would threaten and if they remained stubborn and were not willing to leave their homes, they would be shot and killed. [Source: Mony Visal Khouy, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/12 #]
“My family left our home that was north of Tuol Svay Prey School in Sangkat #5, Phnom Penh. Remorse mixed with fear. When we left our home, my father brought a motorcycle to load our clothes, a ricepot, a kettle, and a small bag of rice. We then began our journey on Monivong Street that was filled with throngs of people, pushing and crowding each other. Children were crying and screaming and people were calling to each other and asking for their families and relatives that they had lost along the journey. On the side of the road, my mother saw corpses that were hit by shrapnel as well as corpses of Lon Nol soldiers dressed in military uniforms who were shot and lying dead on the ground. At that time I was six years old and my mother who was seven months pregnant held on to my hand behind my father who was straddling his motorcycle among the crowd of thousands of people. My younger sibling who was three years old, sat on the motorcycle with a bag of clothing, a kettle, and a small bag of rice. We walked forward along the side of Monivong Street without knowing where we were going. When we reached the circle intersection at the head of the road, the Khmer Liberation Army asked my father to give up his motorcycle. At this time, my family experienced great difficulty on our journey, because my younger sibling was still very small and my mother was also pregnant. But no matter how difficult things were we needed to continue our journey forward, because the Khmer Liberation Army kept yelling at us from behind with a gun always pointed at us. My family crossed Kbal Khnal Bridge and towards the bank on the far eastern side. Other evacuees felt exhausted, scared and hopeless. #
Death and Fear on the March Out of Phnom Penh
Veng Chheng reported: “The Khmer Rouge soldiers forced the people out of the city using the threat of their guns and the following propaganda: “If anyone is unwilling to leave their homes, we will kill them.” With such threats from the people dressed in black, the people who lived in Phnom Penh had to force themselves to leave their homes and travel along the routes the Khmer Rouge had assigned them. At that time, my father found an old and small abandoned car. We packed it with dishes, pots, clothes, rice and other things and pushed the car out of the house. We made the journey towards the north along National Road #5, underneath the scorching sun during the dry season. I saw a throng of thousands of people, young and old, walking slowing along the road, under the command and threats of the soldiers dressed in black. In the afternoon, my family and I reached a temple I do not know the name of. At that time everyone stopped to rest so they could prepare lunch. We did not even finish eating lunch, when the soldiers forced us to continue our journey forward again. While we were traveling, around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, the atmosphere shifted from being hot to cool. The sky became cloudy and dark and brought with it heavy rains that old people usually say is a signal for the rainy season to come. One should really feel pity and compassion for the young children who had no home or plastic to shelter them and had to walk forward through the rain, hugging their arms. The rains made everyone so cold they shivered. Even though it was raining very hard, the soldiers dressed in black would not allow the people to stop and rest. They forced them to walk even faster. They should have felt compassion for the children. After the rain fell and the sun once again scorched the earth, the children became ill at once. [Source: Veng Chheng, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/24 ~]
Survivor Sam-An Keo reported: “I remember seeing the Khmer Rouge soldiers standing in front of my home, making an announcement through a bullhorn encouraging people to leave their homes and move away before the Americans started bombing. I also remember my father being hit by shrapnel just above his elbow. Since all hospitals were closed, some of my relatives had to apply first-aid to his wound. Like many people living in Phnom Penh, our family was forced out of the city. On the way out of the city, I can remember seeing hundreds of corpses floating in the river, mainly soldiers in camouflage. While wounded, my father directed his family to head to his home village in Takeo province. After the Communists won the war, some knew that the Khmer Rouge would not forgive those who fought against them, and that hiding their identities was the best way to escape execution. [Source: Sam-An Keo, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ]
Sophearith Chuong reported: “When Ke Munthit’s family fled from the city, they saw one group of ethnic Chinese who were carrying small bags pleading with the Khmer Rouge to permit them to stay in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were angry and said, “Who wants to return to Phnom Penh?” Each person there raised their hands and walked forward. The soldier then shot them on the head from a close distance. Ke Munthit’s father said, “One ought to be frightened. They scare the people into following their orders.” The throng of people continued traveling forward and Ke Munthit still believed that three days afterwards the Khmer Rouge would allow the people to return to the city of Phnom Penh. [Source: Sophearith Chuong, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org <>]
“The execution he witnessed was only one terrifying sight among many along the road. Screams and cries intermingled with the voices of the people searching for their families and relatives who had disappeared into the crowd of people. The sick and the injured slept on the stretcher in pain along the road, abandoned by their families or relatives because they had lost all hope. Underneath one tent, was a woman who had just given birth. The Khmer Rouge soldier would not permit her to rest there and forced her to join the others in the evacuation out of Phnom Penh. Her husband placed her in a cart and pushed her forward underneath the scorching heat of the sun. After the birth, the baby was stained with blood. It was wrapped in a cloth and laid next to its mother. Corpses of the soldiers of the Khmer Republic lay scattered and bloated along the national road. Some of the corpses were flattened by Khmer Rouge tanks. In one place one woman who was separated from her husband, walked into the flowing traffic and grabbed on to Ke Munthit’s car. As the car came to a halt, the woman opened her purse, shining with diamonds and gold that she had brought with her. She asked Ke Munthit’s family to take some of the gold and diamonds and allow her to ride in the car with them. But they would not allow her because eleven people were already crowded in the car. Two days later Ke Munthit discovered that this woman was found dead along the river. <>
Hunger and Nothing to Eat on the March Out of Phnom Penh
Ky Lim reported: “After walking for one evening and night was approaching, we reached a glass factory. We all agreed to rest here for only a little while, because the glass factory was more than 10km away from the city. Therefore we agreed to stay there and rest for three days then return home again. That night, hundreds of families stopped here to cook and rest. The glass factory became like a camp for hundreds of people who had set up camp there. Children were crying and people were crying and screaming because they had lost their children. They had lost each other and they didn’t know where their children were because there were so many people. Some of the children were sick and their cries filled the place. [Source: Ky Lim, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/35/\]
“At that time I took some rice so I could cook it. As I sat there making the fire, I felt sorry for the families who left with nothing. They were not able to bring anything with them. They did not even have rice to eat. They walked around and tried to buy rice from others but no one would sell. The people who lived in the villages nearby acted like they hated and despised the urban people. Even when people begged them for water they refused to give it to them. Such scenes were too difficult to bear. This was only one night. What will happen in the coming days? How insufferable will it be? After the rice was cooked everyone gathered and ate in tears. Our hearts were so full we could barely swallow the rice, because we were separated from our families. I turned around and looked behind me. There was one Chinese family that asked to buy a scarf full of unhusked rice. They gathered together to unhusk the rice because they did not yet know how to beat the rice. This was probably a rich family. When I saw them forced to experience something so horrible, it looked unbearable. /\
That night, everyone slept in silence. Once in a whole I heard the sound of guns firing from the distance and I could not sleep. I thought that the war was probably not yet over. Everyone slept in silence. Some of the children cried. They were probably hungry or sick. That night I saw soldiers dressed in black walking around with a flashlight and inspecting all the areas. But I didn’t know what they were looking for.
“In the morning, we woke up and walked around looking for firewood to cook rice with. We wanted to cook it first in case there was an emergency and we were not able to cook the rice on time. At that time I walked to a well so I could draw some water to cook rice with. When I reached the well, I saw a crowd of people around the well. I thought that they were waiting to draw out water. But when I came close I heard people chattering loudly. Everyone was staring into the well. When I got there and I also stared in, I was terribly shocked. Inside the well was a human corpse who had died there, its head floating above the water. I then ran back and told my family. Everyone shuddered. They wanted to vomit, but they could not. Last night we had drawn water from this same well to cook our rice. We had even bathed in the water. At that time, my brother-in-law said, “I wondered, when we drew water from that well, why was it so difficult to draw the water? By the time we could get a pail of water, we had to dip our pail in two or three times. I could not imagine there was a corpse inside the well, that’s why it was so difficult.” When we met such a horrible situation, we decided to walk to a village pond to draw water and cook our rice. When I walked to the pond, I saw there were many soldiers dressed in black walking from the distance towards the gathering where people were living. As I drew water I wondered where so many soldiers were going. When I reached the place, I saw them tell the people to sit around together and then they told them, “After you have finished eating, leave this place immediately. Whatever district you are from, go to that district.” When each person heard this, everyone wondered and worried greatly. At that time one man asked, “But they told us that we only had to leave the city for three days and then they would allow us to return.” The soldier replied, “You will not enter again. Angkar has ordered everyone to leave the city.” Afterwards, their people separated and walked forward, carrying rifles as if they had an urgent job to perform. After we heard the message, everyone, including myself and the others, cooked our rice and prepared our journey forward, with the intention to return to my native district and land in Kirivong District, Takeo Province. I thought that if we reached Takeo, I will meet my mother and father and I will live with them. I will not live in Kirivong District. /\
“After we finished eating our meal, we gathered together and began our journey again. At that time, I saw a line of people walking in a row. They had on civilian clothes. Some wore shirts and some were shirtless. Two soldiers soldier dressed in black guarded from the front and from behind. Everyone wondered, but no one dared ask, because they were forcing us to leave as quickly as possible. They did not let us stand there and watch. All the people, including my family, were able to begin our journey from one place to another. Whenever we rested, there was always a soldier forcing us to get up and continue walking. They did not allow us to rest in one place. All the people and I left the city in this manner from 17 April 1975 until we finally reached the base of Kirivong District after 21 days, with great difficulty and suffering. Since I was very young, I have never encountered anything like this before. /\
Evacuation of Phnom Penh by Boat and Bus
The survivor Sok Sunday reported: “I reside in Chamkar Luong village, Veang Chass sub-district, Udong district, Kampong Speu province. After the Khmer Rouge victory over the Lon Nol government on 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge expelled people, including my family, from cities and suburban areas to the countryside. My village in Phnom Penh was Chroy Chanva. My home was situated near the city water pump on the riverbank. On 20 April 1975, my family was forced to leave home on our personal boat from Chroy Chanva village to our first stop at Rokakaong pagoda before moving on to Prek Por. From Prek Por, we traveled by ox-cart days and nights through bamboo swamp, resting at meal times, until we arrived a village the Khmer Rouge allowed us to live in. At first, they told us to stay in the church of Prey Sovann pagoda, called Prey Sva pagoda. One night later, the village chief called us to stay under a villager’s house, which had no walls. We were in Prey Sva village, Chrey Khmum sub-district, Seithor sub-district, Prey Veng province. [Source: from petition was forwarded from the UN’s Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/38 ]
The survivor Samnom Sarot, aka Sarot Marilin, reported; “In mid-May, my family was evacuated on a boat, named Phkay Proek, from Taprum pagoda to Meatt Krasas. From Meatt Krasas, we continued our journey on foot. Along the road, we exchanged our clothes for food. Ten days later, we reached Prek Luong and spent a night there. The following morning, the Khmer Rouge ordered us to get on another boat, where we noticed a woman crying and smashing her head against the boat for her husband, who had last night been taken away and killed, while her children had been lost. At last, she died in front of mournful faces of other victims and the laughter of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. [Source: Sarot Marilin, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/19 ]
The boat started its engine and headed toward Prek Po. We waved goodbye to Phnom Penh in sadness for the last time. In the journey, I kept on thinking, "What terrible things will happen to us all in the times to come, as we have witnessed only bloodshed and tears since the Khmer Rouge first arrived? What kind of prosperity will we see in liberated regions, if we have seen only corpses and starvation along the roads?"
Veng Chheng reported: “After we finished our dinner, my family and other people continued our journey until we reached Kampong Chamlong. We were also able to take a boat across to the far bank. When the boat reached the shore on the other side, it was already about 9:30 at night. Others, whose boats were lagging behind, kept rowing forward without stopping. When the people crossed over to the eastern shore, large buses waited for them on the other side and they had to continue their journey along the routes Angkar had already assigned. I didn’t know where all the people had to go. My family climbed into a bus and we traveled all the way to Kampong Thom. Although there were a lot of people on the bus, not a single voice could be heard. This was because everyone was tired from travelling since morning. In addition, they were each probably wondering how their destiny would pan out and what would happen to them in the future. [Source: Veng Chheng, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/24 ~]
Killings After the Emptying of Phnom Penh
The regime immediately seized and executed as many Khmer Republic civil servants, police, and military officers as it could find. Evacuees who had been associated with the Lon Nol government had to feign peasant or working-class backgrounds to avoid certain death. One refugee wrote that she and her family, who came from the middle or upper middle class, dyed their city clothes black (like those of peasants) to help them escape detection. In one incident, soon after the fall of Phnom Penh, more than 300 former military officers were told to put on their dress uniforms in order to "meet Sihanouk." Instead, they were taken to a jungle clearing in Batdambang Province and were machine-gunned or clubbed to death. The wives and the children of people with government backgrounds were also killed, apparently to eliminate people who might harbor feelings of revenge toward the regime. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]
Samnom Sarot reported; “I don't need to recount the anguish of April 17 People, since we all are well aware of it. The entire Eastern Zone residents were accused of treason, and their zone later controlled by the Southwest Zone cadres. Both new and base people became prisoners of Angkar, working twenty-four hours a day, killed barbarously like worthless animals. Until, one day the revolt broke out. Samdech Chea Sim, who was at the time a leader at Ponnea Krek, persuaded me and my older brother to escape to the forest to struggle. We rejected. After that, my villagers were evacuated to Central Zone (Kampong Cham). Thousands of Eastern Zone people crowded into Kampong Cham; they were killed continuously. [Source: Sarot Marilin, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/19 ]
Sampeou Ros reported: “We could not go anywhere outside of the roads that they had designated for us to travel on, because along each road there were soldiers dressed in black pointing their guns at us. If anyone dared to challenge them, they were certain to die, because these people did not yet have the correct discipline. If I speak to the point, these are barbaric people. From the outskirts to the rurul areas, there were usually corpses along the roads. Some were dressed in the outfits of a Lon Nol soldier. Some were dressed in civilian clothes. Those who died sometimes looked as if they had just recently died while others were already bloated.[Source: Sampeou Ros, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org ==]
Veng Chheng reported: My family traveled the entire day before we reached one place. I’m not certain where this place is. I only know that in this place there was a three story stone house that was not yet finished. The top floor had no walls, but it had a roof. My family and I joined many other people and they allowed us to rest here temporarily, because it was almost dark. My mother and my older sister quickly prepared the rice and food. I took some time from my rest to climb to the top floor of the stone house. When I reached the top I saw two plates of corrugated roof placed on top of each other. Underneath the corrugated roof, there were thousands of roaming flies. Curious to know what was there, I opened the corrugated roof and found the corpses of three people dressed in military uniforms, piled on top of each other. There were bruises on their heads, covered with fresh blood. The three corpses looked like Lon Nol soldiers. When I saw this I felt shocked and terrified. I quickly ran back downstairs. Other people had also discovered about ten other corpses around the house. [Source: Veng Chheng, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/24 ]
Ky Lim reported: “When I walked out of De Po Market, I walked straight into Stung Meanchey. I followed the road until I reached the base of the bridge where the road divided towards the Soviet Hospital. I saw people pushing the beds of patients who were sick and had a serum attached to them. Some were still having surgery performed on them and were not yet properly stitched up. Blood stained the white sheets that covered them. When I saw this I became nervous. As I walked along and past the Stung Meanchey Bridge, I encountered the fresh corpses of soldier who were recently shot. Blood flowed from their necks. They lied on the ground wearing the uniform of the Lon Nol army. They had on khaki uniforms the color of horse dung. Some lied there bloated and it was not certain when they had died. There were three soldiers placed barely apart from each other on the road. When I passed such fresh corpses, I was so frightened my hands became dry and cold. Since I was little until I am this big, I have never seen anything like this. This is the first time. On the 17th of April 1975, I have seen everything, the most horrific scenes possible. After I walked past the corpses I saw people who had recently died from their sickness because the Khmer Rouge had forced them to leave the hospital. [Source: Ky Lim, Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org/Survivors/35 ]
Mardi Seng reported: “It was almost two in the afternoon - we were hungry and tired. My grandfather suggested that we could take a short break in a small abandon house along the road. The house was a beautiful white house. A few of the windows were broken. Four or five families rested in the yard. No one was inside. We walked into the living room; there was a family of five lying there, dead. They died from multiple gunshot wounds; blood covered their faces and bodies. We walked out and joined other people in the yard . Everyone's reaction to this barbarous scene was not one of shock and horror but of casualness and coolness. I will never forget that living room. At 3pm we were only a block away from that house. My grandfather asked me to get some water for my sibli ngs. As I pushed my way towards a house, I saw a boy who was not much older than I was. He was wearing a large green camouflage army shirt. The shirt was not large; it was just the boy was too small for the shirt. A Khmer Rouge soldier walked up to the boy, pulled him by the collar, put his pistol against the boy's head, and fired. [Source: Mardi Seng, www.hmd.org.uk, Holocaust Memorial Day]
“20 April 1975. Many things had happened in the last few days besides sleeping in the streets and escaping death. It would require many hours to recount the horrors, the inhuman treatment, and the unjustifiable killings – not that any killing of human life is justifiable. The Khmer Rouge's propaganda requested professors, previous government workers, educated men and women, and army officers to join the new regime to rebui ld Cambodia into an utopian state. Having experienced enough suffering, many Cambodians responded to this noble calling. For the love of his country, my father joined thousands of other Cambodians on this calling that ended all sufferings: death. April 2 0, 1975. My father died so that my family might live According to refugee accounts, the rate of killing had decreased by the summer of 1975. Some civil servants and educated people were sent to "reeducation centers" and, if they showed "genuine" contrition, were put in forced labor battalions. There were new killings, however, in late 1975 and in early 1976. Many of the victims were educated people, such as schoolteachers.”
Text Sources: Documentation Center of Cambodia, d.dccam.org, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014