40 years ago: To hell and back

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times No Comments Share:

Exactly 40 years ago today, the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces and Vietnamese soldiers entered Phnom Penh and successfully captured the capital. Till today, some people still see January 7, 1979, as an invasion rather than the liberation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese. However, it is unquestionable that it marks the day the Kingdom was saved from its ‘darkest age’ with the ousting of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Taing Rinith meets several people who recall their stories of the brutal regime’s final days.


Dr Vong Sotheara
48 years, historian

KT/Taing Rinith

I was only around 8 years old and living with my family in Area 42 of Kampong Cham during the final days of the Khmer Rouge Regime. A few days before January 7, 1979, we heard continuous gunshots and bombardment. They came closer and closer, and on the 7th, all Khmer Rouge cadres in my area disappeared, probably fearing our revenge. My mother said another war must have broken out, so we decided to go and hide in the forest. As we were gathering food from the collective’s warehouses and kitchens, my aunt, traumatised by years of wars, covered herself with an iron sheet and prayed to Buddha. On our way to the forest, a shell fell on a rice field, not very far from me. Its sound hurt my ears and I fell to the ground, spilling all the rice in a copper kettle I was carrying. But, there was no serious injury.

. .

A few days later, we met a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers, all looking weak and disappointed. With a tired and gentle voice, they asked us for directions and left quickly. Revenge was not unusual at that time.
A young female Khmer Rouge cadre, who failed to escape, was hacked to death by the angry people in my village. It was brutal, but we could not blame them after all their sufferings.

Today, some of my students think that war and chaos are exciting and thrilling. But I always remind them that war brings nothing but pain and suffering.


Nop Sokha
49 years, historian

KT/Taing Rinith

Compared to most Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, I was much luckier since I was living quite an easy life in the abandoned Phnom Penh because my mother and some of my relatives were selected to be the workers for a Khmer Rouge garment factory here. I had to be separated from my mother to live in a children’s unit, but I had enough to eat and only needed to do light work.

During the first few days of January 1979, we heard gunshots and explosions, which we had never heard before. On the 5th, I noticed the confusion and disorder among the Khmer Rouge cadres, who were running around and having secret meetings. The next day, while I was sleeping, my mother came to wake me up and told me that the Khmer Rouge cadres were leaving the city, and all the people in Phnom Penh had to go with them. In the next few weeks, we travelled miserably with the Khmer Rouge cadres and soldiers until we reached a camp in Kampong Speu. We did not have enough food and we were often attacked by the “enemies”. UnabCompared to most Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, I was much luckier since I was living quite an easy life in the abandoned Phnom Penh because my mother and some of my relatives were selected to be the workers for a Khmer Rouge garment factory here. I had to be separated from my mother to live in a children’s unit, but I had enough to eat and only needed to do light work.

. .

During the first few days of January 1979, we heard gunshots and explosions, which we had never heard before. On the 5th, I noticed the confusion and disorder among the Khmer Rouge cadres, who were running around and having secret meetings. The next day, while I was sleeping, my mother came to wake me up and told me that the Khmer Rouge cadres were leaving the city, and all the people in Phnom Penh had to go with them. In the next few weeks, we travelled miserably with the Khmer Rouge cadres and soldiers until we reached a camp in Kampong Speu. We did not have enough food and we were often attacked by the “enemies”. Unable to bear the hardship, my family and I left the camp. It was a right decision since we later learned the Khmer Rouge killed all the people who were with them.

When we met the Vietnamese soldiers for the first time after escaping the Khmer Rouge, we were very afraid. The Khmer Rouge cadres had been telling us that the Vietnamese soldiers would cut our bellies open, fill them with grass and sew them back. But when all those soldiers approached us and asked us in broken Khmer, “How are you, Cambodian brothers and sisters?” – we all cheered.le to bear the hardship, my family and I left the camp. It was a right decision since we later learned the Khmer Rouge killed all the people who were with them.

When we met the Vietnamese soldiers for the first time after escaping the Khmer Rouge, we were very afraid. The Khmer Rouge cadres had been telling us that the Vietnamese soldiers would cut our bellies open, fill them with grass and sew them back. But when all those soldiers approached us and asked us in broken Khmer, “How are you, Cambodian brothers and sisters?” – we all cheered.


Pal Thoun
76 years, former make-up artist at Van Chan Film Production

KT/Taing Rinith

At Nak Leung, Prey Veng, where the Khmer Rouge forced me to settle, after they evicted my family in 1975 when they entered Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge cadres were very ferocious. Three of my brothers were killed because they were intellectuals or government officials; one of them was shot in front of me. Therefore, I was shocked when all those cadres, including the powerful village chief, disappeared from the village on January 7, 1979. I was even more afraid when I saw the liberation army (KPRAF) and the Vietnamese soldiers with their tanks entering the village on that day. However, I was relieved when they told me that they would not harm the people and they were there to take us back to the city.

. .

We started a long journey, like the one we made on April 17, 1975, but there were very much fewer people since about one-third of the evictees were already dead. The liberation army protected us on the way and gave us rice to eat.

Once I reached Phnom Penh, I suddenly broke into tears, seeing all the destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge. I broke down when I heard some of my film-star friends, especially the famous Kong Som Eun, had been killed by the evil regime. I saw piles of riel and dollar banknotes everywhere in the city, but I did not bother myself picking them. After four years with the Khmer Rouge, all the money in the world was nothing compared to a piece of palm sugar to me. I was only happy to return home alive. And I always consider January 7 my second birthday.

 


Hong Kiet
72 years, retired mechanic

KT/Taing Rinith

Thanks to my skill, I was able to escape from being killed by the Khmer Rouge. I was assigned to a mobile tile-making unit in a remote village in Kampong Cham. The unit chief, despite being one of the ‘Old People’, was a kind man. On January 7, 1979, he allowed all of us to go back home or wherever we want after hearing from his radio that Phnom Penh has been liberated.

We needed food, so we killed the collective’s livestock and divided the meat. Alone, with a slab of pork meat on my shoulder, I travelled to Phnom Penh on foot. On the way, I saw thousands of corpses, some filled with maggots, as well as the armed forces going into battle. Gunshots were still heard for days and nights. Yet I was not afraid. Of course, if you survived Khmer Rouge, there could not be anything that can scare you. On the way, I also saw people selling stuff, such as food and clothes, but the only currency we used was rice. It was that time that I was sure that we were no longer under the ruthless control of the Khmer Rouge.

The Vietnamese soldiers prevented people from entering the city until a few days later. When I went back to my home at Russey Keo, there was nothing of value there, including the three crocodiles raised by my father. Later, I found my aunt, who told me that the six members of my family were all dead. I was alone in the world, but I had already prepared myself for such news.

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