Forty-four years ago – on April 17, 1975 – a nightmare started for Cambodia and its entire population. On that day, after a brief battle on the outskirts of the city, Khmer Rouge fighters marched into the capital Phnom Penh and took control of the country.
The radical communist movement led by Pol Pol controlled the Southeast Asian nation until 1979, but in that brief period, a quarter of the population perished, with estimates of the dead ranging between 1.7 million and 3 million.
Three foreign photographers ventured onto the streets of Phnom Penh on April 17 and captured images of the victorious Khmer Rouge entering the besieged city. They took enormous risks to photograph the mysterious communist guerrillas who had a well-deserved reputation for brutality and taking no prisoners.
The images shot by American photographer Al Rockoff, Frenchman Roland Neveu and Japan’s Naoki Mabuchi, who passed away in 2011, are some of the most stunning ever taken in a war zone.
“When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, people lined up along the sides of the street waving, while loudspeakers announced ‘the war is over, do not resist,’” Rockoff recalled.
“People thought the worst was over … little did they know it had just begun,” said Neveu, who was 24 at the time. “For anyone familiar with Cambodia’s horrific past, or indeed anyone who survived the years of darkness at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, the 17th of April, 1975, was the day the nightmare started.
“It marked in people’s minds the date when the country began its descent into hell.”
The start of one of the world’s worst genocides was captured in both words and photographs in Neveu’s book The Fall of Phnom Penh, which is packed with images he took both before and after the fall of Cambodia’s capital city. Neveu also tells his own remarkable story of near death and survival while photographing one of the most murderous regimes the world has seen.
As Khmer Rouge fighters made their way into the city on the morning of April 17, none of the remaining foreign reporters and photographers who had taken refuge in the grounds of the French embassy knew what to expect.
“I had seen the badly decomposed or disfigured corpses of Khmer Rouge soldiers on several occasions on the front line, but this was the first time I’d seen one alive,” Neveu wrote.
“At first nobody moved as we knew it was not a simple case of being brave or foolhardy. Then, just across the road, a few excited children holding hastily-made white flags above their heads walked out of a side street to meet the approaching guerrillas.
“The ice was broken. Walking cautiously across the road, we approached the group, keeping an eagle eye on the whole area, feeling not entirely safe. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were probably enjoying their first moments of relative safety in many days since the operation to seize the city had begun.”
The calm did not last long. By early afternoon the Khmer Rouge were ordering all residents to leave the city with a minimum of belongings, the start of what turned out to be a death march for thousands. The city remained mostly empty until the Vietnamese invasion almost five years later. “Some soldiers were shooting in the air in order to force the inhabitants to flee the city,” Neveu said.
It has been estimated that at least 20,000 people perished during the evacuation of the capital. It marked the start of what many have referred to as “Year Zero,” with the Khmer Rouge emptying towns and cities and forcing city-dwellers to become slave laborers in the countryside. By some accounts, Phnom Penh’s population dropped from two million to 25,000 in only three days, and by the end of the Khmer Rouge rein in 1979, one in four Cambodians had died.
Foreigners were ordered to move to the large grounds of the French embassy, and Neveu, Mabuchi and Rockoff joined them after spending the day roaming the city. They took photos of various Khmer Rouge units and government soldiers surrendering and handing over their arms, which were being piled up on street corners, overseen by Khmer Rouge cadres.
There were some close calls before they made it to the safety of the embassy grounds.
Four years ago, Rockoff gave evidence at the international court in Phnom Penh investigating the crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge leadership and told of one close encounter.
“I photographed the collection of weapons; disarming of soldiers; a large group of soldiers traveling under guard being sent towards the Olympic Stadium,” the American said.
“I was standing next to Roland Neveu, and one of the cadres came up to him and asked in French: ‘Where are the Americans?’ Roland said: ‘They departed.’ I was very glad he did not ask me because I do not speak French.”
The large grounds of the French embassy quickly filled with people seeking refuge, but out on the streets the exodus was in full swing, and no one was spared.
“From where I stood, I could see groups of people heading north up the boulevard, including men, women and children,” Neveu wrote. “There was even a group of doctors or nurses pulling a cart with what appeared to be patients on it. I didn’t know yet that the nearby Calmette Hospital was also being forcibly emptied.”
The Bangkok-based Neveu still travels to Cambodia regularly and two years ago was employed as not only the stills photographer for Angelina Jolie’s movie First They Killed My Father, but also played a major role in recreating the scenes from Phnom Penh on April, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched into the city. His other movie credits include The Killing Fields, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, Rambo III, Casualties of War, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, Thelma & Louise, City of Ghosts, Bangkok Dangerous and many more.
The Fall of Phnom Penh is published in Thailand by Asia Horizons Books and is available at Amazon, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand, Asia Books and Kinokuniya. In Cambodia, both the French-language and English versions are for sale at Monument Books.