Speaking in perfect Khmer, French author and priest Francois Ponchaud took the stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday and provided some richly detailed testimony about the despair and depravity that preceded the fall of Phnom Penh.
Mr. Ponchaud, who wrote the book “Cambodia: Year Zero,” moved to the country in 1965 and lived in Preah Vihear province, where he initially worked as a missionary.
“There, they said I was a Khmer brother who was born French, who had helped claim Preah Vihear for Cambodia,” Mr. Ponchaud said, often gesticulating animatedly to illustrate his remarks.
A large part of the defense strategy in Case 002, which now has just two defendants—Khieu Samphan, who was present in court, and Nuon Chea, who remained in his holding cell—is to show that the evacuation of Phnom Penh was necessary after years of bombing raids conducted by the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Ponchaud—who said Khieu Samphan had been dubbed “Mr. Clean” in the lead up to the Khmer Rouge taking power—described the devastation wrought by the raids, which seemed at times relentless.
“People were terrified and traumatized by this war,” he said.
“I was in Kompong Cham. I heard people from Kratie and Snuol had to travel to revolt against [the] government. Lon Nol soldiers dropped bombs in Skun on the demonstrators. In the Chroy Changva area…Lon Nol soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, 60 of whom were killed.”
“The Khmer Rouge were cruel, but I believe they were because they had reason. They were not pleased with the way they were treated by Lon Nol.”
“The Khmer Rouge provided some hope for the people of Cambodia. I would pray that the Khmer Rouge soldiers would come because people lost all hope during Lon Nol. Cambodian people had to suffer greatly and in despair. By 1973, we knew what the Khmer Rouge were doing—they were helping us in the fields.”
Mr. Ponchaud went on to tell the court that he believes about 40,000 people were killed by the bombs dropped during the Lon Nol regime.
“They were shivering, traumatized and terrified by carpet combings,” he said. “We all knew that everyone was having a difficult time.”
In one bombing campaign, Mr. Ponchaud said he saw the sky “illuminated by fireballs.”
The sheer volume of bombs raining down on the countryside forced millions to flood into Phnom Penh to escape the raids.
“I estimate 2 to 3 million people came to Phnom Penh at that time,” Mr. Ponchaud said. “People were living in pagodas and on street corners. Life was miserable, people couldn’t make a living.”
All the while, the Khmer Rouge were battling their way toward Phnom Penh, which would become the regime’s stronghold until it fell in 1979. And at this stage, the feeling that something had changed was inescapable.
“On April 17, we were terrified. We knew [the Khmer Rouge] did something very bad in the rice fields, but we had no choice.”