War Correspondent Describes Chaos, Carnage of Evacuation

Sydney Schanberg can clearly remember the pall that descended upon hospitals in Phnom Penh in the immediate wake of their frenzied evacuation by Khmer Rouge forces.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, who testified Wednesday at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, was one of a relatively small number of foreigners who bore witness to the emptying of the city on April 17, 1975. His story, along with that of his Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, is immortalized in the film “The Killing Fields,” in which he was portrayed by actor Sam Waterston.

Amid the chaos, during which there were celebratory bursts of gunfire while people were “driven out like cattle,” Mr. Schanberg went with Mr. Pran and other journalists to Preah Ket Melea hospital, where they were confronted by a desperate sight.

“The doctors hadn’t come in be­cause of the Khmer Rouge invasion, but there were nurses and not much medicine,” he said, testifying from California via video link.

“People were bringing in wounded relatives. Some were lying on the tile floor. Blood was dripping down the steps and when we came out of the hospital, we were arrested and put in a tank and we were driven to a place by the Me­kong River, where [Khmer Rouge] officers were having lunch.

“We came out of this vehicle and were facing, as we came out, these guns pointed at us. We were not killed and that is another story. On the way, we saw people leaving and saw them being pushed on beds and all kinds of things with bottles of serum hanging from the bed and they were all being forced out of the city.”

Mr. Schanberg was let go after Mr. Pran spoke to the soldiers and negotiated their release.

It did not matter how sick pa­tients were, Mr. Schanberg said. People were forced from the hospitals until all were empty.

“And the avenue that we came out of was scattered with the shoes and sandals that people had lost as they were forced to walk quickly in these huge crowds. So I saw it in many parts of the city.”

For the next two weeks, Mr. Schanberg stayed with other foreigners, Cambodian journalists and embassy staffers at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh before he too was evacuated. He told the court he witnessed officials from the Lon Nol regime being taken away by Khmer Rouge soldiers in a truck that “slowly pulled away like a funeral cortege.”

Mr. Schanberg had also noted in his diary, excerpts of which were read out in court, that the Khmer Rouge issued statements related to a group of so-called “Seven Trai­tors”—the highest-ranking members of the Lon Nol regime—who were sought for execution.

It was only when he was being transported out of the country himself that the fate of many of those whose evacuation he had witnessed became clear.

“There were bodies along the roads that they were forced to leave on. And I am assuming that some of them were people who died on the way out of the city,” he said.

He also described the haplessness of Khmer Rouge soldiers who had been given Chinese-made rockets but lacked the skills to properly aim or fire them. Mounted on crude wooden blocks, the rockets fell indiscriminately, causing total carnage.

“They couldn’t be directed to any particular target, so the weapon became a morale killer—they fell down here, there and everywhere,” he said. “One of them came down just outside the hotel where I stayed. Shrapnel and other metal bits were strewn around and people lost their legs and a lot of them lost their lives. It never stopped.”

In the afternoon, following Mr. Schanberg’s testimony, Dr. Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization of Cambodia, a mental-health NGO, was called as an expert witness to speak about the suffering of regime survivors.

“From the outer appearance, it seems they are normal,” he said. “However, upon deeper consultation with them and researching and consulting with them, learning about their backgrounds, we learned that they were seriously traumatized under the regime.”

Dr. Sotheara said the bestowing of the term “new people” on those evacuated from cities affected people’s identities. “‘New people’ had a sense of losing identity,” he said. “Losing one’s identity is a very traumatic experience. They felt detached from mainstream society.”

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