17 April 1975

April 17th, 1975 is a date every Cambodian knows.  It is the day Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge took over the country and forced everyone out of the cities and into the countryside and forced to work long hours as farmers.   Pot’s goal was to make Cambodia a class-less society- a strict Communist society.  Food was rationed, people starved and what little food that was harvested was shipped to China to buy more guns and ammunition.  Those who stole food were murdered on the spot.  Those who were too weak to work were no longer useful and killed.  Whole families were murdered as well because the Khmer Rouge were afraid if the surviving families members were to seek revenge.  Many died of disease and starvation.

In addition to moving city people to the countryside, the Pol Pot tortured and executed former government workers, anyone who was considered educated (including those who were simply wearing glasses), and anyone who had foreign contacts were also considered tainted.  Money, postal mail, gasoline, and vehicles were abolished.  Hospitals were closed down if favor of more traditional medicine.

We went to the S-21 Prison which was a former high school in the heart of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  The prison was used as a torture facility and once the soldiers were done with the victims they were shipped out to the Killing Fields and executed on arrival.  The Khmer Rouge took photos of all the prisoners, men, women and children, which are on display.  The beds and restraints are still in the cells.  Some days up to 100 people died at S-21.  The rest were killed at the Killing Fields.  Of the 20,000 that walked through the gates at S-21, seven survived and of those seven three are still alive today.

Next, we went to the Killings Fields.  The site is actually quite beautiful and it’s hard to imagine what atrocities went on here.  But, when you walk around the site you start to see beneath the peaceful surface.  The clothes of the victims still litter the ground.  You can even see bones sticking up from the walking path and you can’t help but walk right on them.  But, perhaps the most chilling part was the “Childen’s Tree” where children were murdered.  The soldiers held the children by their legs and swung around to hit the tree like a baseball bat.  How can someone do that to someone else?!?

Three years, eight months, and twenty days- that’s how long Pol Pot’s reign of terror lasted.  All Cambodians know that as well.  But, the dying did not end right away.  Hundreds of thousands more people died of famine and starvation after Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese.

Out of 7 million  – 2 million died.  Just over 25% of the population wiped out.  Today there are close to 13 million in which about half are under the age of 30.  Our Tour Leader, Poleak (pronounced Pollock), has brothers and sisters he’s never met because they died during the Khmer Rouge.  Poleak just found out an uncle is alive and well after his whole family thought he was dead.  His uncle escaped to California and has been living there ever since.  The uncle has been scared about coming back to visit Cambodia but has finally has the courage to do so.  He arrived in Cambodia sometime during our tour, and hopefully Poleak will get to meet him.

The trials for the Khmer Rouge started this year.  Don’t ask me why it takes so long??  To the fury of many surviving victims- Pol Pot died in the late 90’s of natural causes – no trial, no conviction, no justice for the victims.  It is also interesting to note that people blame Pol Pot for the deaths of so many people and not the Khmer Rouge.  Our guide for the S-21 Prison and Killing Fields as well as the book I’m reading about it all refer to the Khmer Rouge as one man and not as the many soldiers that carried out his orders.  “Pol Pot killed my family”  “Pol Pot tortured the inmates”  “I hate Pol Pot” “I want to kill Pol Pot”.

If you want to learn more pick up a copy of the movie “The Killing Fields” or the book “First They Killed My Father”.  Or do a Google search.  Or better yet come to Cambodia and see it first hand.

We left Phnom Penh this morning and headed to Vietnam.  I’ll be in Saigon for the next couple of days where I will learn very quickly how to cross the street in a sea of scooters.  Scooters are a family vehicle here.  I sometimes see a family of 4 or sometimes 5 on one scooter!!  Until next time…

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4 Responses to “17 April 1975”


  1. 1 Amy September 8, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Forget a math teacher, you should be a World History teacher

  2. 2 Kathy September 9, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    WOW, I was getting ready to graduate from highschool when that was taking place. What a tragic story….as I read it tears were falling down my face. I was telling one of my pilots about your visit, he said he was there in 1974 in the milatary and they were told to GET OUT, see what happen when they left. You are a wonderful writer I felt like I was there while reading it. Hurry up out of there……Luv you, Aunt Kathy

  3. 3 mandy September 12, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    that is awful! i can’t believe it only happened just a short time ago too. i don’t understand how something like that occurs. we are so lucky to be from the States.

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Where’s Stacy?

Stacy is in West Virginia and totally amazed by the power of Math. (Nerd, I know!)

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