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Phnom Penh Before the Fall: A Reporter’s Memory

Forty years ago this week, Cambodia was careening toward the end of a bloody war, poised on the verge of an unspeakable holocaust as the violent Khmer Rouge prepared to enter the nation's capital. For six weeks, David A. Andelman, now editor and publisher of World Policy Journal, then a correspondent for The New York Times, lived through the worst of times in the steaming capital, packed with 2 million refugees, pounded relentlessly by communist rockets. Here, he recalls the time he spent in this war-torn country in a story for the Khmer Times that will appear in expanded form in his forthcoming memoir.

  By David A. Andelman  

It was just before 2 pm on February 26, 1975 when the twin-engine Air Cambodge prop plane arrived over Pochentong Airport and began a series of downward spirals until we touched down. This “falling leaf” pattern was designed to thwart Khmer Rouge gunners targeting incoming flights. We taxied quickly to a three-sided enclosure of sandbags. The door opened, and there, waiting at the stairs was Sydney Schanberg.

“What are you standing there for?” he barked. “They’re shelling the airport. Run for it!” I looked up at the three-story terminal and realized that a wall of glass windows, was actually empty aluminum window frames. The glass had long ago been blown out. So I ran for it, hard on Schanberg’s heels. Welcome to Cambodia, to my first war.

We headed down the narrow, divided road into town, going a good seventy miles an hour—on the wrong side. “The KR artillery are just within range of the other side of the road,” Schanberg explained.

The evidence that I’d arrived in the heart of a war zone was all around as our car slowed at the outskirts of Phnom Penh. All around, and nowhere. There was still vibrancy in this city. It was sheltering some two million people—a far cry from the 50,000 who called Phnom Penh home back in final French colonial days of the early 1950s. It was now swelled to overflowing by the surge of refugees, driven into the center of an iron circle the Khmer Rouge was tightening around the capital. Sadly, I was barred from even a glimpse of this magical land beyond a five or ten mile radius from the central square.

Shells Hit the City

The vibrancy of Phnom Penh was merely a façade. This was a city gripped with fear and the increasingly deadly realities of every day life. Each day some new salvo of rockets and artillery would send shells into every quarter of town. The reporters and photographers gathered in our hotel would listen for the direction of the telltale blasts, then pile into cars and go racing off to track down the mayhem.

Schanberg had found one of these sallies—a Chinese-made 107-millimeter rocket—struck the classroom of an elementary school in central Phnom Penh at 9:30 in the morning. Some 30 children were studying French in the Wat Phnom School. Fourteen, all under 12, were killed by the “shrapnel fragments [that] rained on the children through the thin corrugated room,” Schanberg reported.

“In the small schoolyard, children were running everywhere—bleeding, shrieking uncontrollably and sobbing in shock.” Schanberg wrote. The force of the blast had propelled some body parts into nearby trees, embedded in the trunks.

At the Hotel Phnom (now Raffles Le Royal) I found few amenities. For the next two months, I’d stretch out in my bed surrounded by mosquito netting and write my stories on my Lettera 32 portable typewriter by the light of a kerosene lamp. Of course, there was no electricity—except for a couple of hours once or twice a week, or all night whenever an army general bunked in with one of his lady friends. On those halcyon nights, we’d rush to fill the bathtub and sink with water as the pumps kicked in.

Dith Pran

Over breakfast in the sprawling dining room of the Hotel Phnom, where large ceiling fans barely stirred the steaming air, I got to know my fellow hacks and photographers.

At the table my first morning was Al Rockoff—one of the single oddest, most fearless and most supportive human beings. If you were his friend, you were his friend for life and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to protect and befriend you.

My most immediate concern was with Schanberg and his amanuensis, fixer, translator and soul mate to both of us. This was Dith Pran. Born in Siem Reap just outside Angkor Wat on September 27, 1942, he was almost exactly two years older than I was.

But in terms of our understanding of his surroundings, we were light years apart. Pran, a gifted photographer, was equally accomplished as a journalist, with a deep and penetrating understanding of people and society, but especially of Cambodia. For the time I would pass in Cambodia, Pran was my guardian angel, interpreter, the prism through which I saw his country and the terrible traumas through which it was passing in the final weeks of a war that had gone on far too long.

French Planters in Denial

Phnom Penh itself was a fascinating corner of the universe. A unique amalgam of French colonial architecture and city planning grafted onto a Southeast Asian provincial capital. The French influence was still a very real presence. Each afternoon, a small gaggle of French rubber planters would gather around the pool in the Hotel Phnom and speculate on life after the Khmer Rouge takeover—all but oblivious to the reality that awaited them.

Phnom Penh itself consisted of a collection two- and three-story buildings with the occasion four or five story structure towering over them, all in cream-colored stucco, many with ornate colonnade terraces and balconies, looking down on broad avenues clogged with cyclos. The open-air stalls of Cambodian peasants, many with produce brought that morning from the countryside, operated cheek by jowl with small shops, often owned by the overseas Chinese community.

A small clutch of embassies remained—dominated by the French, which looked after the interests of a host of relief workers and agencies. At the American embassy, the ambassador, John Gunther Dean and especially his military attachés continued to call in air strikes by American warplanes on targets out in the countryside.

On March 5, 1975 David A. Andelman prepares to ride east on National Road 1 toward ever shifting front lines with the Khmer Rouge (photo by Dith Pran)

Inflation: Bricks of Riels

Inflation was a daily reality. U.S. dollars were exchanged daily on the black market. I had “pigeoned” in several thousand dollars worth of green, which our driver would exchange for by then all but worthless riels. On the day for settling our hotel accounts, he’d appear with large shopping bags filled with bricks of thousand and five thousand riel notes. Each brick was worth just a dollar or two. We’d pile them in huge stacks on the front desk of the hotel as the cashier solemnly counted them up.

Each time it would take a few more stacks, as inflation continued to soar. The entire economy, it seemed, was balanced on two legs of a stool—American aid, which continued to pour into the federal treasury, and vast quantities of rice, airlifted in on a constant parade of cargo flights by relief organizations.

On March 5, I decided it was time to visit “the front.” Pran found two motorbikes, and with each of us riding pillion, we set off down Highway One on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River. A couple of miles south of town, we pulled to a stop by a small collection of huts and a few roadside stands. A dirt track ran down into the brush and Pran asked if it was safe. The locals assured him that if we halted at a wat a mile or so into the jungle, we’d be fine. It was the command post for a small platoon of “our” forces that had engaged the Khmer Rouge.

Sure enough, 20 minutes down the path, we found the wat. Inside were a young Cambodian colonel, Van Dy, and an aide with a heavy combat radio. There was gunfire out beyond the clearing where we crouched. The captain pointed across to a tree line where his forces had engaged the Khmer Rouge. The colonel was on and off the radio, but seemed relatively unconcerned. What he was concerned about, was plummeting morale.

“The new troops are so afraid,” he said. He’d lost one third of his forces since the first of the year, when the Khmer Rouge had begun their offensive, overrunning a nearby town just the previous Friday.

“They don’t want to fight,” he said, describing his demoralized men. “And they want to be paid. So they leave the unit to go back to Phnom Penh for their paychecks.”

Surrounded

After an hour or so of conversation, we smiled, shook hands and said we’d go.

“Not the way you came in, I’m afraid,” the colonel smiled thinly. Seems that while we were chatting, the KR had circled back and cut the path we we’d come down. In short, we were surrounded. Suddenly, Pran looked not so happy. We both knew the fate of other journalists captured by the KR.

“Oh not to worry,” the captain continued brightly. “Give us a little while, and we’ll fight our way out.”

We had no choice. We waited. After an hour passed, the colonel announced the path had been cleared. “You’d best move quickly, though. And I’d stick to the path. They’re still out in the trees on both sides.” I suspect I never did a faster mile in my life.

Meanwhile, the war was continuing, day-by-day, with an increasing tempo of Khmer Rouge victories, pushing the American-backed forces of President Lon Nol increasingly back to the wall, seizing new and strategically critical territory. By this time, rumors began spreading that the President had actually fled the country—a key indication that all was lost.

Lon Nol Meets The Press

Not so, the Lon Nol contended, and to prove it, he invited seven of us to his lavish villa early on the morning of March 9 to “watch him walk in his garden.” It was to be the closest I ever got to America’s puppet who presided over the end of what passed for democracy in Cambodia.

The whole visit lasted less than 15 minutes. The president chatted quietly with his wife while two soldiers armed with pistols carried their two small daughters as ducks, geese, peacocks and monkeys scatted through the garden. I managed to shout one question at him, asking him how long he expected to remain in office.  At this, the President turned and “wished the reporters good morning.” My question was barely three weeks premature.

On March 13, I spent time with Cambodian refugees who’d seen their villages overrun by the Khmer Rouge, their men folk pressed into service as fighters, the women and children allowed to flee toward the capital—apparently in an effort to spread new fear and understanding that further resistance was futile.

The KR offensive of the 1975 dry season began the previous December. On January 1, their troops rolled through the village of Khleang Sbek, 15 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. The insurgents took most able-bodied males down to the age of 13 including all the men of one family and pressed them into service in the Khmer Rouge army. The rest of the village was forced to flee toward government lines and wound up in a squalid refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital.

Historic Patrimony for Sale

Late one evening, as I was in my hotel room pounding out my story, there was a gentle knock on the door.  It was a small Cambodian man, totally undistinguished. He asked if he might come in. He worked, he said, in the National Museum of Cambodia, at that time a repository of the world’s leading collection of ancient Khmer art and artifacts.

His proposal? For $50,000 ($210,000 today), he’d let me have the full run of the museum to take away as much as I wanted and could transport. I was stunned and horrified. So I told him the truth. First, as a humble scribe, there was no earthly way I could get my hands on that kind of money. But especially, I didn’t think it was at right for a Times correspondent—or indeed anyone else—to be involved in what was essentially the theft of the national patrimony. Of course, my visitor saw it differently as he slunk off into the night.

I didn’t think much more about this. Until two years later, when one day I was in London, strolling through the gallery district. I chanced upon a display window in a very upscale auction house. There, staring back at me were several items I recognized as once a part of the Cambodian Museum collection.

Scoop!

Meanwhile, the war was winding rapidly towards its denouement. Quite a lot of folks were taking this opportunity to split. Late on Saturday evening, March 29, Pran slid into my room and said he’d been talking with a friend at the Post Office responsible for transmitting coded cables from the president’s office.

He had been able, during long hours of boredom, to decipher the rather unsophisticated cipher being used, and the messages he’d just transmitted included the itinerary for President Lon Nol in his flight from the country.

This was the very news we’d all been waiting for—and expecting, of course, for some time. It was the final indication that all was lost and the president was saving his hide. Still, no one had yet been able to obtain definitive word, and I was suspicious. If true, it was a world scoop that no one else would have. If false, or premature, even for a day, we would look like fools or worse. So I asked Pran to take me to his source.

The telex operators showed me originals of the cables, explained the cipher. Pran was confident. They convinced me. So on the front page of Sunday’s Times, with a Sunday morning dateline, indicating that I’d filed the story well after midnight, I reported the President’s imminent departure.

Quite simply, the Khmer Rouge were winning the war outright on the ground. And their opponents’ leaders were fleeing for their lives, a maneuver open to few of their hapless countrymen. On April 1, two days after my scoop, Lon Nol, his family and government officials—thirty-two in all—boarded a helicopter for Pochentong Airport, then an Air Cambodge Caravelle jet. As I watched the departure, several KR rockets hit the airfield, less than 200 yards from their aircraft, which managed to get off the ground without incident.

Refugees Clog City Center

By now, my time in Phnom Penh also was drawing to a close. On April 5, I filed my final story, describing the grim conditions. Refugees from the fighting around Phnom Penh were again fleeing toward the city center. One week earlier, I’d been at the refugee camp on Route 5 about five miles northwest of the capital—a bustling community of some 10,000 people.

On April 5, most had fled toward downtown. The camp was largely deserted when I swung through quickly on a motorbike. We turned rapidly back to the city as small arms fire crackled through the camp from across the river where KR forces were also launching artillery shells and rockets that burst among the shanties.

In this new location, I found Am Min, who had just moved for the fourth time ahead of insurgent advances.

“If they attack I will move again,” she told me, as her hands, moved constantly in their mechanical work, weaving long dried reeds into mats on the wooden floor beneath her. “But someday I would like to go back to my own village if the war ends.”

Run for the Plane

For me, the war ended the next morning.

Though the big airlifts of rice and ammunition had been largely suspended, Air America, the CIA-backed airline whose slogan was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally,” was still running an occasional two-engine prop Fairchild C-123 Provider in and out of Pochentong. The brought war materiel and food in, and ferried people like me, out. I was told I could bring one suitcase only. At 10 am, I was out standing next to the taxiway as I saw the lumbering prop begin its falling leaf pattern.

The instant it landed, the flight was surrounded by ground workers, offloading its slim cargo.

They’ll keep the props turning, and you won’t have much time, I was told as I crouched in the tall grass and in the not very far distance shells were landing.

“OK, run for it,” my escort said. Dragging my suitcase, I ran for the open rear cargo door, heaved the bag in and leaped in behind it. Seconds later, the pilot started the takeoff roll, and we were in the air. Down below, I could see puffs of smoke just beyond the runway we’d left. An hour or so later, we were touching down in Bangkok. My war, and my last visit to Cambodia, was over.

The closest I would come, some weeks later, was the Thai border village of Aranyaprathet, where the world’s press gathered to await the arrival of western journalists and diplomats who had taken refuge inthe French embassy in Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge entered the city. The first convoy carried Schanberg and a number of his colleagues. Unable to escape, Pran was swept into the vortex that descended onto Cambodia.

*****

*****

David A. Andelman is editor and publisher of World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of David A. Andelman]

 

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