Arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh

Okay, this is an interview with Pran Dith. First name, Pran, P-R-A-N, last name Dith, D-I-T-H.
Speed. Clapstick. Sound Thirteen.
Pran, why did you stay behind when your family was evacuated just at the end of the war?
Dith Pran:
Because, uh...
Just, “I stayed behind because...”
Dith Pran:
Oh, I stayed behind because, uh, I like the news, I want to see what’s going on in my eyes, instead of just listen to the rumor or to the people, maybe some people they just get, just look at the report, and they didn’t see himself, and uh, I’m some kind of person that’s different. I like to see in front of my eyes what’s going on, what happened to Cambodia.
What did you think would happen? What were your expectations as the Khmer Rouge came up to Phnom Penh?
Dith Pran:
Uh, first I thought that the Cambodian people, even I know they’re communists, they like socialism and communism, but I don’t think it’s it’s bad as when he came into power.
What did did you experience personally after the Khmer Rouge came into the city.
Dith Pran:
Uh, in the beginning it seemed to me it they look alright, but in just only a few hours become uh nasty, crucial, bad attitude, you can see them walking around. It’s like wild peoples coming down the street, to the city.
What happened to you?
Dith Pran:
Uh, I was arrested, and at that time, I didn’t pay attention to them, but what I care about the people who are living in hospital because the night before, uh, the Khmer Rouge came into the town, uh, there are many shelling attack. So we worry about the life of the civilian. So we know the place where we can find all these people is in hospital. And we went there to check what’s going on. How many doctor, how many nurses, and are there any doctor taking care of this wounded, all that, and after we look around, we saw not many doctors there, because they get scare about the Khmer Rouge, they worry about they get separation from their family, their home, and so they run out, go back to the home. And uh, when I get out from the building where all the wounded, all the bodies pile up, and then just a group of...
We have to change films.

Dith Pran's initial arrest and release

Okay. Clapstick. Sound Fourteen.
Dith Pran:
So, uh, when I came out from the building with uh, uh three, uh foreign correspondent, I mean uh two reporters and one photographer, and uh, about four or five Khmer Rouge came to us, and with the gun point, I get shot and everybody have to get their hands on their head. And they push us to the uh prisoner carrier, armor car, and put in the car, and then, first of all, they said, “We need only the foreigner.” And and the I try to get them, get in with them, and they say, “You can go out.”
And I have to fight and say, “Well, these people, they cannot speak uh language, Cambodian language, oh please let me go in so I can translate to you. And he take me for a while, and then he decides let me get in. And then when I get in, all of us in there, they still, uh, uh, try to find, are you American, these people are American and that time we pretend we are French. So, from that time I talked French, (laughs) and when we are there, there are two officers, marine officers that trap, also, was there and they get so scared those people.
And they talk around about twenty or thirty minutes and we all get sweat because we worry a lot about what’s going on, we don’t know, and these peoples look mean. They are young. And uh, about half an hour they unload us under the bridge, a broken bridge, and they let us sit down under the bridge. When I get out, I keep talking with the officer.
I can say he’s officer because they have uh, blue point pen and we were told that way the people who have blue point pen are officers and look older, then they keep talking, explain to them we are not soldiers, and we are journalists, international journalists. We want to find out what’s going on. And we want to see you peoples coming to town.
And we don’t want war, we so happy with you coming because from now on, no more war. And they really listen to me. And I explain to them that uh uh we already talk with you high officer in the Ministry of Information this morning. They say uh we were allowed to go and look around and then in two o’clock in the afternoon, you come back to the Ministry of Information and we will have a press conference for you.
And I said, “You better contact your top official because we came and we walk around here is we have a permission already.” And then he listen to me. He understand. And he send some messenger go to the Ministry of Information. And I keep talking, explain to them, to show them we against the war also, and we want to tell the world that your victory is is perfect because it can stop all the war. No more killing anymore.
And so on. I talk talk a lot, for several hours until the message come back, and they say it is alright, we can release you, now you can go where you want to go. And then we go straight to the Ministry of Information.
At that time we get some more diplomats, French who live there, and we go to the Ministry of Information, and when we we get there, the high official there, the Khmer Rouge high official, they give a little bit of a press conference.
They let us ask some question. And we, I saw the Lon Nol government people get surrender, or get arrested, they cut in one throat, including officer, uh minister, and some, all the high ranking official, about a few hundred at that time. And at that time I can speak English. I translate three languages. I was so excited.
Why? Because, uh, it seemed, uh, like, uh, they respect the international law, they let the press interview, so I unbelievable, I could speak, uh uh, three language in the same time. You know, I translate from Cambodian to French and French to English.
And uh, and uh, I think they was surprised. Because, why because uh it seemed like I was so excited because what I want is I want that way. I want, uh, each government, even your communists or free from the free countries. I want respect international press. I want the journalist people to see and to report the truth. So that’s uh, I’m really, but, you know, later on, I get in trouble again. We all get in trouble.

Journalists seek refuge at the French Embassy

Speed. And rolling. Clapstick Sound fifteen.
Dith Pran:
After the press conference is over, I uh, get into trouble. I fell because the Khmer Rouge said, “Well, we have a place for you for all the foreign press. Sly, you can stay with all the Cambodian official in Lon Nol side.”
And I say, that’s something. I don’t trust them anymore. And I said, I explained to the Khmer Rouge officer, I say, “Well, well we have a place in the Hotel La Plum, so we would like to go there because, uh, all our stuff, all our belonging in that place. And then, when we walk out, along the road, and...
By the way, you can see during the press conference the Khmer Rouge soldiers, they really pay attention like we all have arms, or we have weapon. And you can feel that uh stupid. You know, you protect with uh B-40 surrounding us, but is, but they point to the outside, but is, you know we in the heart of the city, why we make so tight security like that. And we we...and then on the road you can see all the Khmer Rouge soldier are very small.
And they look uh, funny faces, uh it seemed like they were puppet, really puppet. They they they did what their boss says to them. And they, it looks scary to me, and I told all the journalists, “You better walk, uh, don’t look their face, because if you look, they think we are something. They they they get angry or something. And we walk past to the hotel where we used to live, all the press used to base there with the Red Cross there.
And uh for us we thought that the Red Cross is safe. Because the Red Cross, they hang all the Red Cross flag there, and they want to be like a free zone or something. But when we get to the free zone, the Khmer Rouge with loudspeaker in hand, they say no one allowed to stay in this hotel. You have to move out to the countryside, and so on.
And then, now, uh, so we have, they say deadline is five o’clock. And we have about five minute. We have to rush in to the to the room and get some food. We stop because we prefer, because we understand that when the war broke through we cannot go shopping and so on. And we bring all our canned food, and pack food and then we put in our car, and we push uh, we drive slowly, and to the French Embassy, we decide.
So now, the Red Cross they don’t respect. So maybe the French Embassy because the French, it seemed like they stayed neutral during the war. So we go there to the French Embassy. And when we get...
We just ran out of film.

Escape from Phnom Penh

Film is much more expensive...
The tone is uh eight db below the peak level on the tape, zero on a VU meter. This tape’s recorded at seven and a half inches per second with sixty hertz crystal in the new sync. It’s transferred to 16mm film, twenty-four frames per second. We’re working for WGBH t.v., this is the Vietnam show, number thirteen, Legacies. Today is 7-8-83 I’m John Hampton and we’re on camera roll twelve. Sound roll sixteen is up. This is sound roll number seven. Clapstick. Take Sixteen.
Dith Pran:
And uh, (clears throat) and we get to the French Embassy, and you can see in the French Embassy’s full of civilian, full of politician, full of all kind of people. So, uh, the French had to close all the gate. And they put the sign say this is the French Embassy in Cambodian.
And they have the French flag, so to let the Khmer Rouge. They really respect uh, a little bit, uh at least they get more per priority. And uh, what we do, we had to climbs on the wall, uh, of the French Embassy, and go in, and uh, all the Westerner, they go in to talk with the Frenchmen, and I’m Cambodian, I have to stay on the grass for awhile, until some like midnight and then see maybe found a place in the building, so he come and told me go in.
And I stayed inside. And uh, that, and then, I think two three days later, and the Khmer Rouge come. And they told the French people say uh, uh, we, uh the Cambodian people were not allowed to stay there. Only foreigners. So, uh, uh I decide to go out. Because if I hide there, they thought I’m a politician, I’m a high official.
So I don’t want that way. I don’t want to take a chance on that kind of stuff. I, so, even the day they allow me to go out, so I walk out with the crowd, with all the refugees. And because it take days for the people who live in Phnom Penh to get out, because we know during the war many, many people are concentrate in this city. So it seem like it take two three days for me after the Khmer Rouge say now we don’t want you.
If you there, they consider you as politician. And I don’t want to be called a politician. And I decide to walk with them, and I saw many, uh, people come out from the hospital, because they chase all the patients out from the hospital. And I know that everything is upside down right away. You never heard other people come to the power and you chase all the patients out. And you don’t care about civilian.
You let the civilian walk out of town. It’s something strange. You never heard...there, it it a pink leader town. And uh, so I walk in and on the street, on the highway, its very crowded and you see, it’s you can see the kid crying, the old people get uh sick and then everybody have to sleep on the grass alongside and the Khmer Rouge just keep forcing say, “Go, go, you have to go to the countryside.”
And then, on the checkpoint, about uh, I’d say it’s sixty kilometers, I get checkpoint. They check me, they ask you all your biography. And then I know is socialists or communist, they don’t like you, or big title or etiquette title. So it’s uh, I get from my head right away, I say, well, only thing you have to say is taxi driver is better.
That’s low class enough. And then I keep using that word all the time, and they gave me, luckily, they gave me a pass. So I can cheat at a checkpoint. And say, “Look at, I’m already checked. I’m a real low class.” So they let me go through from one town to another town. They ask me, “Where are you going?” I say, “I’m going out of town,” because I’m told by the villagers there, they say, you don’t have to say far away.
Because if you say far away, they wouldn’t let you go. So you had to go from one town to another town, and say where you going or something, just, not far away, say five or ten miles away. That’s all right. Then go, I get reach to my provincial town, provincial home, it’s not really a town, I still uh twenty five miles away from my hometowns.
When I get there, the people down there, they said, “Don’t go farther there because the Khmer Rouge are very, very nasty. They, sometime they don’t ask you, they just kill you. They don’t want the people walk around there.” So I decide to look for place to live and work as other people. Uh, and uh...

Dith Pran's forced labor and trial

What kind of work did you find?
Dith Pran:
Uh, they they give me, in the beginning, they give me a job as a plow, you know do plows and harvesting the land, planting the rice. You see that’s the main thing. We all have to plant the rice. And uh, and then they told all the people you’re not allowed to dress colorful dress anymore, you have to dress black. And no boot, no shoes, if you have like uh, Ho Chi Minh sandals all right, or sandals okay. Or, if you don’t have, you have to walk barefoot.
And I walk barefoot. I have short. And, uh, we get really humiliated by the cadre, because they don’t like to see the people they treat as very different from the people who used to live with them. But at least I’m uh, low class taxi driver for them, they think I’m low class. So they, I still get at least middle treated. And and then they keep uh uh educate us every night. You work eight hours at least, and then at night you have to sit down in the grass and listen to them. To the cadre.
They say, they educate you about the policy, about from now on we have no city. The city is in the countries. And the main thing is irrigation, and agriculture, we plant rice. If we have rice, we can have everything. And um, and then uh, everything belong to the “uncle.” Uncle means the government, you know, organization, so you don’t have to worry. And everybody have a job. And you will have food from the government.
The Government will give you. But they give you very little. Until sometime, you get half spoon a day. One spoon a day. So your hell get very, very big, but you cannot stay home. You get to go to work all the times. And uh, even you need a stake to walk. I have to crawl on the dike, on the you know, it’s terrible. I eat everything, when I have free time, I always look for some leaves to eat. And then I really desperate, so at that time it’s the rice. You know, I...the rice is getting seed.
So, one night early when the sunset, I pretend looking for leaves and eat around and then I think maybe it’s a good chance to steal the rice. I look around, I just don’t see anything. And they hide. There’s security people that issue. They hide someplace I didn’t know. And I didn’t run and go and get it, because I was very weak. So I walk slow, slowly, with a stick. And then I pick up the rice in the middle of the field.
Because I thought when I go to the middle nobody can see. After I get about one full my hands like that, I put in the pocket, because, and then two guys come, came to me with the sword and with the ax, and that time I just run like something, there’s not energy, but I run about a few meters, and I fell to the mud. And they come grab, and then grab me. And that time I thought this: my head is cut, my head is gone because they thought wouldn’t like this to me, and so on.
And I thought I would die already. And then they say, okay. Come up. And I say, sorry, sorry, I’m so hungry, please don’t kill me. And then he brought me to the house. And then he tied me up. He let me stay in the house for about one hour. And then a group of the cadre...
Camera role thirteen’s up. Speed. (clapstick) Sound seventeen.
How did they punish you?
Dith Pran:
Well, it’s about six or seven people all are they call semi-cadre of the village, you know, the people who’re in charge of the village are semi-cadre of the Khmer Rouge. And uh, they tie my, the hand to the back. And they beat me with the stick. I don’t know what to say but it’s a long act, and with the bamboo stick they hit me. They hit me very badly until I fell down to the ground.
And the, uh, they know, uh, I’m getting very, very hurt, almost unconscious. They say stop. And then, uh, they let me sit down in the ground for almost whole night. And one guy they really mad to me, they say, “Kill him.” And uh, but I pray and pray, and then there’s, thank god, another one. He know I’m a good worker. Even I was sick, I always go to work so they say, “Please save him.”
You know, one of the group, the member is say, “have to save this man. We reeducate him again. He be a good worker.” So I felt it was all right. And then I, I think around 2 a.m. or something, they get me stay, stay with the guard around me, they decide free me. Go back to the house. But I was really, uh, sick.

The purges of the Khmer Rouge

Dith Pran:
And uh, now I talk about the...the killing in my hometown is...they kill all the soldier, even your private soldier, the teachers, and all the educate peoples, nurses, all, every everybody. Even the former soldier, the ex-soldier. He used to work with the French during the French colony, and he joined with the Khmer Rouge in 1970, also, they don’t trust these people at all.
In 1977, they really completely clean all those people. They joined with them, they work with them for year during the war, they really doesn’t care. They say, they don’t trust educate people. And uh, even their own people, their own cadre, their comrade, when they think they’re not good, they arrest them, nobody know what’s going on. They just arrest and beat them along the road, and disappear. Uh, and uh,
Did you actually witness people being treated...
Dith Pran:
Yeah, I uh, really seen what they did to and I know, I saw. They beat these people. But I didn’t see they kill, because they really once in a while they kill in front of you, that’s it. The rest just brought into the headquarters, and disappear. Uh, and uh, they really, the life of these people are different from. In the speeches, always say everybody are equal.
But it’s not true. When you are cadre or semi-cadre, you get good clothes, even a black pajama, but you get, well, call it the black pajama. They get black sandal, they get watches. And uh, they get plenty of food. They can eat three times a day, and we have not enough food. We don’t have rice, we have a groove rice, a soup, rice soup, and that’s it.
And not enough. They measure you a bowl. That’s it. And so everybody have to go look around for all kind of things to eat, like I used to tell you, you wouldn’t believe it, tamarind fruit is very, very sour in our country. We used to put a little bit in the soup. We know as sour soup. And during the starvation, you eat that is very sweet, very sweet and tasty. I eat a lot. And that time they send me to watch the cattle.
And every time when I don’t see them, I climb on them, and watch. You have to, you have to watch the cadre, and you have to watch the cow, because if the cattle eat the rice, you be a traitor again. You ruin a community belonging, you... have to be, and you angry, so everything is moving at the same time. And uh…

Escape from Cambodia's killing fields

How did you escape Cambodia?
Dith Pran:
Uh, I escape in 1979 when the Vietnamese and the puppets, the uh, uh, invade Cambodia, on, in January 1979. Because the Vietnam are also communists and Pol Pot are also communist is also communist. But I don’t know why they don’t get along. I think because the Khmer Rouge are too much pro one side.
This is talk about politic a little bit. I’m not a politician, I don’t like politicking either. Uh, I think the Vietnamese, they don’t want to go close to Chinese. And the Pol Pot are very close to Chinese. It’s some kind of uh….
Excuse me. Pardon me.
Clapstick. Sound eighteen.
Dith Pran:
So, uh, I escaped because when the Vietnamese came and liberate my town, and I run, I walk to my hometown, and then I work with the Vietnamese about six month. And then I think that nothing’s changed, except no more killing like before. But uh, the freedom, the people have no liberty. Uh, also because, uh, my family was outside of the country, so I decide to come out, uh, through the jungle, to the fields, takes me uh, three nights and four days from the countryside.
But first I escaped from one town to another town, and uh, and then I get to uh Thailand, in 1979. And I want to go back, my experience in, when the Vietnamese came. I saw with my eyes that they are many, many killing fields. It’s not a brand new killing field. So to show that is a real killing by the Khmer Rouge, I went there to the jungles, and I saw all bone in water wells.
So you can prove that if the Vietnamese killed them, they had to be fresh. And there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells. And then I saw the the new government with the Khmer Rouge try to show the journalist who are like from the eastern country and I went with them, because at that time I was mayor of the city.
I was elected. And I occupy the dam and I go, you go to the field, this fresh field. And then you can see tall grass, very green, and then, they dig in front of me, in front of journalist, you will see in one hours, you count hundred skull easily. So, and then not only one place. You go to other place. It’s fresh land, not soft. It’s soft, you think it’s some kind of a fade.
But I saw that it’s that’s why many, many people disappear during almost four years of the Khmer Rouge uh, control Cambodia. So it’s uh, you know like me, and I talk about if the people uh, uh, some people had died from the starvation is a lot also. Maybe a little kid and old people. Because, like my father, I was told by my mother that...
Take Two. (chuckles) okay. Next is room tone for the Pran Dith or the Dith Pran interview.