The Siege of 1973 (Cont.)
One day we heard rapid gun fire raging about several blocks from where we lived. Along with the gunfire, we heard grenade and small artillery explosions occurring nearby. At our neighbor’s request we decided to abandon our trenches and went across the street to stay in the bunker with them. It was located under their house. Minutes later we saw some government soldiers walking by the house--apparently, they were retreating. We asked one of the soldiers how was the situation at the frontlines and what were the gun fires we heard from the direction where he had just come. The soldier told us that the situation at the frontlines was deteriorating badly, and the gun fires we just heard were exchanges between his column and the Khmer Rouge who had mounted an attack and overran his post minutes earlier. He also told us that the Khmer Rouge had already captured the intersection of Neang Kung Hing, a main thoroughfare connecting roads around Kompong Cham City, and were advancing toward where we were.
Neang Kung Hing was located about one quarter of a mile away from where we lived. Without wasting a moment of time, my parents decided to take the family to seek refuge with one of their acquaintances who lived in the center of downtown Kompong Cham near the traffic roundabout adjacent to the central market. Our neighbors also decided to move to the downtown area in order to get away from the Khmer Rouge’s advance.
It was late in the afternoon. The streets were full of panicky people who tried to hotfoot it away from the Khmer Rouge’s advance or to avoid being caught in the crossfire. We spent almost an hour traveling on foot along the crowded streets before arriving in the commercial areas in downtown Kompong Cham. We stopped in front of a small flat. A middle-aged couple emerged from the house and welcomed us inside.
The house was packed with people, about 50 in all, who had nowhere to sit or sleep but on the floor. However, in time of emergency like that, inconvenience appeared to be the last thing in anyone’s mind. Most of us, the 50 people or so, who crammed into that little flat, were more worried and concerned about the Khmer Rouge’s encroachment than lacking personal space or convenience. Soon after we arrived in the downtown area, the government put the entire city under curfew. No one was allowed to walk the streets except for the police, armies, and other important officials whose tasks were to maintain order and security in the city. All civilians had to remain inside the house day and night.
We were the last people to move in and seek safety inside that little flat. As we quietly sunk onto our knees and lay down on the floor near the front door, the entire city seemed to go to sleep with us. Except for the sounds of mortar explosions, helicopters bringing in reinforcement troops from Phnom Penh, and the occasional rumble of police or military vehicles around the block, the atmosphere in the city was in a state of complete silence as if it were a ghost town. To cope with this stressful anxiety, we listened to the radio for news from the battlefields and asked our neighbors who had access to or had relatives working in the outside world about the situation surrounding the city itself.
From the very moment we locked ourselves inside that flat, the situation around Kompong Cham City was getting worse and worse every day. As the Khmer Rouge tightened their grip and advanced toward the center of downtown we began to hear the sounds of machine guns and grenade explosions moving closer and closer to our shelter. Our neighbors, whose family members had the privilege of moving about the city, told us that the Khmer Rouge had already captured a portion of the commercial section in the southern part of downtown Kompong Cham which was not very far from where we were. They also told us that the downtown itself was now surrounded by the Khmer Rouge, and that only a few square kilometers of the downtown area remained under government control. The news made us both nervous and frightened, for if the fighting between the Khmer Rouge and government soldiers swept across downtown where almost every house was packed with people, we could expect the worst to happen. Furthermore, given the fact that we were living under curfew and surrounded by advancing enemies from all directions, there was nothing we could do to escape danger except to wait for the inevitable.
One day a couple of small artillery shells, presumably M-79s, landed in front of our shelter and slightly wounded two people who sat near the front door. At first, we were not sure what was happening, or how many artillery shells had landed. All we could hear was a nearby explosion and after that we saw two people bleeding. After determining that they were hit by shrapnel, the two victims were taken through the backdoor alley to be treated in a clinic which was fortunately located next door. The victims were treated and discharged from the clinic to return home the same day.
That evening, as things appeared rather calm, one of us quietly opened the double doors and sneaked a peek outside to investigate the aftermath of the explosions. There were two shells that landed behind one another, one landed about 5 feet from the door and the other landed about 10 feet away. The double doors, which were built of metal on the outside and wood on the inside (a typical construction for shop houses the world over), were riddled with shrapnel holes. After the incident, most of the people who stayed near the front door moved to the middle of the house and, as a form of protection, we stacked all of our luggage and other belongings near the front door.
While we were barricading ourselves inside the flat and prepared for possibly more artillery shells landing in the future, we learned that the Khmer Rouge’s encroachment appeared to halt because the government had brought in enough reinforcement troops to stop their advance. Actually the tide of the battle was about to turn in favor of the government.
After the Khmer Rouge’s advance on Kompong Cham was brought to a standstill and many of the defeated and hastily withdrawn soldiers from outposts around the city’s premise were reorganized and regrouped, the government began to stage a counterattack.
The offensive to liberate the besieged Kompong Cham City from the grip of the Khmer Rouge’s stranglehold appeared to be very bloody and destructive because of the nature of house to house combat both sides had to engage in. From our barricaded house, we could hear the sounds of rapid gunfire and explosions coming from almost every corner of town. Sometimes, we could hear the exchanges of gunfire and artillery going on for fifteen minutes or half an hour at a time which seemed to indicate that the fighting was fierce. But despite the intense nature of the operation, the government’s offensive appeared to be quick and decisive. It took the government’s troops only a few days to loosen the Khmer Rouge’s stranglehold on the city and push them back to a respective distance from the center of town.
As the city’s perimeter was secured and the Khmer Rouge and the battlefields were moved outside the city limit, the government lifted the curfew and allowed people to venture about the city’s streets again. People emerged from their homes with mixed feelings. They were either cheerful, fearful, or anguished because many of them were separated from loved ones during the tumultuous escape from the Khmer Rouge’s incursion on the city.
The escape and confinement during the siege on Kompong Cham City was quite an experience for all of us. It lasted for a few weeks. As I recalled my earlier confinement during the pro-Sihanouk demonstration in 1970, when my father told me to stay inside the house for a few days, I realized that this was the second time that I had been going through anxiety and fear. And there were probably more to come. The siege of 1973 on Kompong Cham City created a rather psychologically traumatizing impact on our mental well being. Unlike our earlier experience in 1970, which we remained quiet, maintained low profile, and escaped a possible Khmer Rouge persecution by fleeing our home, the siege of 1973 on Kompong Cham City was one of the most horrifying moments in our lives. It was fearful and terrifying. And worst of all, it was a close call, for we had no more place for escape.
Throughout the confinement ordeal in downtown Kompong Cham, I felt rather confused about the fact that we tried so desperately to run away from the Khmer Rouge while there was so little chance that we could get away from them once they captured the entire city. Amidst the fear, the fright, and the anguish of a possible Khmer Rouge round-up as they zeroed in toward our hiding place, I sometimes wondered whether our effort to barricade ourselves in downtown Kompong Cham would make any difference at all once the Khmer Rouge overran the city. However, after the besieged Kompong Cham City was liberated and finding out how close we were to being captured by the Khmer Rouge, I began to realize the importance of self-confinement and hiding. I also began to understand that, living in a state of warfare, escape and self-confinement were part of the game, and that it was safer to be hidden and barricaded because one could never know when or where a mortar shell would land.
In a rather freedom frenzy, the streets in downtown Kompong Cham were full of people. Some were returning to their old neighborhood while others were traveling around from place to place to look for missing relatives or simply just to look at different parts of town which were occupied by the Khmer Rouge during their assault on the city. In an effort to locate some of our distant relatives who lived in the southern part of Kompong Cham City which was briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge, my father sent two of my older brothers to look for them. But not a single relative of ours was found. Instead, my brothers met one of my second uncles named Yin Bunleng, an officer in the Cambodian Marine Corps, who was brought into Kompong Cham City as part of the reinforcement troops. His unit was put in charge of liberating and securing the southern part of Kompong Cham City -- the commercial area which was heavily occupied by the Khmer Rouge.
Through my uncle’s account we learned that most of the people who lived in the areas captured by the Khmer Rouge were force-evacuated to the liberated zone where they (the Khmer Rouge) were in full control. Furthermore, we learned that the operation to liberate Kompong Cham City was some of the bloodiest fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the government soldiers. Most of the fighting involved house to house combat. According to my uncle, both sides suffered heavy casualties, especially during the fight to liberate the southern part of Kompong Cham City, where a lot of the Khmer Rouge guerillas barricaded themselves in buildings and fought to the death. He recalled that many Khmer Rouge combatants he encountered were suicidal. They rarely surrendered. Thus, in order to recapture a building or villa which was occupied by the Khmer Rouge, a commando-styled raid was needed to dislodge them. Sometimes, marines were sent into the building to conduct room to room combat. This was probably the most horrifying combat story I had ever heard. But the carnage didn’t stop there. On one occasion we learned that several government soldiers were wounded by a suicidal Khmer Rouge who wrapped himself with explosives and pretended to be surrendering by raising his hands and ran toward a group of marines. As he came within striking range, he put his hands around his waist and blew himself into pieces taking down with him a number of unsuspecting marines. After spending a few hours sharing his combat story with us, my uncle returned to his station.
For the next few days, we spent most of our time lingering in downtown Kompong Cham because we were undecided about going back to live in our old neighborhood. In the meantime, my parents’ friends, the couple whose house we sought refuge during the Khmer Rouge’s attack, were considering moving to Phnom Penh. They wanted to rent us the second floor of their house while keeping the first floor for their relatives to live in. After narrowly escaping the Khmer Rouge capture, my parents found the offer a suitable idea, and we decided to make the middle of downtown Kompong Cham our new home.
(To be continued)