After having endured the siege of 1973 and narrowly escaping the Khmer Rouge take over, Kompong Cham looked like a wounded, damaged city. Many landmarks, buildings and houses had been destroyed or disfigured almost beyond recognition as a result of the grinding battles between the government’s soldiers and the Khmer Rouge. Along the frontlines where the Khmer Rouge had dug in to resist the government counterattacks, the streets were littered with debris of blown-up brick houses, empty ammunition caches, and bullet shells.
As we went around looking at the areas where the battles between the Khmer Rouge and the government soldiers took place, we were appalled to see the extent of damages and destruction caused by the fighting. Many houses and buildings were either half-burned or totally blown up and reduced to piles of rubble on the ground. Along the path where fighting between the Khmer Rouge and government troops appeared to be most intense, the degree of damage and destruction extended beyond imagination. Nothing, even sacred places such as pagodas, was spared from the destructive forces of gunfire. During the course of the fighting, it appeared that neither side regarded or respected anything at all, let alone pagodas or innocent human lives. They fired their weapons indiscriminately regardless of the destruction and human casualties.
Perhaps the most shocking catastrophe resulted from the blitzgrieg of Kompong Cham City was the destruction of Wat Boeung Kok, a pagoda located on the northern outskirt of downtown Kompong Cham. During the assault on downtown Kompong Cham, the Khmer Rouge had occupied the compound of Wat Boeung Kok and used it as a forward staging area to mount their attack on the city center. To prevent the Khmer Rouge from advancing further into the downtown area, the government troops opened the water lock at Chong Thnol, which were built to control the Mekong River from flooding the lower part of Kompong Cham City, and let the water flooded a strip of mash land which stretched between Wat Boeung Kok and the northern edge of downtown Kompong Cham. As a result, Wat Boeung Kok became an island impediment to the advancing Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who were unable to cross over to the city center; they were stranded in the middle of the battlefield. Subsequently, the Khmer Rouge began to dig in and used the compound of Wat Boeung Kok as their strategic post and protective shield against the government counterattack. When the government troops started to mount their offensive to recapture Wat Boeung Kok, fierce fighting broke out. Both sides, in a determined effort to lay claim to the pagoda’s compound, resorted to using all kinds of fighting strategies to win. They fired at and destroyed anything that stood in their way including the temple. After the fighting was over, I remember seeing people standing, in shock, on the northern edge of downtown Kompong Cham, looking at the temple of Wat Boeung Kok, which bore two giant holes with burning black marks on its eastern wall. The scars resulted from artillery explosions which pierced through the thick concrete wall.
As I lingered around among the people who stood, in awe and disbelief, looking at the destruction of Wat Boeung Kok, I sensed something emotionally appalling hanging in the air. The more I looked at the damaged temple of Wat Boeung Kok the more horrifying and scary I felt because it was the first time I had ever seen a Buddhist temple, the most revered holy institution in Cambodia, being decimated. Like most people who were expressing shock and disbelief while staring at the bullet-riddled temple of Wat Boeung Kok, I felt dismayed and distressed at the excessive damage that resulted from the fighting which seemed to be far from over. The wounds, the scars, and the physical destruction inflicted upon Wat Boeung Kok and many other homes and buildings stood as a grim reminder to the people of Kompong Cham about the trauma and tragedy of war. However, the state of shock and horror about the destruction of homes and holy institutions were soon forgotten and replaced by hunger which swept through Kompong Cham in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s siege.
From the time the last Khmer Rouge fired the last shot and withdrew their last rag-tag guerrilla forces from downtown Kompong Cham, they had left behind not only a ruined and deteriorated city, but also a city full of refugees and displaced people. Many shops and businesses were either destroyed or deserted by owners who were either forced to seek refuge in different areas of town or captured and evacuated by the Khmer Rouge during their encroachment. Moreover, many entrepreneurs and business owners like my parents’ acquaintances, who were terrified by the Khmer Rouge attack, decided to pack their belongings and leave for Phnom Penh. What was left for Kompong Cham City to cope with was a large number of displaced, homeless, and hungry people who had fled the Khmer Rouge and flocked into town during the fighting. Though some of these displaced people were able to return to their former homes or businesses and reestablished their livelihood, most of them remained in the city because their homes or businesses were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. As a result, Kompong Cham City was crowded with a lot of hungry, helpless, and desperate people who were clinging to life by performing odd jobs and relying on the government’s meager handouts.
In addition to crippling the infrastructure and economy of Kompong Cham City, the Khmer Rouge had also cut off the government supply line through the Mekong River -- the only remaining and most vital supply line linking Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh, the capital city. As part of their strategy to cut off and isolate Kompong Cham from receiving military supplies and reinforcement from Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge had effectively blockaded the Mekong River by installing heavy machine guns and artillery batteries along strategic points on both side of the riverbanks between Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh in order to attack and destroy any ship that brought supplies to or from Kompong Cham. Along with their machine guns and artillery, the Khmer Rouge had also stretched steel cables with floating mines attached across the Mekong River to deter and stop all vessel convoys from using the river. The blockade was quite strong that even the government’s Marine Corps, which used the river as part of its base and possessed dozens of American supplied river battle ships with heavy weaponry, had a tough time negotiating through the Khmer Rouge’s obstacle course.
In one perilous attempt, the government sent a fleet of its marine vessels along with their heavy weapon armor ships to escort a convoy of supply barges and ships from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham. As the convoy went through the Khmer Rouge’s blockade, it endured a fierce and sustained attack, and a number of ships were sunk. The remaining fleet was forced to engage in an all night long struggle in order to pierce through the blockade. At the end, only a few bullet riddled ships made it through to Kompong Cham City. The rest was either forced to return to Phnom Penh or were abandoned along the way because of heavy damages. In addition to the losses and damage, many crew members and soldiers who accompanied and navigated the convoy suffered tremendous casualties. I remembered seeing people unload burned and wounded bodies from the ships as they landed near the old ferry port of Kompong Cham.
After that bloody and disastrous confrontation, the Mekong River, between Kompong Cham and Phnom Penh, was left uncontested to the Khmer Rouge’s control. From then on, any supply Phnom Penh wanted to send to Kompong Cham had to be made by airlifts under the mercy of American support. Even then, serious obstacles existed because of the fact that Kompong Cham’s only tiny airport was unsuitable for large airplanes to land, not to mention if Phnom Penh had any supplies at all to send to the beleaguered Kompong Cham City. Thus, after the disaster of the Mekong River’s convoy, the only remaining means for the government in Phnom Penh to bring emergency relief and supplies to Kompong Cham was either by parachuting the supplies from the air or using small planes to land in the small rutted airfield.
(To be continued)