Today, large celebrations set to take place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to mark 40th anniversary of 'Victory Over Genocide Day'. Forty years ago, Norng Chan Phal was found by the Vietnamese soldiers and taken to the hospital when he was hiding in the pile of clothes after the Khmer Rouge fled, he shared with us his memory.
Forty years ago, Vietnamese tanks rolled through the capital Phnom Penh to signal the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Under the communist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge forced millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost. The brutal regime, in power from 1975 - 1979, claimed the lives of more than two million people.
Norng Chan Phal was only 8 or 9 years old when he was taken to the S-21 Prison, in which some 17,000 were detained and tortured under the Khmer Rouge regime. This prison, once a high school on a dusty road in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, was often called "earthly hell". His father had been imprisoned here in 1978, now Norng Chan Phal with his mother and younger brother shared the same fate, just about half a year later.
"My mother was sick and could not get off the truck by herself. They dragged her down and slapped on her face many times", Chan Phal said.
His mother was locked up in a cell on the second floor, while he and his younger brother were taken to the prison kitchen. "I saw her looking at us through the window. I never saw her again since then", he said.
During his time in the prison, Chan Phal got to take care of a vegetable garden and sleep near the pigsty. The meals of the two brothers are just porridge bowls.
In January 1979, when Vietnam’s volunteer soldiers came to liberate the capital of Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime at the request of the Cambodian revolutionary movement, Pol Pot's army quickly collapsed in panic.
In a hurry, prison guards of the S-21 Prison put prisoners on trucks to leave before the Vietnamese soldiers arrived. They shouted to call the Chan Phal brothers into the car, but they hid in a pile of clothes.
"When a woman dragged the children to the truck, I asked my younger brother to hide in a pile of clothes with me in the backyard of the prison. Because of the hurry to leave, they could not find us. I was hiding there and hoping my mother would come to find us", said Chan Phal.
After the Khmer Rouge left, Chan Phal ran around to find his mother. "I climbed to the second floor but did not see my mother. I ran to another building and found the bodies lying in the blood. I was scared, burst into tears and kept running", he said. After not seeing her mother and hearing gunshots, Chan Phal returned to hide in the pile of clothes. A few hours later, Vietnamese soldiers arrived and found five children in prison, one of whom died later.
After being rescued by Vietnamese soldiers, the Phal brothers were taken to the hospital then transferred into an orphanage. Years later, when visiting the prison - where the genocide museum now holds evidence of the Khmer Rouge crime, Chan Phal cries. "I looked at the place where I had seen my mother through the window. I was still heartbroken to remember when she was beaten by the Khmer Rouge", he said.
Today, casual travelers to Cambodia may not readily see signs of the tragedy brought on by the regime more than 40 years ago, but underneath Cambodia’s friendly veneer, the wounds still haunt the people. Contact us to customize your holiday to Cambodia, meet with the survivor of the Khmer Rouge while you are in Phnom Penh.