The Last Gun Shot (Cont.)
By early April 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to mount some machine gun attacks on downtown Kompong Cham as the defeat of the Lon Nol government and the collapse of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was imminent. Judging from their sporadic nature, the attacks seemed more to cause chaos among the city’s inhabitants than harm because, in April, the water in the Mekong River shrunk to less than 1,000 meters across, which was within machine gun’s range. If the Khmer Rouge were to install a dozen or so machine guns and mortars on the edge of the water and fire them onto the city from across the river, it would wreak absolute havoc all over town.
Phnom Penh, which was located about 77 miles to the south of Kompong Cham, had been under siege since the beginning of 1975. In early January, the Khmer Rouge had mobilized most of its rag-tag guerrilla troops to encircle and attack Phnom Penh, the seat of the Lon Nol government. Since Phnom Penh was geographically similar to Kompong Cham (both cities are bordered by the Mekong River to the east), the Khmer Rouge appeared to use the same tactic in attacking it as they did during their attack on Kompong Cham in 1973. They half-circled the city from the western flank and, as soon as the downtown area was brought within artillery range, they bombarded it with artillery and rocket shells ceaselessly. According to eyewitnesses and news reports, we learned that the Khmer Rouge conducted a savage attack on Phnom Penh. There were almost daily Khmer Rouge’s rocket attacks on both military and civilian targets. Though most of us who lived in Kompong Cham at the time could not comprehend the extent of the carnage, the daily unfolds of events revealed a grave situation.
One day, we heard news report on the government radio broadcast that the Khmer Rouge had fired over 200 rockets into the capital and caused tremendous casualties among civilians. We all were saddened by the news and felt very sorry for the people who lived in Phnom Penh because they were going through what we had gone through during the Khmer Rouge’s attack on Kompong Cham City two years earlier. However, there was nothing we could do to bring relief to the people of Phnom Penh except for praying for the war to end.
Beside the carnage inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the civilian population, the bloodshed at the front lines around Phnom Penh was even more appalling. We learned from various reports that both the Khmer Rouge and government soldiers had engaged in some of the most savage fighting in modern warfare. They literally took no prisoners. Both sides appeared to not only fight to keep the others away or hold on to their position but also fight for their lives, for being captured meant only one thing -- death. Therefore, as the fighting grew more intense, the news of violent deaths among soldiers on both sides became even more gruesome. There were numerous reports of brutal killings of captured soldiers from either side. The Khmer Rouge, in particular, were by far the most notorious killers of all, according to eyewitness accounts. They usually tortured their prisoners first before executing them by means of dismemberment or other cruel acts.
Despite the horror and gruesome nature of the killings, nothing was done to curb such violence. In fact, the leadership on both sides appeared to condone them all along. For example, throughout the course of the Cambodian civil conflict since 1970, there had never been any exchange of prisoners of war between the government and the Khmer Rouge’s guerrillas. As a matter of fact, the Cambodian civil war was probably the only war in history that appeared to produce no prisoners of war. Also, beside the lack of prisoners of war, there were few reports on casualties. We heard little or nothing about the number of military and civilian casualties from the daily government radio broadcast. The only information we could obtain from the government’s radio was whether a town or military post near Phnom Penh had been captured by the Khmer Rouge. Everything else was either too overwhelming to mention or just simply irrelevant.
As the Khmer Rouge closed in around Phnom Penh, the carnage and chaos became utterly unbearable not only to those who had actually suffered and lived through the ordeal every day in the capital, but also to most of us who listened and followed the development of the situation from afar. By late March of 1975, Mr. Lon Nol, President of the Khmer Republic government had deserted Phnom Penh for Hawaii, U.S.A. Also, most foreigners, unnerved by the bloodshed, began to leave Cambodia for good -- a sign of denouement familiar to most countries that underwent revolutionary war, that a change of guard was inevitable. At the same time, we heard rumors that the government in Phnom Penh sought negotiation with the Khmer Rouge in order to end the bloodshed and conflict peacefully. However, if such rumors were true, it appeared that no effort materialized. The Khmer Rouge seemed to have no interest in seeking any peaceful resolution -- not even a peaceful victory. To them, the only victory which was acceptable was the one that came through the barrels of their guns. Hence, from that point on, the stage was set for the final act of violence.
Back in Kompong Cham, things were still relatively calm. We heard only sporadic gunfire and explosions every now and then from across the river near Tonle Bet -- the last government outpost on the eastern side of the Mekong River opposite downtown Kompong Cham. However, by April 10, three days before the Cambodian New Year, the Khmer Rouge started harassing the people of Kompong Cham again. They opened fire at the government’s patrol boats which cruised up and down the river in front of Kompong Cham City. Sometimes, the Khmer Rouge fired their machine guns at the city itself. As a result, we were once again in a state of panic and chaos.
Although nobody knew for sure what the outcome would be this time, there seemed to be something in the air telling us that a traumatic change was about to take place. Thus, as usual, my mother started to pack up some vital belongings along with nonperishable foodstuffs and medicines, just in case we needed to move from place to place again. To her, it was as if by instinct that whenever the sounds of gun shots were near, the exodus of innocent civilians was always inevitable. Therefore, preparation in anticipation of flights had become her priority throughout the years.
On April 13, 1975, as people around the country were quietly celebrating the Cambodian New Year, the Khmer Rouge cold bloodedly delivered their final military assault on Phnom Penh. According to the government’s radio, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly intensified their attack on Phnom Penh. Four days later, on April 17, we heard that the government in Phnom Penh had surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.
The news of the Phnom Penh government surrendering to the Khmer Rouge created great hysteria or jubilation among the war-weary population. To most people, it was the end of an era, a milestone of a revolution, and a beginning of a somewhat uncertain future. The collapse of the Phnom Penh government offered not only optimism and hope for a peaceful future, but it also unified the country and put an end to a senseless bloodshed and carnage between Cambodians and Cambodians. So to celebrate that joyous moment, many people jubilantly went out into the streets waving little homemade white flags, some hugged each other, and some went to the City Hall to confirm the news.
I remember the moment vividly because I myself was one of the “little” people who went out into the streets. As I recall, it was in the afternoon of April 17 when a couple of people walking on the sidewalk in front of my house yelled to their friends who lived next door that the government in Phnom Penh had surrendered, and that people had raised white flags all over town. At that moment, I stepped out into the street in front of my house and looked into the far end of the block. Beside the many people who gathered along the sidewalks and in the street in a jubilant atmosphere, I saw a man tying a piece of clean rectangular white cloth onto a six-foot long flagpole to put it up on his balcony. The homemade white flag looked somewhat beautiful to me. It stood as a symbol of both the end of a war and the death of a regime. However, perhaps the most beautiful aspect of all I had also seen on that day were the smiles on people faces and the expressions of elation among them. There was a sense of excitement everywhere. People expressed happiness and optimism as they talked about the future of their country -- though the future, at that point, was full of uncertainty.
As I jubilantly wandered around with several of my friends and neighbors, we heard that some Khmer Rouge had crossed from the other side of the Mekong River on boat to the city. Curious and excited, we immediately went to the place where people said the Khmer Rouge had landed to welcome them. However, we arrived at the scene a little bit too late. The alleged Khmer Rouge had disappeared. All we found were people who were probably coming to see the same thing we were looking for. From the crowd’s grapevine rumors, we heard that the Khmer Rouge who had come to the city had been taken to a secluded place by government officials, and that the government would not allowed the Khmer Rouge to enter the city. They had to wait until tomorrow. Disappointed, we walked back home quietly and determined that, tomorrow, we would definitely go to see them.
The presence of the illusive Khmer Rouge soldiers stirred great curiosity and commotion among most of us who had been terrorized by and fearful of them. Though I had personally seen the Khmer Rouge combatants a couple of times before as they were captured by the government troops, I had to say that there was something unique about them which had always fascinated other people. I did not know what it was that made the Khmer Rouge so fascinating -- perhaps their simple, peasant’s black uniforms and the Ho Chi Minh sandals that they wore, or the stoic, emotionless looks on their faces. But I must say that there was something foreign about the Khmer Rouge soldiers which set them apart from most of us. And it was that foreignness that made many people both fascinated and curious about them.
As I went to bed that night, my feelings were full of excitement. I implicitly planned that the next day the first thing I would do would be to go to see and to welcome the Khmer Rouge. Then, maybe, I would go to the ferry port to see people who might cross over from the other side of the Mekong River to look for relatives in the city. On the other hand, if my father were to go across the Mekong River to look for my grandma and other relatives who had been forced evacuated from Kompong Cham City by the Khmer Rouge during their siege in 1973, I would ask him to take me along. There were so many things I had in mind that night that I couldn’t even go to sleep. I wished that the night would go by quickly, so that I could get up in the morning to see all the jubilation and excitement in a celebration of an end to a bloody civil war. I even had a delirious feeling that tomorrow morning everything would be wonderful, that the sky would be clear, the sun would shine brightly, and the future would be full of hope and happiness.
(To be continued)