The day prior to the military victory of the Khmer Rouge—a regime that would claim the lives of a third of the country’s people in less than four years—relative calm remained in central Phnom Penh as final battles were fought on the outskirts of the city.
“Within a few hours, the Monivong Boulevard was jammed as people retreated from the slums in the northern part of the city and the Tuol Kork area,” writes Roland Neveu in his photo-book “The Fall of Phnom Penh,” photos from which will be exhibited at Meta House starting Tuesday.
“There was no more shouting or signs of panic; just a steady mass of humanity moving along the tree-lined avenue,” he writes.
This was April 16, 1975. Civil war had been raging for five years as government troops of the Khmer Republic, supported by the U.S., had fought the Khmer Rouge, backed by China and, during the first years, North Vietnamese communist forces.
The capital was wholly under siege with Khmer Rouge units pressing in and no food for a population that had swelled to nearly 2 million as people fled to the city to escape war zones. In Mr. Neveu’s photos taken late that afternoon, people gathered on main streets, with nowhere to go and no idea of what would happen next.
“The day passed without any real sign of when the Khmer Rouge, who were now well entrenched in the suburbs of Phnom Penh, would advance into the city center or how it would happen,” he writes.
The French photographer was among the dozen or so foreign journalists and photographers who had turned down the U.S. Embassy’s last invitation to leave the country four days earlier, when the U.S. had shut down its embassy and flown out a few hundred Americans, Cambodians and other foreign nationals by helicopter.
Mr. Neveu had first come to Cambodia in 1973 to cover the civil war. Called away to do mandatory service in the French military as a paratrooper photographer, he returned to Cambodia on March 1, 1975, to cover what turned out to be the last weeks of the war.
By early April, the 24-year-old photographer was on a $2-a-day budget. His film supplies were quickly dwindling with no possibility of getting more in the country. With the city’s Pochentong Airport shelled daily, it soon became impossible to have his photos delivered to the Gamma photo agency in France, for which he was freelancing. But he had no intention of leaving.
“It was a matter of being here to be a witness, to be present for the end of this conflict,” Mr. Neveu said in an interview.
On the night of April 16, Mr. Neveu and a few other journalists decided to stay at the French Embassy on Monivong Boulevard. By then, all the staff at his hotel in Tuol Kok district had left and the embassy seemed a safer option.
“A little after four o’clock in the morning, heavy fighting erupted around the city’s main power station and a communications tower which lay a short distance northwest of the French Embassy,” he writes. “The battle lasted until well after daybreak…. The morning eventually brought sunshine, but a cloud of silence hung heavily over the city.”
For people in Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975, was marked by the same confusion and uncertainty that pervaded the next three years, eight months and 20 days under Pol Pot’s regime.
As shown in Mr. Neveu’s photos, the first Khmer Rouge forces who arrived on Monivong Boulevard near the French Embassy actually smiled when Cambodian youngsters surrounded them, cheering and offering the soldiers cigarettes. One government soldier hugged a Khmer Rouge soldier; they were from the same village and had just recognized each other.
Cautiously venturing south on the boulevard, not knowing how Khmer Rouge soldiers would react to being photographed, Mr. Neveu captured people cheering the victorious troops. The Khmer Rouge soldiers who soon arrived from all directions, however, were not smiling.
Except for an elite corps of government soldiers who kept on fighting during the day, most government soldiers peacefully surrendered their arms and awaited Khmer Rouge orders. As piles of arms grew bigger on Monivong Boulevard, the defeated soldiers quietly marched away toward the Olympic Stadium where many were later killed, Mr. Neveu writes.
For a time that day, there was confusion as to who the soldiers arriving on assorted vehicles actually were. Lon Non—the brother of Lon Nol, president of the Khmer Republic until April 1, 1975—had armed his own division and intended to take advantage of the government army’s defeat to seize power.
His plans were soon thwarted and he was among the first officials executed by the Khmer Rouge. But for a short time on Monivong Boulevard, Lon Non’s cheerful soldiers paraded well-dressed, armed and carrying flags bearing a strange cross. In his book, Mr. Neveu refers to them as the Monatio Group.
But as Khmer Rouge soldiers kept flooding into the city, the atmosphere along the boulevard changed. At one point, Mr. Neveu found himself the only Westerner on the street and, concerned that his camera would be confiscated, decided to walk back toward the French Embassy.
He kept on taking photos although he was careful not to use all his film, saving some rolls for the press conference in which journalists expected the new government to proclaim themselves leaders of the country. But no press conference ever took place, and more than two years would pass before Pol Pot announced in a radio broadcast that Angkar—the Khmer word for organization used by the Khmer Rouge to describe the regime’s leadership—was actually Cambodia’s communist party.
Upon returning to the French Embassy on April 17, Mr. Neveu learned that people were being told to immediately leave the city. From the embassy gates, he watched people heading north with their belongings.
All foreigners were brought to the French Embassy. Cambodian women who could not prove they were legally married to foreigners and all Cambodian men who had taken refuge there were ordered out of the compound.
People remained at the embassy for several weeks before being sent in two convoys by road to Thailand. Mr. Neveu was on the second one, which left in early May. During the three-day trip to the border, he recalls: “[We] never came across city dwellers being herded to their new villages. The new authorities had painstakingly managed to keep us away from any sight of their new Kampuchea.”
Mr. Neveu’s coverage of Cambodia did not end there. In August 1975, he met refugees along the Thai-Cambodian border and heard accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities taking place in the country. He returned to the border in 1977 and 1978 to get more information, trying to avoid Thai military units as Thailand had declared martial law in the area.
Based in Bangkok from 1979 to 1982, Mr. Neveu covered the refugee camps that formed along the border as tens of thousands of Cambodians fled the country following the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979.
“I witnessed the early stages of what was to become one of the largest refugee crises of the 1980s,” he writes. According to a 1992 U.N. report, as many as 680,000 Cambodians lived in eight camps along the border by December 1979.
In January 1981, Mr. Neveu secured authorization to go to Phnom Penh. He was taken to the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng torture center and to the Choeung Ek killing fields, where Cambodian authorities were lining up skulls on the ground to figure out how many people had been executed there.
“It was only then that my eyes were opened to the enormity of what had happened” during the Khmer Rouge regime, he writes.
Over the next two decades, Mr. Neveu covered crisis situations the world over: from conflict in Afghanistan, the siege of Beirut and war in Lebanon, to the Touareg rebellion in Mali and the Kurdish refugee crisis following the first Gulf War.
He then worked in Hollywood as a still photographer on sets including that of Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon” about the Indochina war between the U.S. and North Vietnam.
Mr. Neveu is now based in Bangkok, doing commercial projects as well as news coverage in the region in addition to working on books through his publishing house, Asia Horizons Books.
He decided to release an expanded version of his 2009 book “The Fall of Phnom Penh” in French and in English—the Khmer version to be released as soon as he finds the funding—to mark the Khmer Rouge victory four decades ago.
“This episode is about to become a historical fact,” he said in interview this month. “There soon will be fewer and fewer people still alive who will have lived through that era.”
Moreover, Phnom Penh’s cityscape is suddenly changing, Mr. Neveu said.
“For a while…Phnom Penh remained visually relatively close to the city of the 1970s in its geography, its look,” he said. “Today, it’s a country that is visually turning the page.”
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