Schanberg Questions Motives for Evacuation of Phnom Penh

Three days of questioning came to an end on Friday for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, whose parting testimony at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal continued to paint a picture of a tense and isolated Phnom Penh, emptied of its inhabitants and cut off from the outside world by the victorious Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Confined for the most part within the grounds of the French Embassy in the northern part of the city, Mr. Schanberg observed what he could of the city, and took notes that he would later ex­pand upon to make a diary once he reached Thailand. But he did manage to leave the embassy once, which is when he encountered a group of Khmer Rouge fighters.

“A few of us left to go down and clean up in a body of water. We met some soldiers and they ask-ed us questions. They were not hostile or threatening. The only negative thing that was said was when one of them said that I should get a haircut,” he said.

But the exchange still made Mr. Schanberg wary. “They made us extremely nervous; they were carrying heavy weapons,” he said. “That was the one time I moved outside the embassy.”

On Thursday, former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea stated that the reasoning behind the evacuation of Phnom Penh was purely benevolent and motivated largely by fears that the Ameri­­cans would bomb the city and that the Vietnamese would in­vade. The Khmer Rouge, he said, put people to work in the countryside, producing rice and other crops.

Under cross-examination from Nuon Chea defense lawyer Victor Koppe, Mr. Schanberg questioned the intentions behind the evacuation of the city, and he told the court via video link from the U.S. that all the Khmer Rouge had to do to sufficiently feed the people was to end its blockade of the Mekong River, which had prevented supplies reaching the besieged city.

“If the Khmer Rouge wanted to feed the population of Phnom Penh at that time, they could have opened the Mekong, which they blocked off,” he said.

“I think [saying they would empty the city to feed the population] was a false explanation. They controlled the river and that was the primary supply place where they usually got food and medicine,” he said.

“That didn’t make sense—all they had to do was stop blocking the Mekong river, because that’s where the ships brought in the supplies.”

Foreigners sequestered at the French Embassy in April 1975 were eventually taken to the Thai border a few weeks later. Mr. Sch­anberg has said over the past few days that the countryside he passed through on the way to the border was eerily quiet, save for a lone cow here and there in a field.

“On our way in this convoy of trucks, when we left the country, we left by a road I’d never been on,” he said. “It came into the city and there were bodies scattered that had still not been picked up. Dead bodies. It was difficult to tell if they were soldiers or civilians. There were a dozen or so bodies that I saw,” he added.

On Friday afternoon, a character witness was called by the defense team for Khieu Sam­phan. Sok Roeur, a 52-year-old ethnic Tampoun rice farmer, was a child when he joined the Khmer Rouge and ended up in Phnom Penh, where he planted vegetables at the K-3, K-1 and K-8 offices and occasionally acted as a guard.

It was not until 1989, however, that he got to know Khieu Sam­phan well.

“I worked with him from 1989 up until 1995. I was his bodyguard. I only observed that he worked very hard, that he was a diligent worker. He had his own work and I minded my own business,” Mr. Roeur said.

“Personality wise, he was a very firm person, not short-tempered, and is very meticulous. A thorough and reasonable person. He generally advised his subordinates, people like me, and guided me on my work,” he said.

Questioned by the prosecution, he said he did not know how loyal Khieu Samphan was to the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate leader, Pol Pot.

Hearings continue Monday.

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