The 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh has been recounted at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal as a terrifying and brutal event, led by battled-hardened guerilla fighters who emptied hospitals and homes as they drove the city’s population into the countryside at gunpoint—many to their deaths.
According to war crimes defendant Nuon Chea, however, his regime’s act of emptying the city and classifying the evacuees as “new people” was a generous one. On Thursday, Nuon Chea was granted the chance to directly address the reasons behind the evacuation of Phnom Penh, which began one of the greatest tragedies in Cambodian history.
Speaking from his holding cell at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Thursday, where he lay on a bed wearing his trademark sunglasses, Nuon Chea said the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, of which he was a member, had two reasons for the evacuation—both of which were benevolent.
“One: If the Khmer Rouge soldiers come to control the city, will the Americans bomb the city? We cannot actually predict behavior of the Americans, as they used to bomb the countryside for 330 days in order to smash the resistance movement and destroy our economy,” he said.
The other reason, he claimed, was a perceived threat of invasion by neighboring Vietnamese forces, and as a humanitarian gesture. “Upon seeing the difficulties and challenges…we decided to evacuate to resettle people in cooperatives to minimize difficulties faced in the city,” he said.
“We did that out of kindness and generosity and not to land them in difficult situations. This is my frank statement from the bottom of my heart, as someone who was responsible for what happened at that time.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner and former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg also testified via videolink for a second day at the tribunal on Thursday, continuing to share snippets from his time at the French Embassy after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and describing the devastation of one family separated from their newborn.
The evacuation of Phnom Penh is a central theme of the current portion of Case 002 that is being heard at the court.
Mr. Schanberg was one of a small number of foreign journalists who stayed to report on the fall of Phnom Penh, and spent the next two weeks cloistered in the confines of the French Embassy as Pol Pot’s soldiers emptied the city.
Mr. Schanberg told how stories would filter into the embassy of events outside, from embassy staff who went to get belongings and Calmette Hospital staff who sought refuge there. “They told us they were operating on people with Khmer Rouge guns pointed at them and that it had been very stressful,” he said.
He also learned that Lon Nol soldiers had been “shedding their clothes in fear” for their lives.
“All I remember was [Prime Minister] Long Boreth was executed and [Prince Sisowath] Sirik Matak was executed,” he said of the so-called “Seven Traitors” of the Lon Nol government the Khmer Rouge immediately sought after they took the city.
“I don’t know when, or if the other five names on the list were to be killed or when they were killed, but I’m guessing they were done away with very quickly.”
Mr. Schanberg also recounted the heartbreaking story of a young family—the man was a U.S.-educated senior official at the telegraph office, and his wife had just given birth “during all of this excitement and war and killing,” to their first baby, a boy.
“He came to me and asked if I would make a deposit. He made a document giving me control of a bank account in the U.S. Then on the day he and his wife and other Cambodians were being herded out of the embassy, I was in the center of it and saw the man and his wife and baby.
“She asked me to take the baby and look after him because I was going to be able to get out. I thought about it and thought ‘well I don’t know that I’m going to get out and what will happen.’ I said I was reluctant. A Frenchwoman who was listening said she would take him, that she knew people in relief organizations. The wife, weeping through all of this, turned the baby over to that woman…she did come through and found him a family and I turned him over the money when he was 10 years old,” Mr. Schanberg said.
Exchanges later in the morning between Mr. Schanberg and Nuon Chea’s defense lawyer Victor Koppe bordered on icy, particularly when the lawyer asked the witness about his interviewing of refugees in 1975.
“Refugees told us they were running because the Khmer Rouge army was closing in and seizing towns,” Mr. Schanberg said. “That’s what wars are, they’re not tea parties.”
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