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A story half told: Looking at the genocide in Cambodia 42 years later

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Soldiers gather in a Khmer Serai camp
Soldiers gather in a Khmer Serai camp along the Thai-Cambodian border in November 1979.
Courtesy of Greg Barron

On April 17th, 1975, 42 years ago today, the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia — leading to years of terror, starvation and bloodshed.

During this time, MPR's Greg Barron reported from the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border and produced a documentary on what he saw — titled "Trampled Grass."

Barron spent about two weeks on the border, filing telephone interviews at night, returning to the camps — which he described as "a sea of despair" — during the day.

After reporting on the strife at the refugee camps, Barron returned to America, and for a time the story seemed over. 36 years later, he realized only part of the story had been told. 

Despite the widespread illness and death he had encountered on the border, after interviewing other survivors from that era it became clear that those at the camps were the lucky ones. So, he updated the story in his new documentary, "Follow the Moon."

While it was happening, the rest of the world was unaware of the scope of the Khmer Rouge's devastation. After taking control in Cambodia, it oversaw the death and starvation of about 2 million people — by 1979 an estimated one in every three Cambodians had died during the regime, maybe more.

Year zero

The 1975 arrival of Khmer Rouge fighters in Battambang was swift. The city had been celebrating the new year, relieved that the Cambodian civil war, which had started in the '60s, was finally over. But those feelings were quickly replaced by fear. Khmer troops began forcing people from their homes, and it became clear that the fight was just beginning.

"Almost immediately, Cambodia was a country without. Without schools, without freedom of speech, without property, without communication," Barron said. Skilled workers, military officers and government officials were all killed.

About one-half of Cambodia's population was forced into the countryside. Capitalism and the institutions that supported them were to be purged to make way for a communist utopia — nothing else would be tolerated. "It would be year zero," he added.

To listen to the documentary, click the audio player above.

Survivors tell their story

Hoeun Hach

Hoeun Hach
Hoeun Hach, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, photographed in St. Paul in March 2017.
Courtesy of Greg Barron

"At the moment we know that we are controlled tightly by the Khmer Rouge when they burn money. Books were torn and burned on the road, and the market was suddenly closed down. And at that moment things changed overnight. No more school, no more money, no more religion, no more free market — just in 24 hours. People were shocked, shocked beyond describing because it happened so fast. Very, very fast."

Pichsanthor Kim

trampledgrass_07
Pichsanthor Kim, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, photographed in St. Paul, Minn., in September 2016.
Courtesy of Greg Barron

"And then they separate us. The old people, the old people like my dad had their own job to do, and for people like my age, the people my age they put them in another group ... We are the first group to make a commitment to sacrifice ourselves to do all kinds of hard work, hard jobs. So we have to travel from place to place, from place to place."

Sokurt Sous

trampledgrass_03
Sokurt Sous, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, photographed in St. Paul, Minn., in March 2016.
Courtesy of Greg Barron

"If you do something that's not appropriate to the revolution they can take them out and kill them without trial ... at the time people spoke less, cannot say anything."