|Liberation:Vietnamese volunteer soldiers and Cambodian forces freed Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. — VNA/VNS File Photo
by Tran Mai Huong*
We started to return to the base of Army Corps 4, near Tay Ninh, the provincial capital. After a few years of the border war, the city looked so desolate. Artillery fire from the Pol Pot army was still heard pounding somewhere. We dropped in to see our Vietnam News Agency (VNA) Resident Office, visit Ba Den Mountain and then we hit the road straight to the base of the Army Corps near the border with Cambodia. Our colleague Le Cuong was quite familiar with this area, so we did not have any difficulty finding the way. We felt the war atmosphere spreading across the whole battle line, which we would not be able to understand if we had stayed in Ha Noi. The people of this border area had not enjoyed a day of peace since the anti-US war. A lot of houses, pagodas and public works had been destroyed. A lot of civilians had been barbarously killed. What was so painful was that the bullets had come from those who used to be our comrades and friends, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with us in the resistance war, with many families still wearing mourning bands on their heads! Sometimes history seems so absurd, and only with a deeper look into the process can we recognise the logic of events. Thinking back to the spring of 1975, nobody could have anticipated that things would happen like this!
The person who welcomed us at the Political Department of the Army Corps was Colonel Ba Cuc, the head of the Department. I was impressed with his bland but somewhat arty look. His voice was gentle and warm; his smile was friendly, giving us a feel of reliability and warmth. He said that the Political Department was very glad to receive us, the reporters. He asked us to regard the Department and its staff as our own relations and said all the difficulties we might face would be addressed with all the possible efforts of the unit.
Department Head Ba Cuc spread a map on the table and introduced to us the main features of the situation as well as the troop advancement and the general tasks of the Corps. We listened to him and tried to imagine what would happen. As far as all the directions are concerned, we were following the Corps based nearest to the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was only 100 kilometers along the highway from Xvey Rieng and Prey Veng through Kondan. The key point of this spearhead march was the relatively large Neak Luong ferry landing. Across the frontier were the regular divisions of the Pol Pot army. These were the enemy's seasoned troops, who owed a lot of blood debts to the people of the border provinces. The Pol Pot troops also understood the importance of this direction, so they had garrisoned their troops in depth. Apart from artillery and infantry forces with powerful fire power, what we feared most was the fields of mines. It was certain that the roads had been filled with innumerable mines to check the advance of our army, as big fights were going to happen on the other side of the border….
After the working meeting with Department Head Ba Cuc, we made the acquaintance of the staff members of the Department, with the officials getting involved in the propaganda and training work and even with the individuals sent to the Corps, including writers Nguyen Chi Trung, Xuan Duc and Tran Dang Khoa. Nowhere else could we understand each other as quickly as on the battle field. After only a few days, we made ourselves at home in the Political Department and lived closely and dearly with the officers and men here. Le Cuong and I had lived together on the battlefield for quite a long time, and this helped us feel close, particularly as we were colleagues in media. A few days before the campaign started, we were happy together and mixed with the soldiers of Army Corps 4, which was also called the Cuu Long Army Corps. This Corps took charge of the Campaign's main direction of attack.
The campaign began on December 25, 1978. It was the middle of the night and the roaring explosions of the 130mm artillery pieces served as the curtain-raisers of the campaign. This made us, the combatants on the battle field, recognise it immediately. The prongs of attack of Army Corps 4 along the highway and from other directions went without a hitch, from Ben Soi-Go Dau, Tay Ninh. Together with the men of the Political Department, we marched across the border at the Pray Veng Province section early in the morning. On the Jeep together with us were writers Xuan Duc and Huy Khanh. The feeling I remember most was when we crossed into Cambodia. Dust flew up on the red earth road, as it was the dry season. Luxuriant grass was everywhere. I felt unsafe. For the first time, I was going on the land of another country together with the volunteer soldiers of Viet Nam (not counting the Truong Son Mountain Road during the years of fighting against the Americans). Behind those thick bushes, gun muzzles could be pointing at us. The earth under our feet could explode any time because of the mines. Yet before us were hamlets and villages where the villagers were being ill-treated and tormented. Behind us were the villages of our dear Fatherland without a day in peace.
We had marched without respite for several nights. The battles before us were very fierce. The formation was moving closely along the highway. We were all ready for combat. Thu was carefully walking along the ruts of vehicles. Le Cuong availed himself of the time to record the first images. We felt reassured that we were marching with the Army Corps; if not, we would meet difficulties in this new land. We needed more information, stories and pictures as soon as possible to send back to the on-duty team in B2 [HCM City]. As far as this issue was concerned, we reporters were completely different from writers Nguyen Chi Trung, Xuan Duc and Tran Dang Khoa, who were not so hurried and calculated as we. They did not have to constantly collect material and images as we, the men of the News Agency, were tasked with doing.
On January 3, we marched through Xvey Rieng Provincial Capital, a small town with low houses, coconut gardens and sugar palm trees standing straight skywards. We had witnessed the no man's land or the "scorched earth resistance" of the Pol Pot troops. The surface of the highway was cut into sections, making it very difficult for vehicles to move and creating some small ditches. There were also mounds of earth and rocks on the road that looked like mines. These were the enemy's diversionary tactics, making the engineers work harder. The sound of gunfire echoed from the Niek Luong ferry landing nearby. The enemy's artillery fire could hit the formation any time. From the bushes on either side of the road, AK machine gun fire could be heard. The Pol Pot troops did not dare to encounter the volunteer soldiers of Viet Nam and the forces of the Unity Front for National Salvation of Cambodia head on. They only resisted sporadically and then withdrew or scattered on the two sides and took shelter amid the thick bushes or on the edges of the forest…. and fired.
On January 3 at noon, we were marching when we received the news that the Cambodian people had been spotted. We were all very excited. We reminded each other to prepare for it. It was quite regrettable that we could not speak Cambodian and there were only a few interpreters from the Political Department. Fortunately, some officers in the regiment could speak a little Cambodian to help us communicate with the locals.
I was taken aback upon seeing the first Cambodians walking in groups on Highway One, between Prey Veng Provincial Capital and Niek Luong ferry landing, quite near the cross road of Prech Nhenh. They were all in black with worn-out looks, as if they had just come from hell. They were from the communes on either side of the road, trying to take shelter in the forest whenever there was gunfire, or availing themselves of the times when the Pol Pot soldiers retreated to free themselves by running for life towards the East. They were dead tired. Some old people were being helped to walk by their dear ones because they were so exhausted. A child was starving in his mother's arms. What a pity for those bewildered faces! When they met the Vietnamese volunteer soldiers for the first time, they were a bit hesitant and worried. Understandably, they could not believe right away that these were their liberators. Yet, in the ranks of these liberation fighters, there were also Cambodian fighters from the Unity Front. They went together with the Vietnamese soldiers to inquire solicitously about their situation and supply them with water and rice, bandage them if they were wounded or worn out, help them get over their fear and show them the way to go on. We could see smiles appear on their miserable faces. They had lived for several years in those prison-like communes. There were thousands of such prisons in this land to jail the whole nation. Now danger had slipped by and they were returning back to normal life with shock and amazement. The crowd from the opposite direction was streaming in groups on the highway. We stopped in front of a group. An officer who could speak Cambodian helped us talk with them.
As the battles were still raging in front of us, a great heap of work was being carried out relating to receiving the people, giving them medical treatment and food and explaining the policy of the revolutionary power to them and taking them back to their homeland. There were a lot of heart-breaking stories. Every family had their dear ones killed while they were detained in those communes. Many of them were still listlessly looking for their relations. Some of them were so exhausted that they could not be saved in time…. The stories about the so-called disguised "communes" in the monstrous model of "pure socialism" of the Pol Pot clique stunned all those who heard them. Actually we could not understand these stories so well in the first days because we did not have any good interpreter to help. Now when I remember it, I feel so terrified: the space was associated with a fearfully fetid, pervasive odor! Later we understood that it was the odor of polluted air from polluted water caused by a lot of dead bodies! That odor of decomposed corpses stuck to the living environment for days, spreading into the water, over the meals and into our sleep all through the days we were in the land of Cambodia!
At the cross road of Prech Nhenh, I met an old woman named Sim. Her home land was in Phum Co Rua, not far from Prey Rieng Provincial Capital. She was going home with her only son. She was about 70. Her husband and other children had been killed by the Pol Pot troops. I will never forget her image: an old, weak woman with silver hair, looking haggard in tattered clothing. Her trembling hands were cupping her face, trying to stop the tears from flowing. There were a lot of such women in Cambodia at that time!
We met a young man called Phon. His home was in Phum Chotia, Xvey Rieng, at the cross road of Compong Trabech. He was there with a lot of other Cambodians to listen to the speech of Chairman Heng Samrin and read the documents concerning the Political Programme of the Unity Front for National Salvation of Cambodia. The revolutionary fighters were distributing medicine to the sick people. We could not believe that that bony, weak man was only 27 years old. Young Phon said to us that they were very happy to be liberated by the Vietnamese volunteer soldiers and the Cambodian revolutionary fighters. He and his compatriots told us that when they withdrew from Xvey Rieng, the Pol Pot troops killed a lot of people, forcing the others to follow them. These people were not allowed to bring their belongings and were forced to walk in the scorching sun for several days. But in many places, they rose up and fought and tried to look for the way back home.
Young Phon also said to us that the Pol Pot troops had pushed hundreds of the Cambodians into the Mekong River, near the Niek Luong ferry landing when they beat their retreat. We also met a young woman named Choi from Phum Codey. She was carrying her thin, starving one-year-old child in her arms. Like old woman Sim, eight of her family members had been killed and only she and her child were left alive. Yet her miserable face was gleaming with hope for the new life that was coming to her and her Cambodian compatriots.
The Pvey Rieng Provincial Capital, which used to be a busy, beautiful city, was now a ruin. Deserted roads were covered with wild grass; houses were abandoned. The Pram River lacked a single boat. Yet life here was warm with a human smell. People from various phums along the provincial city were starting to come back home. We met a team of armed female propagandists in Xvey Rieng Province who were disseminating information on the streets. They were in neat uniforms, looking sturdy and young, bringing vitality to this place. The head of the team, Comsa Muon, showed her delight at coming home. Xvey Rieng was her home, where she grew up and lived until the Pol Pot troops came. The city market was abandoned. Comsa Muon said that she could not recognise any vestiges of life from before, but she strongly believed that her home city would become busy and joyful again.
On January 4 and 5, there was fighting along the Mekong River. It was quite easy to understand because this big river was a very favorable defense line for the Pol Pot troops. There was no bridge at the Niek Luong ferry landing. It was the same for the whole system of the river running through several provinces in the area under Army Corps 4. The ferries belonging to the Cambodian side were either sunk or withdrawn to the other side of the river. These were the last defense lines before Phnom Penh. The seasoned Pol Pot forces were also concentrated here. We were all impatient. We already had very good materials about military operations as well as the situation of the newly liberated areas for our reports on this east military wing; we met a lot of people and took a lot of pictures on the way. When the situation was yet to be clear, Le Cuong and I discussed the possibility of taking the materials urgently back to Sai Gon and then returning later. We understood that when the information of the campaign was already made public, timely materials about the newly liberated areas and the operations on the battlefields were sorely needed. It took us half a day to return to Sai Gon. After having solicited ideas from the leaders of the Political Department, on the morning of January 6, we headed back to Sai Gon. Mr Xuan Duc and Mr Huy Khanh stayed with the Political Department. On the way back to Sai Gon, we went through the areas where the remnants of the Pol Pot troops were still taking refuge, so the danger was not yet over for us. But Le Cuong and I were well aware that the information should be sent back to the rear as soon as possible. Our time on the battlefield showed us the urgency of the situation. We went straight via Tay Ninh to Sai Gon without stopping and only had instant noodles to gather our strength. I had felt great pity for Thu since the start of the campaign. On the way, we took notes and took more pictures of the liberated Xvey Rieng and Prey Veng province. Thank God, the Jeep, old as it was, could carry us along the bumpy road, even though we were hurled up and down, back and forth on the way.
We arrived in the afternoon. Mr Tran Huu Nang was very happy to see us. We reported the situation to him. We were the first reporters to bring information from the battlefield to the Resident Office. Right after that, I sat down and wrote the report on what had happened along the way of liberation in the Eastern part, while Le Cuong had to develop the film, select photos and write scripts. Then all these materials were sent to Mr Tran Huu Nang for treatment. This campaign was quite different from that during the anti-US time. Our information was transferred to the Command of the battle front. The propaganda and training section would decide the most suitable way to transmit the information and photos. It was easy to understand this because we had come to help friends in this campaign. All the issues relating to information dissemination should be co-ordinated carefully, as international public opinion was very sensitive at this time.
I still remember the anxious appearance and gentle voice of Mr Tran Huu Nang:
"Leave all these materials to us for treatment. This is very timely and important. Please rest so that you can go back to the front tomorrow! There is not much time left, you know!"
I understood that he had great sympathy for us because we looked so haggard. Yet he also had a great responsibility to bear. I reported to him before we went back to the army corps. I only wished that Thu, the driver, could have a sound sleep to gather his strength as he had worked so hard in the last few days. The next morning, we left Sai Gon late. The preparation of our Jeep was finished later than expected, but it was quite necessary for the days ahead. Then we sped back to the front. Again we went through Tay Ninh, Xvey Rieng and Prey Veng. When we got nearer Niek Luong, I was startled at the deserted road. I realised that the front had moved forward. The situation had changed abruptly. The garrisons of the liberation army were now deserted, even though they had been so crowded the day before. I asked Thu to drive faster. The road was so bad that we arrived at Niek Luong in the afternoon. A lot of military units were queuing to cross the river. Someone told me that the Pol Pot troops had left their defense line the night before. Thanks to the ferry transported by the engineers from the South, many a unit had crossed the river early in the morning and advanced straight to Phnom Penh already. We were, metaphorically speaking, sitting in a hot pan. On the other side of the river, gunfire could still be heard sporadically. I went to get the man in charge of the ferry landing to give me priority to cross the river first, while Cuong and Thu asked for a pot of steamed rice and a pot of soup from an army unit. Having received the order to take the ferry, we were in a great hurry, carrying along the pot and pan. We tried to swallow some rice before getting the Jeep onto the ferry. When crossing the river on the ferry, we tried to eat to our fill. We knew that at this time we could not look for the Political Department; we had to advance towards Phnom Penh ourselves. There would be risks, we knew, but it was the only way for us to get to the city quickly. Cuong and Thu agreed with me completely. The Jeep had struggled to climb onto the ferry, which worried us immensely. But all ended well. When we disembarked, we took Highway One amid the huge GMC armoured cars. Our Jeep looked so tiny among these vehicles. On either side of the road, there was sporadic fire from the bushes. I told Thu:
"Try your best to stick to these military units. We'll be in great trouble if we are left behind, you know!"
Thu nodded and tried to drive very closely to the big vehicles. Our soldiers waved their hats to us upon finding out that we were reporters. The road to the city was completely new. The Pol Pot troops were still around. The big vehicles were speeding towards the city. Even though we made great efforts to follow them, we were gradually left far behind. I tried to encourage Thu from the front seat. We had to both avoid the mines in the road and keep an eye out for enemy fire on both sides of the road. The problem was that we had to drive very fast because it was getting dark. We had to arrive in the city before dark.
The road was littered with fresh shell craters, causing difficulty to our Jeep. Dead bodies of the Pol Pot troops and civilians on either side of the road were now beginning to disintegrate. The air was saturated with a nauseating stench. At first Thu tried to avoid the corpses, but in the end of the day, he had to run over them as there was no other way to move on. As a result, we heard the small explosions from the corpses, making us shudder. But hesitation at this time was synonymous with death. We had to drive as fast as we could. Sometimes I felt there was a gun pointing at me and I immediately thought about my two-year-old son, who expected me to pick him up at kindergarten every afternoon. If I could not return home, what would happen to my son? All of a sudden, I covered my chest with my hands as a natural reflex, even though I knew that it was useless.
Not until late afternoon could we arrive in the city. I could not believe my eyes when I saw Phnom Penh in ruin and lifelessness. It was really a dead city. All the houses were closed and desolate because there was nobody inside. All the streets were deserted. All the liberation army units were garrisoning the important positions. The Pol Pot administration withdrew to the West before the Vietnamese volunteer soldiers and the forces of the Cambodian Unity Front for National Salvation advanced into the city. As we could not contact the Political Department of Army Corps 4, we asked the way to the Command of Division 341, another shock unit, to rest. The officers and especially the commander of the Division Vu Cao were very enthusiastic to help us reporters. At that time, we had the common name as the reporters of the SKP (Saporamean Kampuchea) and wore soft hats called SKP hats.
Thanks to the help of Division Commander Vu Cao, we grasped the developments relating to the campaign of liberating Phnom Penh with the help of all the necessary materials, which were not so easy to obtain at that time. Division Commander Vu Cao was a Northerner and his family lived in Ha Noi. He loved us, the reporters of the Vietnam News Agency. His son-in-law was the journalist Dinh An, a photo reporter of Viet Nam Pictorial magazine which was also part of the Vietnam News Agency. Our meeting with him made me remember a meeting with the Political Commissar of Division 304 Tran Binh in the 1975 Spring Offensive Campaign. It was quite a lucky chance at the most important point in our career. Division Commander Vu Cao confided his concern to us:
"Do stay here with us overnight. It's very dangerous to go out now as there are still the remnants of the Pol Pot troops. I am going to give you the fundamental information on the situation and tomorrow there will be a squad to take you to the most important locations of Phnom Penh. I know your job is very important and your information should be sent as rapidly as possible."
He understood our job as reporters, so we did not ask for much more from him. I only asked him for one favour: to report to the Political Department of Mr Ba Cuc that we had entered Phnom Penh and were staying at Division 341 and that we would do our job in the most effective way. I had a sleepless night, even though I was dead tired after days going through thick and thin with Le Cuong and Thu. Worries about tomorrow weighed upon me. What was the fastest way to send our materials to Sai Gon? After everything, Le Cuong, Thu and I had arrived in the liberated Phnom Penh, hardly an event in every reporter's life! I thought about my child and family and wished to let my wife know I was safe. But it was impossible to do it then. Later, my wife told me that at that time she suddenly burst out crying while carrying her son in her arms. Then he burst into tears as well…. At that time my wife was both happy and worried, wondering about my life!
The next morning, we got up early. Division Commander Vu Cao sent a scout squad to take us to various areas in the city. My first impression of Phnom Penh was that it was a special place. The curved lines of the Royal Palace, the Independence Monument, Ba Penh Hill and the ancient pagodas gave the city a unique beauty. But these beautiful places were nothing compared to the deserted scene that made us shudder. We found it impossible to understand how the Pol Pot clique could act with such barbarity against its own people. The Tung Sleng Prison was there with all the skulls and torturing tools. There was an abandoned house with a tray of untouched food from three years ago when the people of Phnom Penh had been forced by the Khmer Rouge troops to leave the city. The soldiers gave us a book of a hundred photos of the people leaving Phnom Penh on that frightful day. Many of them were carrying their children in their arms or taking old people by the hand, with the barbarians in black pointing their guns at them in the name of "liberation". These photos showed faces of extreme misery, great confusion and fear, as few understood what was happening to them. I guessed that these were taken by a foreign reporter who could not take them with him, perhaps because they were seized by the Pol Pot troops. Or possibly they were taken by a Cambodian who had to leave them behind before fleeing. I put the book of photos into my knapsack, as I understood that it was very precious. I wondered if the author was still alive, or if he had died in the "killing fields" found everywhere in this country.
This is a society which was completely hostile to the civilisation of humankind. Cameras, expensive utensils and the best brandy were found in heaps inside the warehouse. The Khmer Rouge troops had piled them there, destroyed them or left them in ruin. The soldiers showed us a row of houses filled with shoes and sandals of only one foot, of the left foot or of the right foot. It was impossible to have a complete pair of shoes!
The scout squad helped us find a unit belonging to the forces of the Unity Front. We had taken photos with these people who had soft hats on their heads. We knew that it was quite sensitive to take photos with them at this time. But the commander of the unit was very enthusiastic and sent a car to go with us to different locations to take photos because time was running short. We went to Pochentong Airport. There were only a few planes lying unused in a corner of the runway. We met writer Nguyen Chi Trung here. He asked to go with us as he wanted to get back to Sai Gon! The writer was our age and had written a story entitled "The Letter of Muc Village" that was used in a textbook. He was fat and short, yet quite helpful. Sometimes I was a bit annoyed by the guide's slowness, but the writer helped resolve this. We returned to the Royal Palace. A Cambodian soldier showed us around and helped Le Cuong take the best photos. I saw a silver cup lying on the yard of the Royal Palace. I showed it to the soldier, who picked it up and said he would return it to his commander. The Pol Pot had taken away a lot of precious things when they retreated. That silver cup could have been dropped while they ran for their lives, I guessed. As we took photos inside and outside the Royal Palace, Nguyen Chi Trung had a nap on a stone bench in the garden. Of course he must be very tired. Yet the soldier was constantly asking us to keep close to him, as he feared there were still certain Pol Pot troops hiding somewhere about!
We quickly came to the main location inside the city, to the Independence Monument, to the Shihanouk Bridge, to the railway station and the central market. When the car was running along Monivong Avenue, I suddenly met a group of soldiers of the Unity Front standing around an old piano. We stepped out of the car and met them. The company commander, Cay On, used to be a Phnom Penh resident. He and his family had been taken out of the city on April 17, 1975. Then he lived on a farm in the East, where he joined the insurgent force. Cay On was very happy to return to Phnom Penh on the liberation day. But he was still in great fear for his parents and siblings, as he was yet to find out where they were. Cay On introduced his friends to us. They were the young people who had run away into the forest or tried to find the way into Viet Nam for refuge. They had joined the revolutionary armed forces and together with the Vietnamese volunteer soldiers returned to liberate their homeland from the Pol Pot clique. Their faces, full of vitality, impressed us greatly. They were the future masters of their country after the Pol Pot clique was overthrown.
While we were joyfully conversing, a soldier sat by the piano and played a Cambodian folk song called Xari Cakeo, accompanied by clapping from the people standing around. The image was deeply imprinted in my mind. This was Phnom Penh in the first days of liberation.
Translated by Manh Chuong
*About the author: Tran Mai Huong is the former General Director of the Vietnam News Agency and Viet Nam News. This story is taken from his book with the same title. It describes his personal involvement as a VNA reporter in the border war against the invasion of the southwestern part of the country by the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique directly after the liberation of southern Viet Nam in 1975.