Return to Saang

Villagers in this town stretched out along the Bassac River speak only with reluctance about Cambodia’s recent traumatic past.

2006-04-14
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SAANG, Cambodia,

May, 1970. Correspondent Dan Southerland covered the American invasion of Cambodia. Photo courtesy Dan Southerland
I find few scars of war and conflict here that might remind them of what happened when the Khmer Rouge took over the country and killed more than 1 million—some say as many as 2 million—of Cambodia’s people.

Nor does the Cambodian government encourage discussion of the subject. Cambodian schools teach little about it.

My colleague Kem Sos and I have come to this town southeast of Phnom Penh to ask people about their radio listening habits and learn what they know, if anything, about avian flu, a subject that our radio reports on nearly every day.

But we also picked this town because I spent a few tense hours here in the early 1970s, when war erupted and Saang became a battleground. I wanted to see what it looks like today.

In the early stages of the Cambodian war, I interviewed a Cambodian army general in Saang who assured me that despite his army’s retreat from a wide swath of territory in eastern Cambodia, he had the situation fully under control.

The general, named Sosthene Fernandez, had ensconced himself in a wicker chair next to a farmhouse. He munched on a stick of sugar cane.

Not far into the conversation, we began to take incoming fire from a sniper. This signaled the arrival of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops who had been operating in the area.

The Cambodian army wasn’t inclined to patrol beyond its immediate perimeter. So life was full of surprises.

I decided that I would be safer moving down into the trenches with the Cambodian troops, who were beginning to return fire, rather than remain above ground with the general. I took a few pictures of the men in the trenches, crawled from there to my car, and then asked my driver to get us back to Phnom Penh as quickly as possible.

Brig. Gen. Fernandez, I concluded, was one of the least competent generals in the Cambodian army.

At Saang, as I wrote at the time, Fernandez achieved a certain notoriety when he marched about a hundred Vietnamese civilians carrying a white flag out to the front lines to tell the Viet Cong to stop invading Cambodia. Cambodian soldiers marched behind them.

A Vietnamese boy in Saang, along the Bassac River, is startled by the sight of a foreigner. Many ethnic Vietnamese still live in eastern Cambodia. Photo: Dan Southerland

The Viet Cong apparently tried to wave the group off, but opened fire when the civilians kept coming. The Cambodian troops also fired. At least four Vietnamese civilians were wounded.

But this did nothing to damage Fernandez’s reputation with the Cambodian leadership. Somehow the general eventually became commander of the Cambodian armed forces and, after being ousted from his post in March, 1975, survived the war by flying out of Phnom Penh.

In April, 1975, Saang, along with the rest of the country, came under Khmer Rouge control.

More than 30 years later, I’m back in Saang, asking a group of villagers to show me the old trenches.

There’s nothing left from the fighting, the villagers say. The Khmer Rouge filled in the trenches and most of the bomb craters. A few bomb craters serve as fish ponds.

What do the villagers remember from the period of Khmer Rouge control, from 1975-79, when the Vietnamese finally drove the Cambodian communists from power?

The Khmer Rouge forced the people to eat their meals together, commune style -- and the meals themselves tasted “close to pig food,” said one of the villagers.

Their work consisted mostly of hard labor.

“I was a dirt mover,” said Hong Noeun, now in his mid-40s. He was 14 years old at the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover.

The Khmer Rouge divided the people into three categories and began taking those in the third category off to be executed.

After the Khmer Rouge took over Saang, a man named Pol Sreng, who is now 75, heard that he was on a list of those “to be eliminated.”

“But too many had to be killed before they got to me,” he says. So he escaped death.

Pol Sreng doubts that the current Cambodian government, some of whose top leaders were members of the Khmer Rouge, will allow the people to learn more about the group –- such as how they came to power with the help of Vietnam, why they did what they did, and who gave orders to start the killing.

“They don’t want us to know,” said Pol Sreng, who seems happy just to be alive.

But plans are moving forward for a United Nations-supported trial of a handful of aging Khmer Rouge leaders. And this may offer, at long last, a chance to examine the past that so many wish they could forget.

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