Thirty years have passed since the North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon, marking the end of the American war, as it is called in this part of the world. That event has been remembered in these days with speeches and concerts in Ho Chim Min City (today’s Saigon) and Hanoi. However, I believe that with three million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand Americans who died in that war, there aren’t winners, in a war, there are only losers.
On the 17th of April, another 30th anniversary was remembered here in Cambodia: the fall of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. That day officially marked the defeat of the Republican army. The Khmer Rouge were greeted by thousands of people who joined in the streets with clothes to demonstrate their happiness for the end of the war that lasted almost five years. That day also marked the beginning of three years, eight months and twenty days of suffering and deprivation for the Cambodian population. The political agenda of the Pol Pot regime was to rebuild the nation on equity against individualism, common property against private property, rural life against urban corrupted life, abolition of money, self-sufficiency of agricultural production, dissolution of religion and family ties, and international isolation. It also resulted in the death of almost two million Cambodians.
I would like to remember those events through the story of one of my colleagues: Bun Chan Lyla.
“My name is Bun Chan Lyla, and I am 47 years old. I am born in Kampong Thom. I was about 12 when my family we left and went to Siem Reap. I remember that it was 1970, and the Khmer Rouge were fighting the Government troop of General Lon Lon. The war was all over the country at that time. I left for Siem Reap with my mother, one brother and two sisters. My father, who was a teacher, stayed in Kampong Thom. We lived in Kbal Speu, a village near Siem Reap that was under Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge control and with little fighting. We stayed there until 1973, when the situation worsened so much that we had to leave. We took a boat to Phnom Penh across the Tonlé Sap Lake with many other people. The lake is huge, and in the middle of it it is impossible to see the shores. At one point, just in the middle of it, we were spotted by two fighter planes that plunged towards us, shooting with their machine guns. I saw the water jumping up on the side of the boat. People were screaming, seeing that the fighters plunged a second time. We opened part of the boat\’s roof to show that we were refugees. I remember that my mother gave me a white cloth and told me to go on the roof and show it to the pilots, so I did. Fortunately, the plane left.
It took us three days to reach Phnom Penh. During the night, we had to sleep on the lake shores in hidden places, and we were all very afraid. Me and my family when we arrived in Phnom Penh, we had nothing: no money and only the clothes we were wearing. A relative who had a good position in the administration hosted us for some time. I remember that we had only one set of clothes and looked really as impoverished people look. It wasn\’t easy to get work in Phnom Penh. Thousands of refugees arrived every day in the town. After some time, another uncle offered us one room in his house for the five of us. We stayed there for about one year. I had a job, waking up very early every morning I was selling bread (French baguettes) in the streets of our neighbourhood, shouting “Nom pan! Nom pan!” (Bread! Bread!). When the bread was sold, I went to school. My sisters were also selling some food so that we were able to buy food for ourselves.
Then April 1975 arrived. At that time, Phnom Penh was full of refugees from all over the country. The Khmer Rouge had surrounded the town and mined the main rivers. The town fell, and they came in on the 17th of April. In the following two-three days, they immediately started the evacuation of the town. They went around the streets with microphones saying that American planes could bomb the town at any moment and that everybody had to leave. Who delayed the departure or tried to hide were shot. Together with my relatives, we left Phnom Penh on the 21st. We were in large groups of people that the Khmer Rouge made walk south to Kampong Speu. I saw many bodies on the side of the road: military, Khmer Rouge, civilian, many many bodies. There were also burning houses, and shootings could always be heard. I remember sick and injured people pushed onto their hospital beds and forced to walk with us. I saw the corpse of a woman lying in the grass a few meters from me with her baby, trying to get milk from the breast.
We could not help. We could not help anyone. If we did, we would have been killed on the spot. Now and then, we could stop and rest, but never too long as other groups were pushing behind us and the Khmer Rouge were shouting at us and ordered at gunpoint to move on. We were ten people in my family and relatives when we left Phnom Penh and only four when we arrived”.
Kampong Thom 3. May 2005