flew low, following the Mekong River west from Vietnam. Once over
Cambodia, what we saw silenced all of us on board. There appeared
to be nobody, no movement, not even an animal, as if the great population
of Asia had stopped at the border.
were empty. Chairs and beds, pots and mats lay in the street, a
car on its side, a bent bicycle. Behind fallen power lines lay or
sat a single human shadow; it did not move. From the paddies, lines
of tall wild grass followed straight lines. Fertilized by the remains
of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, these marked
common graves in a nation where as many as two million people, or
more than a quarter of the population, were "missing."
At the liberation
of the Nazi death camp in Belsen in 1945, The Times correspondent
wrote: "It is my duty to describe something beyond the imagination
of mankind." That was how I felt in 1979 when I entered Cambodia,
a country sealed from the outside world for almost four years since
Year Zero had
begun shortly after sunrise on April 17, 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer
Rouge guerrillas entered the capital, Phnom Penh. They wore black
and marched in single file along the wide boulevards. At one o’clock,
they ordered the city abandoned. The sick and wounded were forced
at gunpoint from their hospital beds; families were separated; the
old and disabled fell beside the road. "Don’t take anything
with you," the men in black ordered. "You will be coming
came. An age of slavery began. Anybody who owned cars and such "luxuries,"
anybody who lived in a city or town or had a modern skill, anybody
who knew or worked with foreigners, was in grave danger; some were
already under sentence of death. Out of the Royal Cambodian Ballet
company of 500 dancers, perhaps 30 survived. Doctors, nurses, engineers,
teachers were starved, or worked to death, or murdered.
For me, entering
the silent, gray humidity of Phnom Penh was like walking into a
city the size of Manchester in the wake of a nuclear cataclysm which
had spared only the buildings. There was no power, no drinking water,
no shops, no services of any kind. At the railway station trains
stood empty at various stages of interrupted departure. Personal
belongings and pieces of clothing fluttered on the platforms, as
they fluttered on the mass graves beyond.
I walked along
Monivong Avenue to the National Library which had been converted
to pigsty, as a symbol, all its books burned. It was dreamlike.
There was wasteland where the Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral had
stood; it had been dismantled stone by stone. When the afternoon
monsoon rains broke, the deserted streets were suddenly awash with
money. With every downpour a worthless fortune of new and unused
banknotes sluiced out of the Bank of Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge
had blown up as they fled.
Inside, a checkbook
lay open on the counter. A pair of glasses rested on an open ledger.
I slipped and fell on a floor brittle with coins.
For the first
few hours I had no sense of even the remains of a population. The
few human shapes I glimpsed seemed incoherent, and on catching sight
of me, would flit into a doorway. A child ran into a wardrobe lying
on its side which was his or her refuge. In a crumbling Esso filling
station an old woman and three emaciated infants squatted around
a pot containing a mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over
a fire fueled with paper money: such grotesque irony: people in
need of everything had money to burn.
At a primary
school called Tuol Sleng, I walked through what had become the "interrogation
unit" and the "torture and massacre unit." Beneath
iron beds I found blood and tufts of hair still on the floor. "Speaking
is absolutely forbidden," said a sign. "Before doing something,
anything, the authorization of the warden must be obtained."
After a while,
one sound had a terrible syncopation: rising and falling day and
night. Without milk and medicines, children were stricken with preventable
disease like dysentery. It seemed that the very fabric of the society
had begun to unravel. The first surveys revealed that many women
had stopped menstruating.
this was the isolation imposed on Cambodia by the West because its
liberators, the Vietnamese, had come from the wrong side of the
cold war, having driven America out of their country in 1975. Cambodia
had been the West’s dirty secret since President Richard Nixon and
his national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered a "secret
bombing," extending the war in Vietnam into Cambodia in the
early 1970s, killing hundreds of thousands of peasants. "If
this doesn’t work," an aide heard Nixon say to Kissinger, "it’ll
be your ass, Henry." It worked in handing Pol Pot his chance
to seize power.
When I arrived
in the aftermath, no Western aid had reached Cambodia. Only Oxfam
defied the Foreign Office in London, which had lied that the Vietnamese
were obstructing aid. In September 1979, a DC-8 jet took off from
Luxembourg, filled with enough penicillin, vitamins and milk to
restore some 70,000 children — all of it paid for by Daily Mirror
readers who had responded to my reports and Eric Piper’s pictures
in two historic issues of the paper which sold every copy.
from the Mirror, on October 30, 1979, ITV broadcast Year
Zero: the silent death of Cambodia, the documentary I made
with the late David Munro. Forty sacks of post arrived at the ATV
studios in Birmingham, with 1 million in the first few days. "This
is for Cambodia," wrote an anonymous Bristol bus driver, enclosing
his week’s wage. An elderly woman sent her pension for two months.
A single parent sent her savings of 50. People expressed that unremitting
sense of decency and community which is at the core of British society.
Unsolicited, they gave more than 20 million. This helped rescue
normal life in faraway country. It restored a clean water supply
in Phnom Penh, stocked hospitals and schools, supported orphanages
and reopened a desperately needed clothing factory.
Such an extraordinary
public outpouring broke the US and British governments’ blockade
of Cambodia. Incredibly, the Thatcher government had continued to
support the defunct Pol Pot regime in the United Nations and even
sent the SAS to train his exiled troops in camps in Thailand and
Malaysia. Last March, the former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, now a best-selling
author, lamented in a newspaper interview "when John Pilger,
the foreign correspondent, discovered we were training the Khmer
Rouge in the Far east [we] were sent home and I had to return the
10,000 we’d been given for food and accommodation."
Pot is dead and several of his elderly henchmen are on trial in
a UN/Cambodian court for crimes against humanity. Henry Kissinger,
whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is
still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on
an often seedy tourism and sweated labor.
For me, their
resilience remains almost magical. In the years that followed their
liberation, I never saw as many weddings or received as many wedding
invitations. They became symbols of life and hope. And yet, only
in Cambodia would a child ask an adult, as a twelve-year-old asked
me, with fear crossing his face: "Are you a friend? Please
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His latest book is Freedom
Next Time: Resisting the Empire.