Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Cambodia awaits rebirth as Pol Pot’s evil dream is burnt

Nation haunted by ghosts from killing fields

Jon Swain

The Sunday Times, 19 April 1998

Jon Swain, who narrowly escaped execution on the day the Khmer Rouge took Phomh Penh, recalls Pol Pot's calamitous impact on a country that has never recovered from his tyranny.

I NEVER met Pol Pot, but I saw his handiwork. Exactly 23 years ago I was in Phnom Penh when his victorious Khmer Rouge guerrillas marched into the city in their black pyjamas and rubber sandals and, in an unthinking act of madness, emptied it of 2m people.

Forcing them into the countryside at gunpoint was the beginning of a terrifying attempt to create an agrarian communist utopia. By the time this calamitous social experiment collapsed with the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese, a fifth of the population was dead - a toll perhaps unparalleled in modern history. Between 1m and 2m people had been slaughtered or died from disease, malnutrition and overwork in the "killing fields".

Pol Pot, the mastermind of the revolution, was a softly spoken, French-educated radical who turned Cambodia's clock back to Year Zero. The consequences still darken the lives of every Cambodian, though Pol Pot is beyond the reach of human justice. There are tens of thousands today who remember too much and wake up screaming in the night.

Pol Pot's death at 73 brings the memories of Phnom Penh's fall flooding back: patients tipped like rubbish into the streets; bandaged men and women hobbling down the road, holding each other up; wives pushing wounded soldier husbands on wheeled hospital beds, some with blood plasma bottles still attached. But this great caravan of human suffering was nothing compared with the horrors in store.

As Phnom Penh fell on that hot, sticky April day in 1975, Mean Leang, a Cambodian colleague, was in the post office filing dispatches to the Associated Press in Hong Kong on an antiquated telex machine. "I feel rather trembling," his final message read. "May be last cable today and for ever." Then he was cut off.

Shells crashed in the French Provence-style square outside. Government forces were surrendering and Khmer Rouge guerrillas were marching Indian-file into the city.

They were well armed, disciplined peasant boys, hardened by five years of war against the American-backed government and by B-52 carpet-bombing. They marched with the swagger of victors and their malevolent eyes stared straight ahead.

The war had made a wilderness of destruction out of Cambodia; whole towns and villages were in ruins. Now, with Phnom Penh's fall, most Cambodians wanted only to return to their homes and pick up the threads of an insouciant pre-war past.

Their lives had revolved around the family, the Buddhist festivals and the rhythm of the seasons, as it had done since the time of Angkor, the pinnacle of Khmer civilisation. Pol Pot brought unspeakable suffering.

The next rice crop was eight months away, and without outside help the people sent into the countryside could grow only enough food to feed 30% of the population. But Pol Pot sealed off Cambodia from the rest of the world. People were soon starving to death.

Mean Leang and other loyal Cambodian colleagues of the small group of western journalists who had been covering the conflict were among those forced out of the city, never to be heard of again.

Our last vision of them haunts me still: a group crushed by fear, pushing a Toyota pickup truck loaded with their belongings through a stream of thousands of refugees. "Don't abandon us," our friends cried, clutching imploringly at our arms as they headed towards the setting sun.

There was nothing we foreigners could do and, heartbroken, we left them to their fate. Three weeks later we left Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge expelled us over the border into Thailand.

An ultra-nationalist as well as a crude Marxist, Pol Pot blamed Cambodia's decadent and enfeebled state - and deep class divisions between urban rich and rural poor - on years of foreign interference, particularly by France, the former colonial power, and Vietnam.

Only by standing on its own could Cambodia prosper, the xenophobic Pol Pot reckoned; the best way of achieving that, he believed, was by giving power to the peasantry.

Accordingly, he set out to forge Cambodia into the perfect agrarian nation. Having forced them into the countryside where they were most vulnerable, he systematically wiped out the educated urban elite who threatened his ideology.

Doctors, professionals, even those with soft hands or spectacles that suggested they could read, were killed in droves. The executioners were often Pol Pot's child soldiers, indoctrinated to inform on their own parents. Everything that was dear to the people was abolished, including money, property, religion, traditional marriage, normal childhood, books, music, medicine - even laughter.

The result of Pol Pot's primitive ideology was that Cambodia became a vast labour camp. People toiled like human ants in the fields day and night and thousands perished. Those who were not borisot - pure - were systematically tortured and killed. Among them was Mean Leang and most of our Cambodian friends, condemned because they were city-dwellers "contaminated" by western education. Were they executed with a hoe blow to the back of the head, the favoured method because it saved
bullets? We will never know.

"To spare you is no profit; to destroy you is no loss" was one of Pol Pot's slogans. Another: that Angkar, the Khmer Rouge's Organisation on High, was all-seeing. "Angkar has more eyes than a pineapple," Brother No 1 was fond of saying.

In some labour camps, people were forced to wear a yoke and plough the earth like oxen. There were hideous tortures such as that endured by Haing Ngor, the Cambodian selected to play the Killing Fields role of Dith Pran, the Cambodian interpreter who saved my life and that of Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times correspondent, when we were captured by Pol Pot's troops and were about to be executed.

Ngor's head was clamped in a vice. The Khmer Rouge cut off his little finger, strung him up on a cross and roasted him above a fire to make him confess to being educated. Ngor, a doctor, convinced his tormentors that he was a taxi driver. Ngor survived the "killing fields" but was tragically murdered two years ago during a robbery in Los Angeles. He never ceased campaigning to bring Pol Pot to justice.

Some of the most searing images of Pol Pot's regime came from the children of Cambodia after the Vietnamese defeated his guerrilla forces in 1979.

In huge refugee camps, thousands of traumatised orphans spoke hardly a word. They were encouraged to draw pictures to explain what had happened. Some drawings showed soldiers thrusting knives into pregnant women.

In the last year of his life, Pol Pot told an American journalist that he thought a good deal about his daughter from his second marriage. But in his days as leader he saw children not as individuals but as a source of revolutionary power to be indoctrinated.

Taken young from their par ents and brainwashed to spy, denounce and kill, these children, scarcely as tall as the AK-47s in their hands, were given the power of life and death over city people and peasants alike.

In 1980, a year after the Khmer Rouge's defeat, I returned to Cambodia for the first time. The visions of evil still linger in my mind.

The countryside was littered with pits full of skulls. The city was a wasteland of decaying buildings and distraught people trying
desperately to re-establish their lives. An entire country had to be rebuilt.

I found only one friend from the past, a once-delicate city girl whom the Khmer Rouge had turned into a rough peasant. Her hair was clipped short, her copper-coloured skin had coarsened in the sun and her beautiful hands were covered in sores. "Maman morte, bebe morte," she said with a look of profound sadness.

Nearby was Tuol Sleng, the lycee the Khmer Rouge had operated as an extermination camp. Its doors had been the portals of death for 16,000 inmates. The classrooms were divided into tiny brick cells where prisoners were held in solitary confinement, chained naked to iron beds. There were gallows outside to suspend the prisoners by their feet; stone vats of water into which they were plunged head first.

Among the victims were a handful of westerners captured by the Khmer Rouge whom they savagely murdered as spies. According to the Khmer Rouge's accounts, they were repeatedly hanged by the feet, let down into a vat of water and hanged again, to die at last of strangulation.

Even if he had not perished last week, there was never much prospect that Pol Pot would ever be made to answer for his crimes. Cambodia is still too broken, too frightened by its bloodwashed past, to have considered putting him on trial by itself.

It is a country where perpetrators and victims of the genocide live uneasily side by side. All its main political players, including
Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen, the prime minister, have at one time or another been linked with Pol Pot. The record of some foreign powers is also dubious. President Bill Clinton was said last week to have wanted to bring Pol Pot to justice. But what country would have been entitled to arrest the tyrant? Hardly America. By bombing Cambodia in 1970 it helped destabilise the country and bring about Pol Pot's rise.

When Pol Pot's soldiers were driven into the jungle by the Vietnamese, China rearmed them. The United Nations initially continued to recognise Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate representatives of Cambodia.

That the world's greatest mass murderers were sustained as they were being condemned for their appalling human rights record is a shameful story that many governments would prefer to be kept under wraps.

With Pol Pot's demise, the impetus to prosecute other Khmer Rouge leaders whose hands are washed in blood may be lost for ever. But Cambodia, still dangerously unsettled, needs to confront its past.

Cambodians believe that the spirit returns after death. Unless they face their history, Pol Pot's malevolent spirit will hover over their beautiful and sad little country for ever more.


Death Toll: 1.5-2m people, a fifth of the Cambodian population, were killed or died from famine and disease which were a direct result of Khmer Rouge policies

Grave Pits: 5,192 mass burial sites have been identified so far. Experts believe 20,000 may be scattered across the country.

Religion: Thousand's of Cambodia's Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and religion was banned in Pol Pot's atheist state. Only a few hundred of the pre war population of 60,000 monks survived.

Education: All schools were closed and teaching was forbidden. Books were burnt and people who wore glasses hunted down. All musical instruments were destroyed or banned.

Medical care: Only a few dozen doctors survived the purge of the educated classes. Hospitals were emptied.

(c) 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd