28 Years Later, April 17 a Very Different Day

Yon Heng stood among the bustle of Phsar Thmei’s taxi station Thursday, looking around him and remembering a very different place from 28 years before: April 17, 1975.

“On this day [in 1975], I saw a group of young Khmer Rouge carrying small megaphones and an­nouncing on Monivong Boule­vard an invitation for people to get away from Phnom Penh for three days,” said the 56-year-old father of five, recalling the sense of dread he had for years as war closed in on his city. “I understood that in 1970 there were signs of war. My [fi­ancee] was so scared when Amer­icans dropped bombs on the outskirts of the city.”

When the man with the microphone told him to leave the city, Yon Heng was 28, married just two years.

“I and my family left my former home near Boeng Trabek, without clothes, rice or useful stuff,” he said.

Brutality followed. Then war.

But this year, Yon Heng, and thousands upon thousands of Cam­­bodians are not marching out of the capital; instead they are flooding back in after three days of New Year celebrations, and a much deserved rest from everyday worries and the past.

“I was so happy this year,” he said, happy to be returning from the beach instead of heading to­ward the jungle. “I’m getting old now, so I have to look for a happy place. I worked so hard during the time of the Khmer Rouge.”

Koy Len, now 66, returned Thurs­day from Kompong Cham province with his 22-year-old daughter. He, too, was reminded of the very day in 1975 when he was told by Khmer Rouge soldiers that they wanted to clean up the city, so that all people would have to return to their provincial homes.

“I so believed them; we be­lieved that Lon Nol’s soldiers were very bad men, that they created a lot of problems in the city,” Koy Len said.

“But later on, we saw a lot of people who had died in the streets, and finally we reached Pursat province.

“We all walked out a long way,” he said. “It took me 13 days to reach Pursat province.”

When he returned in 1979, he said, “Phnom Penh was like a dump site, empty, and smelled bad.” Koy Len had few memories he wanted to share. He called Phnom Penh a “ghost city,” with no electricity and no cars on the street—very different from the busy market where he stood Thursday.

“You and I could discuss this for a whole day and a night if we had the time,” he said. “But now I’m safe.”

His daughter Len Sokhany added: “There is nothing to worry about any more. What we are talking about now is making money, having fun and taking care of our health.”

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh, said that no Cam­bo­dian should forget that day 28 years ago, a “date of sadness and deep crisis for the Cambodian people,” New Year’s partying aside. By the evening of April 17, 1975, “Phnom Penh was black, and there were troops flooded in and around my Phsar Thmei home.”

“People should not enjoy New Year and forget the date of sadness,” she said Thursday.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cam­bo­dia, said he sees a completely different city from that of 28 years ago.

“I look at 17 April 1975, I saw a lot of people walking up and down the street; 17 April 2003, I see an empty city, because the people who walked here [in Phnom Penh] 28 years ago were almost killed,” he said.

“I found only four people alive after the Khmer Rouge regime on my block in Tuol Kork district. It was a date of sadness, and I also believe that no Cambodian family is out of that sadness,” Youk Chhang said.

Cambodia’s date of sadness was mourned by some Thursday, even as holiday merry-making continued. At Cambodia’s notorious Cheung Ek killing field, Sam Rainsy Party members held a vigil for victims of the Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, the architects of the killing regime remain free, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in Pailin and Ieng Sary in Phnom Penh.

In Pailin, a stronghold of hard-core former Khmer Rouge, New Year’s partying continued late on Wednesday, as former fighters went to pagodas and made offerings to monks.

Lath Lina, a former fighter, said that in the past Pailin was “a place of fighting between Khmer Rouge soldiers and [those of] the State of Cambodia, supported by the Vietnam government. And plenty of mines.”

“We are happy because it now be­comes a place of peace for tourists to visit and see [our] water­fall.”

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)

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