Cambodian Journalists Remember the Civil War

Like the other nine prisoners, Kong Vorn was bound and naked and kneeling on the ground.

He watched as a Khmer Rouge soldier walked briskly to the first man in line and stabbed him in the neck from behind: once, twice, three times.

The body slumped into a freshly-dug hole and the soldier moved to the next kneeling prisoner. Storm clouds rolled across the sky and the field grew dark while the executioner worked, as if someone were pulling a curtain over the grisly scene.

Mr Vorn was a journalist, a group targeted by the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge had held him and the other prisoners for almost a month for “reeducation” following the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

He knew then that he was going to die if he didn’t do something. Some of the other 10 kneeling prisoners were also journalists. Others had been officials in the Lon Nol government.

The men cried out “like pigs being slaughtered” when they were stabbed, Mr Vorn recalled at his home in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district on Wednesday. He distinctly remembers the shout of CBS cameraman Put Sophoan, who was killed before Mr Vorn’s eyes.

Mr Vorn didn’t wait for his own turn. He struggled to his feet and took off toward the forest. Soldiers opened fire, but somehow they missed and he made it to safety.

Mr Vorn slept that night in the forest in Kompong Cham province, naked except for the cloth the guards had used to tie his hands. The next day he approached a house and was shot in the thigh by Khmer Rouge soldiers, but he was still able to escape again.

Eventually Mr Vorn found a group of people walking on the road from Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge had evacuated. He joined and went with them to Prey Veng province, where he told people he was a taxi driver. He lived there until the Khmer Rouge fell from power.

While the late Dith Pran’s story of survival during the Khmer Rouge regime after working as a journalist during the Lon Nol period is known worldwide through the award winning film “The Killing Fields,” Mr Vorn was also one of just a few members of the media who survived the regime.

At least 31 Cambodian journalists died or went missing during those years, according to information compiled by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

The names of those individuals were read on April 22 in a Buddhist ceremony in Kompong Speu province in which monks and about two dozen former foreign war journalists prayed for the spirits of dead members of the media.

That moving ceremony was organized by foreign reporters, photographers and cameramen who had reunited in Phnom Penh last month after covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. The names of 32 foreign and five Cambodian journalists who died during the 1970 to 1975 fighting in Cambodia were also read aloud.

Mr Vorn, now 73, worked for the Japanese news agency Kyodo from 1970 to 1975. In 1971, he and five other journalists, including New Zealand-born Australian correspondent Kate Webb, were captured by North Vietnamese troops in Kompong Speu province, he recalled at his house. They were released after 23 days, he said.

Mr Vorn immigrated to Japan in 1981, two years after Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge. He retired from his job at an electronics factory there in 1997 and then returned to Phnom Penh, he said. Now he is helping to build a school in Prey Veng province’s Preah Sdech district, where he lived under the Khmer Rouge regime.

“Now we need reconciliation in our nation, we have deep wounds,” he said. “That’s why I collect lots of donations to help build schools and make equal opportunities for students. It was because of no education that lots of Cambodians were killed.”

Mr Vorn remembers many colleagues who died during the 1970s, and he has told his children to go into professions other than journalism.

But not all Cambodian journalists from those years have abandoned the profession.

Mao Run survived during the Khmer Rouge regime by changing his name from Chhey Sarun and by telling people he was a taxi driver.

Now 66, Mr Run is a correspondent for Japan’s Nihon Denpa News in Phnom Penh, he said Monday in Phnom Penh.

“As journalists, we have lots of opportunities to meet many high-ranking officials, including the president or King,” said Mr Run, who still goes by the name he took under the Khmer Rouge. Covering the war in the 1970s was “fun,” he added.

Before Lon Nol seized power in 1970, Mr Run wrote for French-language magazines Kambuja and Le Sangkum, which were owned by now-Retired King Norodom Sihanouk. From 1970 to 1975 he worked as a reporter and photographer for wire agency United Press International.

In those days, Mr Run drove his 90-cc Honda motorcycle to battlefields, he recalled. Often he followed government soldiers to the front line. Mr Run recounted a 1974 battle in Kompong Chhnang province in which famed US war photographer Al Rockoff was injured and two Cambodian reporters died, including Lim Savath of The Associated Press.

“Sometimes, it was terrifying,” he said.

“When we were in the trenches and we were surrounded, we poured soil on our heads and prayed to our parents, grandparents and all the sacred souls to help us stay alive.

“I thought at those times that I did not want to come back tomorrow, but the next day I returned to the front line again.”

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