War Photographer Recounts Fall of Phnom Penh

On the day that Cambodia be­gan its tragic and violent de­scent into Year Zero, Al Rockoff was afraid to make it known that he could not speak French.

Veteran war photographer Al Rockoff gives witness testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday. Mr. Rockoff, who took some of the most iconic images of the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, described his experiences in detail at the court. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Veteran war photographer Al Rockoff gives witness testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Monday. Mr. Rockoff, who took some of the most iconic images of the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, described his experiences in detail at the court. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Battle-hardened Khmer Rouge fighters—many of them just teen­agers—were swarming around Phnom Penh. Defeated U.S.-backed Lon Nol soldiers were be­ing stripped of their weapons in the streets and sent in the di­rec­tion of Olympic Stadium, where they were corralled.

As the hours passed and the piles of discarded weapons grew on the city’s streets, so too did Mr. Rockoff’s sense of unease—and the fear he would be discovered as an American.

Mr. Rockoff survived the first days of the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, and was one of a few foreign journalists to stay behind to chronicle the irrevocable de­mise of the city at the hands of its Khmer Rouge captors.

On Monday, the bespectacled veteran photographer took to the witness stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Clad in a Hawaiian shirt, Mr. Rockoff’s testimony, which was in­terspersed with the photo­graphs he took at that time, of­fered detailed insights into the madness that unfolded in Phnom Penh 38 years ago.

“I was standing next to [French photographer] Roland Neveu, and a cadre asked: ‘Where are the Americans?’”

“I’m glad he didn’t ask me, as I don’t speak French,” Mr. Rockoff told the tribunal. As the day drew on, it became clear it was one of several lucky scrapes he had with Pol Pot’s victorious soldiers.

Mr. Rockoff moved around the city as much as he could that day, oc­casionally hitching rides with Khmer Rouge soldiers. His move­ments took him to Inde­pen­dence Monument and slightly further south, where he saw be­draggled and grumpy Khmer Rouge ca­dres filing northward. Then he spent about an hour where Mon­i­vong and Sihanouk boulevards intersect.

It was here that he shot an iconic image of a barefoot teenage soldier wielding a large M16 rifle. Behind him, a crowd of onlookers is gathered, pondering the scene.

“I’m guessing he’s 16/17. He’s carrying two bayonets, a grenade and some ammunition in pouches. This is the same equipment used by the Lon Nol regime, and an American M16,” Mr. Rockoff said.

Mr. Rockoff told the court that on April 12, five days before the fall, the Red Cross had declared the Hotel Le Royal, then called Le Phnom, a safe zone and, with a Red Cross banner slung out front above the “hundreds and thousands milling around,” began us-ing the back of the hotel as a surgical theater.

This makeshift operation was not to last long—by the night of April 16, 1975, the Khmer Rouge was drawing closer.

“There was a huge fire on the other side of Monivong Bridge,” Mr. Rockoff said. “Shelling was intense on the Chroy Changva peninsula.”

But by 8 a.m. the next day, the mood was jubilant.

“Huge crowds of people started gathering,” he said. “Some had a bull horn, saying ‘war is over.’ Everything was OK at that point. People were not panicking; people were happy, soldiers and civilians. An hour later, the mood changed.”

After hitching a ride up Mon­i­vong with a nervous, French-speaking Cambodian man from Preah Ket Melea hospital, who was still wearing his scrubs, Mr. Rockoff and journalists Sydney Schanberg, Dith Pran and Jon Swain went to the military hospital to assess the situation.

“There were bodies on the floor, and blood was everywhere; it was easy to slip. There were many wounded. There was a Khmer Rouge cadre in a truck outside who had lost an eye to shrapnel. I photographed him,” he said.

“Then the Khmer Rouge came in front of the hospital. The next five minutes were very intense. They asked Dith Pran questions, trying to get him to go away. A cadre put a pistol to my head…. When his arm reached out, the gun was very close.”

The men were ultimately corralled and put into an armored personnel carrier (APC), where a nervous Mr. Schanberg warned Mr. Rockoff not to say anything to give away his nationality. They were soon joined by a terrified naval officer. At their destination, the witness said the mood changed for the worse.

“He was very nervous,” Mr. Rockoff said of the naval officer. “We rode around and eventually the APC stopped. We were at Jap­a­nese Bridge. The officer was led away. We were detained maybe an hour. People were streaming past; the pace was picking up.”

From there, the journalists were taken to the Ministry of In­for­mation. Mr. Rockoff expressed relief that none of his cameras or film were confiscated at either the bridge or ministry.

“It would have been all for nothing” otherwise, he said.

At the ministry, he took what he considers to be “a very important historical photograph” that depicts Lon Nol government officials from the ministry arguing with Khmer Rouge cadres.

“Then a car came, and out of it came the last prime minister, Long Boreth, and his wife. It was pretty obvious they were prisoners.”

They were ultimately taken to the Cercle Sportif sporting complex, which is now the U.S. Em­bassy compound, and executed along with other Lon Nol officials.

After a quick stop at Le Royal to gather belongings, the journalists passed “many hundreds” of Khmer Rouge soldiers marching south and made their way to the relative safety of the French Em­bassy. It was after dark, and they scaled the embassy’s walls to get inside.

From here, Mr. Rockoff saw the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh unfold in earnest on April 18.

“There were lines of civilians headed north, families and elderly…. You would see in one case a patient pushed on a gurney. Peo­ple were on crutches,” he told the court.

Those with vehicles had to push them because the Khmer Rouge would stop anyone driv­ing, he said.

“They didn’t care about pushing. Once you got north of Phnom Penh, you’d lose the vehicle and possessions anyway,” he added.

Those seeking shelter inside the French Embassy were not im­mune to the iron grip of the new regime, and hundreds of Cam­­bodians without the correct paperwork were forced to leave. He described the “tragedy” of a French woman being separated from her Cambodian husband, and of hearing gunshots in the distance shortly after a group of people left the compound.

Mr. Rockoff left too—once by a hole in the back wall. Accom­pan­ied by a Japanese photographer, he went to Boeng Kak lake, where some Khmer Rouge fighters asked him for cigarettes. His truancy did not go down well back at the embassy, he said.

In May, when the journalists and others at the embassy were finally evacuated on trucks to the Thai border, Phnom Penh was a ghost town, populated only by the occasional soldier.

“If the wind was blowing right, you could smell it in the distance …you could smell the bodies,” he said.

Mr. Rockoff served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and began his career in photography during that time. Upon being discharged in February 1973, Mr. Rockoff re­turned to the region in April 1973 as a war photographer—the year he would sustain serious injuries from shrapnel in Kom­pong Chhnang province where he went to recover the body of fallen colleague and journalist Lim Sa­vath, who was killed five days earlier.

Grievously injured, Mr. Rockoff survived a military medical evacuation to then-Saigon city and the Philippines, in addition to two minutes of cardiac arrest. After his recovery, he returned to Cambodia.

Mr. Rockoff’s testimony comes at a crucial point in the first of several “mini-trials” in the case known as 002. This phase in the war crimes trial deals with the evacuation of Phnom Penh and forced movement of people by the Khmer Rouge.

Mr. Rockoff is the first non-Cambodian to testify about these events, and his time on the stand continues today, when he will be cross-examined by the defense.

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