THE 15th APRIL EVENT
The greatest fear, sadness and pain that have been with me for 44 years is the event that happened on the 15th of April 1977 in Cambodian New year day at my home commune : Kok Thlok Leu. That even was later known as the 15th April Event, one of many crimes done by the Khmer Rouge regime.
At that day, my father and other more than 100 innocent people were killed cruelly, so this was the reason I had to write this book not just for my family’s story but as well to be a historical document for the newer generation to learn.
In the book, I included other events that report about other people were killed in the same areas and at about the same time. I believe those events have not been written down yet and would be forgotten when the live witnesses pass away.
By following a Buddhist expression that says < stop further revenging by not revenging>, my purpose to write this book is not to revenge, discriminate or to hate anybody, but just to be a lesson for our new generation to know.
- General information
- Some key words and Khmer Rouge expression.
- The fall of Siem Reap
- The “ 3 Tons of Rice Per Hectare Plan”
- The arrival of the South-West Zone comrades.
- The death signs.
- My family’s greatest sadness.
- The Enemy Destruction Operation.
- The killing fields nowadays.
- The executors lives.
- My own points of views.
- My father’s background.
The war in Cambodia started in 1970 between Lon Nol government and the communist Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge followed strongly Mao Tse Tung’s ideology. At the first 3 years of the war, they were trained and supported by the Viet Cong forces who had been in Cambodia since 1960’s. They quickly won many military operations and took control all over the country side, about 80% of the country. In 1973, they were strong enough to fight, they asked the Viet Cong to leave Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t have good weapons, didn’t have salary, and starved, but they were tough fighters and very cruel. They found any body from the other side to be enemy, must be killed.
In contrast, because of corruption, Lon Nol government got many losses in fighting, their control sites shrank and finally they stayed just in city centers. In the other hands, because of bombing, many people fled from country side to the cities: the rice fields were abandoned, more and more people to eat in the cities. Inflation got worst and worst, the government lived on the USA’s aids only.
Pol Pot and Nuon Chea were the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge. When they planned to finally defeat Lon Nol government, they also drafted a guideline what to do next, later known as The 8-Article Guideline below:
- To evacuate all the cities. The people from the cities would be called the New People, the people in Khmer Rouge control area would be called the Old People.
- To shut down the markets.
- To abolish currency.
- All Buddhist monks must be defrocked
- To kill all the people who worked Lon Nol government
- Establish co-operative system all over the country.
- To send all Vietnamese out of Cambodia.
- To send most of arm forces to Cambodia-Viet Nam border.
SOME KEY WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS
- Angkar: The Khmer Rouge leaders (normally upper level) and sometimes referred to their revolutionary organization. In all the meetings, the spoke men always claimed to be Angkar’s representative.
- Comrade: the Khmer Rouge officers or soldiers.
- Rice can buy everything: This expression was used during the campaign of the “3 Tons Of Rice Per Hectare Plan”.
- To stop grass not to grow back, just uproot it: They used this expression to be the reason to kill people with family members to prevent them from revenging. In an organization, if the boss is arrested and killed, they have to kill all the people under his/her management/governance.
- If we keep them (alive), we won’t gain anything. If we take them away (kill them), we won’t lose anything: This expression was used when someone had been taken away and to warn other people to work harder.
- We kill 10 innocent people rather than let an enemy escape: They called the people they killed to be “ enemies”.
THE FALL OF SIEM REAP CITY
In the early morning, the city center was very quiet. People gathered around radio, paid attention to the broadcast. We knew Phnom Penh was about to fall down to Khmer Rouge. At about 6h45 AM we heard an announcement by a Lon Nol government general to appeal the armed forces to drop down weapons and to fly up white flags. Later on we heard a khmer Rouge comrade calling all the top leaders of Lon Nol government to go to the Ministry of Information headquarter for a negotiation. At 7:15 we heard another announcement by a Khmer Rouge saying that “ this victory is from our cannons, not from negotiation”. ( they already caught and killed the top leaders at the Ministry of Information headquarter).
Because of the news above, Siem Reap prepared to give up.
In late afternoon, Khmere Rouge soldiers walked in the city center, and took control all over.
In the morning of 18th April, hospitals, schools, markets, … were shut down. Everybody must stay at home. Khmer Rouge soldiers in small groups moved from house to house to tell people who worked for the government as soldiers, police and governor’s administration to leave the city. They caught them on the way, killed them but people in the city didn’t know.
2 weeks later they announced the rest of the people including civilians, teachers doctors and other skill workers to leave by walking, not allowed to use cars/motorbikes and carriages. My father used to be a teacher so our family left the city at that day too. We headed to the East direction, tried to get back to our home village, Tapia village in Kok Thlok Leu commune, Chokreng district, 70km away. For 4 days and four nights of walking finally we got to the destination but we were not allowed to stay there, instead we had to walk to another place they had prepared for us: just in the jungle. Over 100 families were there and about 20 were teacher families. We had to cut down the trees to build shelters.
About 2 weeks later all boys and girls who were single were called to live and work in concentrate camps. The work we did was to dig out the ground to make irrigation system and in the rainy season we planted rice. We were not allowed to come home to visit our families. We moved from one to another camp to work all over the Chikreng district. In early 1977, myself, Kek and Kaing were appointed to do fishing in the Tonle Sap lake to supply fish to a concentrate camp, about 20 km away.
At the villages, many co-operatives were established. Parents could stay at home with families, but they had to go out to farm rice together with other villagers and ate together at the kitchen of the village.
Regarding to the 5th article of the 8-Article Guideline (to kill the people who worked for Lon Nol government), different district chiefs had different levels of their practice:
- At Chikreng district where I was, they just killed the military/police officers if they were in the rank <Sergent-Chef> or lower. For higher rank, they killed the whole family with anybody who lived with them. However, civilians ( teachers, doctors, …… ordinary people) were free.
- At Svay Leu district, north and next to Chikreng, they killed all the families who worked for Lon Nol government, even intellectuals. Only ordinary people were free. I lost my father’s cousin (who used to be a professor at a high school) with other 6 people in his family.
- At Baray district (my wife‘s home town), they killed all the New People without exception. My wife lost 2 brothers and other 5 people in their families. (when she was evacuated from Siem Reap, she was heading back to her home village, but luckily on the way a Khmer Rouge changed her destination).
THE “ 3 TONS OF RICE PER HECTAR PLAN”
After the victory over Lon Nol government, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea who were very proud of their leadership. They claimed the Khmer Rouge party to be a very wise organization, then they planned to build up Cambodia based on agriculture. The key strategy was to increase the rice yield from 1.5 tons per hectare, to be 3. They didn’t care about human resources (instead they killed all the engineers and many labor workers), rejected science (machinery/technology/research, ….) and modern management.
All the lands belonged to the state only, everyone had to join rice planting. We worked very hard: more than 10 hours a day ( in the sun heat, sometimes in the rain), 7 days a week, 2 little meals a day with big lack of nutrition, no social welfare at all, …. Many people died, sick of overwork and starvation. Finally, the Plan failed.
Pol Pot and Nuon Chea didn’t believe their idea was wrong. They blamed their junior officers (Zone level) to had betrayed Angkar. The North Zone Governor (Siem Reap was in the North), was the first to be arrested and sent to the S 21 Security Center in Phnom Penh. Pol Pot sent comrades from the South-West Zone to arrest and kill the North Zone comrades. It occurred in all over Siem Reap at the end of 1976 and early 1977.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE SOUTH-WEST COMRADES
In early 1977 I saw the arrival of the Southwest comrades to Chikreng District. Tasok claimed to be the new chief of the District. Soon after his arrival he called the previous chief for meeting but arrested and sent them to Siem Reap city center to be killed there. After that, Tasok went around and told people that the previous District chief betrayed Angkar. The policy of Angkar was to have schools for children, pagoda for Buddhist people, markets for business, people didn’t have work hard, had good food to eat, ….. Sometimes he cried in the meeting to show his pity, so people were excited to hear that and started to believe him.
At all the meetings he incited people to stand up against all the officers of the previous District chief. From day to day, week to week they started to trust Tasok. Finally in early April, a strike occurred. The strikers moved from one to another village, from one to another commune all over the district and killed some Khmer Rouge comrades by using axes and knives. They tried to occupy the army base in Mkak village but not successful because the soldiers there still had a gun and committed to fight back till the last minute. Finally they got a letter from Tasok that he would go to help them on the 15th of April. People were very happy with the news and they waited for that day.
THE DEATH SIGNS
- In march 1977 some mango trees in Kok Thlok pagoda got some big marks from the lower to higher trunks. The marks were in the shape of people’s feet about 30 to 50 cm long. People surprised of that and some believed that something would happen.
- Comrade Unn was worked in Kok Thlok Leu Commune. He was a good guy so the strikers didn’t kill him but just told him to stay at home. He was my father’s cousin. An evening he went to visit my father and talked together about the country situation. At the end of the chat they played a game by using fingers to be knives cut each other throats. Nobody noticed that game was the sign of their death.
- My younger sister, Khem, got serious leg wound, couldn’t walk far. One day she crawled about 50 m away to see my father planting some yum plants.
He told her ” nowadays we live in a bad situation, I don’t think I can live long. However I will not escape, but die here for all of you to see my bones. When I’m gone, please look after your grandma for me”.
<When writing his words and later whenever I read, I cannot stop my tears>
THE TRAGEDY DAY
From the early morning on the 15th April 1977, in the entire Kok Thlok Leu Commune, ladies got up to cook for the men to do a special task. Everyone kept looking to the South direction, waiting for Angkar to come to help.
Only Mr Uon and a few people who knew that Angkar would come to crack people down, not to help, because the day before a Khmer Rouge soldiers came to him, asked to inform his parents to do not join the strike. He said < Angkor is going to crack down the strike. Myself is here to do that in Tayek Commune ( another commune in Chikreng district). Mr Uon told other people about that but only a few people believed him.
That morning my father dressed up and told my mother that he would go to meet Angkar, after that he would go to Tonle Sap lake to take me home. When uncle Von came, he kissed my younger sister (Maly) who was just a few months old, smiled at everyone and walked out. My grandmother, my mother, and all brothers and sisters just watched him walking away and they didn’t know it was the last time they saw him.
At about 7:30, three vehicles arrived to Khla Khmum village. Tasok was at the first car ,a Jeep, followed by another Jeep with about 5-6 soldiers. The last vehicle was a Chinese made military truck with about 20 to 30 soldiers, all were armed with AK-47 and M-79. They wore black dresses, red scarf around the neck and Chinese cap, bottom hems pulled up. From distance Tasok saw some villagers scattering in groups with axes and knives, so he ordered soldiers to walk two rows to surround the village. When he got to the middle of the village he stopped his car and asked people there: what are you going to do with these axes and knives? Luckily uncle Uon was there. He quickly answered to the question: “we are going to cut down the trees to farm rice”. Tasok nodded his head and suggested people to go early. He then ordered his soldiers to come back to the truck and continue his trip.
10mn later the convoy arrived to Trapeang Veng village. A man name Ait with an ax in his hand thought those were the supporters. He run out from his house toward them and told them that he’s a striker. Suddenly a soldier shot him to death and asked another villager: who is he? New or Old people? The answer was “New”. Immediately Tasok ordered the soldiers to go around to call people for a meeting at another side of the village.
Around 100 people were forced to go at the rice paddy near a wooden bridge.
Uncle Ree, 30 years-old, just came down from a sugar palm tree, was also told to go for the meeting. He had known about Ait’s killing earlier, so he put 2 hand grenades in his shorts, committed to fight back till last minute rather than being killed easily. At the meeting place he saw comrade Sim who used to be monk with him at Kok Thlok Pagoda. He also saw comrade Yee, 22 yeas-old, from the same village with comrade Sim. In the 2nd Jeep, uncle Ree saw a container of rice wine, understood why Yee and other comrades were drunk with red eyes.
In the meeting Tasok said: “our revolution is now going ahead but the challenge is some enemies among us still try to destroy it. In fact so far they killed our comrades. We must kill them” . After that he let ladies and children to go back home and kept all men. The soldiers used nylon rope to tie them up tightly by putting the arms to the back till the left and the right arms touched each other. It must be very painful because blood circulation in the arms was stopped. Comrade Sim protected uncle Ree not to be tied.
Uncle Khann, because of the pain in his arms too much, he reacted to them by shouting “ I am so painful, you can kill me with any tool you want”. He cursed them a lot. Suddenly, Yee and his comrades run to him and 9 others, tied them together in group, pushed them to a bush 100 meters away and killed them by using knife to cut their throats. They came back with bloody knives and took the 2nd group, then 3rd and 4th. My father was in the 2nd group.
Uncle Ree was the only one person who freely saw the entire tragic scene. Tasok told him “ go to the village and collect all knives and axes, put on the road side. When coming back I will take”. Comrade Sim added and pointed to the killing bush. “ call some people to burry them”.
When they left, uncle Ree went to the village and called a few people to go with hoes to the killing field. When he got there, he was very panic to see many bodies with legs over each other and heads with bloody faces almost cut out from their necks. He and other people used hoes to dig the hard ground and put the body in one by one in one grave. For the bodies they knew, they put the heads to different direction, easy to tell their relatives to find them later. For my father, uncle Ree put a short tree trunk on as a mark to find him later. They cut the rope from the arms before they buried.
The murderers’ convoy now headed to Kok Thlok pagoda, 3km north of Trapeang Veng village. When they went pass Sangke village, they saw a group of people at a public house. Those people were wondering what happened at Trapeang Veng. Without any question, Tasok ordered to tight them up and killed them by cutting their throats. One of the victims was Yee’s uncle. Actually, Yee didn’t want to kill him, just kicked him to fall down on the ground, pretended to kill him and told his uncle to pretend to die. Unfortunately, uncle Nov didn’t understand that trick: he shouted to Yee “ do you want to kill your own uncle?” He worried if Tasok noticed he got along with the enemy, he killed him.
After that, they moved to Kok Thlok pagoda. Over there, the soldiers went around the surrounding villages and forced men to go for a meeting at the pagoda. At that time, they didn’t give a speech, but just tied people up, seized tobacco and lighters, told them to sit on the ground with legs straight forward. There were over 100 people, some of them were the Old People.
Comrade Sim was from a village nearby, so he knew many of the Old People. He talked with Tasok and finally those people were released, then only the New People to be killed.
Each time they killed, they used another rope to tie them in group of 3 to 5, killed them only about 50m away where the rest of people could see. They used a bamboo stick to hit the victim’s necks to make them fall down to the ground, then used knives to cut throats. When they came back to take another group, the showed the bloody knives and asked : who want to be next? It was very terrible!
In total, 72 people were killed at Kok Thlok pagoda.