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Cambodians observe 30 years of suffering

The fall of Phnom Penh brought the thrill of victory. Its horrifying aftermath continues to be felt.

By Associated Press
Published April 17, 2005

CHAMKAR TA NGET, Cambodia - Nai Oeurn had reason to celebrate. Cambodia's civil war was over, and as the 14-year-old Khmer Rouge guerrilla marched into the capital, Phnom Penh, he truly believed his country's rural poor had triumphed.

Thirty years later, after the "killing fields" and the death of one-sixth of the Cambodian population, his dream has come to this: collecting cow dung for a living, earning 90 cents for a 3-foot-high pile that takes five days to collect.

For him, as for many other Cambodians, the 30th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, is an occasion to remember the thrill of victory while ruing its horrifying aftermath.

"The ideology we were taught was to clean up the rich and the corrupt, who used to drive cars and look down on peasants, and to send them to work in the rice fields," Nai Oeurn says.

It became a failed effort to demolish and rebuild the nation from scratch, and resulted in 1.7-million deaths by execution, starvation, overwork or lack of medical care.

The Khmer Rouge leaders under Pol Pot declared 1975 to be "Year Zero" and set out to smash private ownership, money, the family structure, privacy - anything that smacked to them of the old Cambodia. But their ruthless efficiency couldn't fashion a functioning replacement, and in the end, all Cambodians were losers.

Among the biggest losers are guerrillas like Nai Oeurn, many of whom have moved back to their impoverished villages and face suspicious neighbors who still remember the Khmer Rouge days.

Khorn Prak says he was wounded 27 times in battle. When the Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, he returned home to learn that his mother had died of illness in the years he had been away. Now, at 53, he farms and mends bicycles in Kampong Thom, 80 miles north of Phnom Penh.

The struggle "brought me nothing but my wounds," he says. "It was bloody and useless."

Cambodia had already been dragged into the Vietnam War and heavily bombed by U.S. warplanes when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh.

They had been besieging the capital for months. The city was teeming with refugees and lacked food and medicine. But to guerrillas from the countryside such as 20-year-old Chhaing Tek Ngorn, it looked unimaginably wealthy.

Awed, they paused at a roadside shop, devoured noodle soup and struggled to uncap Pepsi-Cola bottles with their teeth.

Now 50 and a farmer, Chhaing Tek Ngorn remembers nervously smiling civilians greeting the guerrillas with shouts of "Long live the liberation army!"

Almost immediately, however, the new occupiers began driving the populace into the countryside. Government military officers and high-ranking civil servants were executed. Khorn Prak said it took just a week to turn Phnom Penh into "a ghost town."

Like Nai Oeurn, he was a believer who took part in the expulsion because he had a deep faith in the Khmer Rouge's pledge to eliminate distinctions between rich and poor.

"I had no feeling, did not pity anything. I had no desire to possess anything," he said.

Nai Oeurn recalled that his division commander "ordered Phnom Penh to be swept up and his soldiers to shoot anyone resisting eviction."

The Khmer Rouge were moving everyone onto vast agricultural communes, and if they died, no tears would be shed because all city dwellers were considered pampered and corrupt.

Today, in Chamkar Ta Nget, the same village 20 miles west of Phnom Penh where he joined the Khmer Rouge, Nai Oeurn lives with his wife and four children in a thatched hut with a dirt floor.

His right side is still numb from a shrapnel wound, and he says he hasn't seen his parents and three siblings since 1972. His father was a government army officer and would have been marked for death by the guerrillas.

In a ceaseless, paranoid search for enemies, the Khmer Rouge inevitably began devouring their own. Suspect figures at the top were the first to go, then their underlings.

Before being executed, many underwent gruesome torture at the regime's S-21 prison in Phnom Penh - now a museum and tourist attraction - where Pen Heng once served as a guard.

When one of the men on his watch fell asleep and let a prisoner snatch a gun to commit suicide, Pen Heng became suspect and was sent to plant rice outside Phnom Penh.

"During the Pol Pot time, I tried to live day by day," Pen Heng said. "You had lived another day when you woke up the next day alive."

At 47, he breeds bulls and lives with his three children and his wife, who used to be in a Khmer Rouge supply unit. Now making a good living by local standards, he says: "I've been reborn."

Pol Pot died in the jungle in 1998, and about a dozen top Khmer Rouge aides may face a U.N.-assisted tribunal that is supposed to open this year. The foot soldiers, however, have been left to make their own peace with the past.

Although they have generally been able to rejoin mainstream society, an "emotional barrier" still remains between the veterans and other Cambodians from their era, said Youk Chhang, director of a center researching Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"Former Khmer Rouge and the victims are not socially integrated as yet because the Khmer Rouge still remain a living symbol of evil in our society," he said.

Even though they appear at ease talking about their past, many former guerrillas feel a collective guilt or are shunned by neighbors, even if they did not take part in killings, he said.

[Last modified April 15, 2005, 19:15:03]

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