Time Essay: Cambodia: An Experiment in Genocide

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The enormity of the tragedy has been carefully reconstructed from the reports of many eyewitnesses. Some political theorists have defended it, as George Bernard Shaw and other Western intellectuals defended the brutal social engineering in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Yet it remains perhaps the most dreadful infliction of suffering on a nation by its government in the past three decades. The nation is Cambodia.

On the morning of April 17, 1975, advance units of Cambodia's Communist insurgents, who had been actively fighting the defeated Western-backed government of Marshal Lon Nol for nearly five years, began entering the capital of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge looted things, such as watches and cameras, but they did not go on a rampage. They seemed disciplined. And at first, there was general jubilation among the city's terrified, exhausted and bewildered inhabitants. After all, the civil war seemed finally over, the Americans had gone, and order, everyone seemed to assume, would soon be graciously restored.

Then came the shock. After a few hours, the black-uniformed troops began firing into the air. It was a signal for Phnom Penh's entire population, swollen by refugees to some 3 million, to abandon the city. Young and old, the well and the sick, businessmen and beggars, were all ordered at gunpoint onto the streets and highways leading into the countryside.

Among the first pitiful sights on the road, witnessed by several Westerners, were patients from Phnom Penh's grossly overcrowded hospitals, perhaps 20,000 people all told. Even the dying, the maimed and the pregnant were herded out stumbling onto the streets. Several pathetic cases were pushed along the road in their beds by relatives, the intravenous bottles still attached to the bedframes. In some hospitals, foreign doctors were ordered to abandon their patients in mid-operation. It took two days before the Bruegel-like multitude was fully under way, shuffling, limping and crawling to a designated appointment with revolution.

With almost no preparations for so enormous an exodus —how could there have been with a war on?—thousands died along the route, the wounded from loss of blood, the weak from exhaustion, and others by execution, usually because they had not been quick enough to obey a Khmer Rouge order. Phnom Penh was not alone: the entire urban population of Cambodia, some 4 million people, set out on a similar grotesque pilgrimage. It was one of the greatest transfers of human beings in modern history.

The survivors were settled in villages and agricultural communes all around Cambodia and were put to work for frantic 16-or 17-hour days, planting rice and building an enormous new irrigation system. Many died from dysentery or malaria, others from malnutrition, having been forced to survive on a condensed-milk can of rice every two days. Still others were taken away at night by Khmer Rouge guards to be shot or bludgeoned to death. The lowest estimate of the bloodbath to date —by execution, starvation and disease—is in the hundreds of thousands. The highest exceeds 1 million, and that in a country that once numbered no more than 7 million. Moreover, the killing continues, according to the latest refugees.

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