Cambodia’s 40 Years of Black Death

A doctor who escaped the Khmer Rouge looks back
April 17, 2015 Updated: April 18, 2015

April 17, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the Black Death, the anthhmer Rouge entry into Cambodia’s capitol city of Phnom Penh. The scourge that followed will remain a blot on world history forever. Two—perhaps three—million people were murdered or starved to death by communist criminals inspired by their hatred for the United States.

Cambodia was a war that should not have happened. So was Laos. U.S. secret societies with government acronyms infiltrated, advised, cajoled and lied to these other peoples. Races that in no way were related to Vietnamese. The U.S. sent illegal sorties into Cambodia and involved the Laotians. Anything to work their will in a war they knew they were losing. Don’t forget communist China was well into the thick of things supporting the other side.

An Empire in Asia

Jesus was dead a hundred years when Cambodia became part of the Chinese Funan empire. Six hundred years later these Khmers overthrew their Funan dominators. There was civil war until 801 AD when King Jayavarman II established the Khmer dynasty and brought peace to the people. This became the golden age for the Khmer people. It was then that Angkor was established as Jayavarman II’s imperial city.

The Khmers ruled over a vast territory that is now Thailand, Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Wars, wars, and more wars continually ate away at Khmer territory until by the beginning of the 18th century Cambodia was reduced to its present borders. At King Ang Duong’s request France established a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863. In 1941, King Norodom Sihanouk ascended to the Cambodian thrown. He was only 19 years old.

King Sihanouk began a campaign against the French in 1952. He went into exile in 1953. Guerrillas formed by coalition forces of anti-French Vietnamese called Viet Minh attacked and used terror to force the French out. When Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh on May 7, 1954, France surrendered. They marched proudly out in defeat.

The Geneva Agreements seemed to settle the warfare. They didn’t settle the wars. Cambodia declared itself neutral as Communist forces attacked Laos and Vietnam. That didn’t stop North Vietnam from invading Cambodia. They controlled provinces inside the country by the mid-1960s.

The Vietnamese communists began their advance to control the entire 600-mile Cambodia-South Vietnam coastline. That prompted President Richard Nixon on April 30, 1970 to launch what he said would be a two-month military operation against communist-controlled territory in Cambodia. This was done with the “approval” of Cambodia’s government.

These incursions into Cambodia “officially” ended on June 30, 1970. U.S. secret and not-so-secret involvement continued to support and guide Cambodian military forces. By 1975 all the Cambodian government controlled were enclaves. Population centers surrounded and cut off by entrenched, well-supplied and armed Khmer Rouge forces.

It was only a matter of time. Cambodian civilians were starving. Wounds of war festered, thousands died. Phnom Penh with a pre-war population of 375,000 was flooded with refugees. Death and suffering was everywhere. Children were dying of malnutrition. Slow deaths, their little bodies swollen with kwashiorkor and marasmus.

American Ambassador John Gunther Dean, a German Jew whose family fled the Nazis, fled Cambodia on April 12, 1975. Five days later Khmer Rouge youth wearing black took over Phnom Penh. The Cambodian people were left to die at the hands of monsters created by their hatred for the United States divined by French educated intellectuals inspired by China and Chinese territorial ambitions.

A Doctor Who Made It

Dr. Nal Oum stood 5’4″ tall and weighed 62 kg (136.4 pounds) on April 17, 1975. He was deputy director of Phnom Penh’s largest hospital. The buildings and grounds were flooded with sick and wounded. When he finally escaped Khmer Rouge detention camps and entered a hospital in Thailand he weighed 42 kg (92.4 pounds). He lived. Miracles happen. Sometimes.

Born in 1936, in the eastern Cambodian province of Kompong Cham, in a small village called Tourey, on the left bank of the Mekong River, he had a good life. Although Oum’s father died when he was only two years old, he was raised by his mother, the last child and only boy.

“We had four acres of property to farm, a stilt house with a red tile roof. The house was wood and the floor the very best wood. I grew up there. My sisters married and moved away. My mother, my youngest sister, and me, we stayed there in that house. There was no swimming pool. The Mekong River was our pool,” Oum related.

His mother inherited rice fields. She rented some and planted some. “I liked to get into the rice fields and plant. It was quiet and surrounded by nature. We grow aquatic rice. The water is at least up to your knee,” Dr. Oum stood up to indicate water level in the rice fields he worked as a child.

We never knew about toys. With small bamboo we would make a gun, a small boat to sail in the river. I never knew any hardship or misery.

They had no electricity. Fish were caught in the Mekong River or bought in local markets, herbs and vegetables grown around their house.

“This was before World War II. I remember this because Japanese soldiers came into our village. They had swords beside their guns. I remember I hid a French from the Japanese. I told him where to go to hide. I told him to go to the pagoda. The monks do not ask you who you are, they give you food, shelter. Every village has its monastery.” The boy’s act saved the French soldier during Japanese occupation.

Nal Oum made a three-mile walk back and forth to his school every day. “I did it running. I made something to imagine I had a horse so I would go fast.” He got up again and imitated his childhood riding a stick and galloping along to school. Not unlike any child’s fantasy.

“We never knew about toys. We had to resort to our own resourcefulness. With small bamboo we would make a gun, a small boat to sail in the river. I never knew any hardship or misery.”

Malevolent Spirits

Oum’s mother never went to school and could not read or write. She memorized prayers by heart. When Japanese occupation resulted in shortages of lamp oil, his mother would save fish oil for their lamps.

“World War II marked my memory even today. There was an outbreak of cholera in our village. We did not have one doctor in the whole district. There was one nurse in the district where I went to school. That is where the mayor lived and there was an infirmary. There was no one to give advice not to drink raw water. You know how they carried water, on a stick over the shoulders.” He stood again to portray the act of carrying water buckets on either end of a stick.

Without medical knowledge a lay assistant to Buddhist monks said that cholera was carried by a malevolent spirit that put something in the water. “Drink it and you get cholera,” Oum said. “My mother boiled our water and covered it in a ceramic jar. We were saved. They died. I am not sure how many. I used to go around to neighbors. When you get cholera you have to go to the latrine. People get dehydrated, have muscle pain and go into shock. People died, died, died. We believed in the malevolent spirit. Monks performed a ceremony. They marched from the monastery to the Mekong River chanting, splashing water, pushing back the bad spirit.” Oum stood and chanted the monk’s prayer.

Then young Nal Oum saw what he called the “feu follet,” a fire from the Earth that related some big event. It was a sort of distant light he observed.

In the end he related this omen to his sister. She was enduring a long labor. When the baby was finally out she contracted septicemia and died. The baby was dead. “Me, I watched her. No one had knowledge about this kind of thing. When my sister was about to let out her last breath she called me. I came close to her and she whispered, ‘I ask pardon to all people.’ Then she died. I was about 6 or 7 years old. There were no doctors or nurses.”

In his 6th year of school he went to Ecole Superior by boat. “One day I had a dream. My sister came to me. She told me that she died but wasn’t yet dead when they buried her. The assistant to the monks said bury her quickly. It was not the biological death yet. She was still aware of everything when they put her in a hole.” The vision haunted him.

Scholarship and Directorship

These experiences formed the boy who would later study medicine. He studied at Prince Sihanouk College in Kompong Cham and received his four-year high school diploma. Then Lycée in Phnom Penh. When he finished he still had three years to go before becoming a medical doctor. He received a scholarship to go to medical school in Paris.

“I arrived in Paris on October 10, 1958. I finished my thesis in 1962 to become a doctor.”

In March of that year he returned to Cambodia. He was a young doctor assigned to the pediatric department of the hospital named for the daughter of Prince Sihanouk, the Kantha Bopha Hospital. He only had one pediatric course.

Eventually he returned to France to continue his specialty. He decided to undertake maxillofacial surgery. This would give him the skills to alleviate cleft palate and lips in children as well as other deformities. France required a pre-requisite specialty before the surgical studies. Dr. Oum finished his specialty in 1967.

He returned to Cambodia and became head of the Department of Stomatology, promoted in 1972 to Deputy Director of the hospital.

“That is where I was until 1975 when everything toppled and my hospital vanished in a few hours.” His life changed, lives changed, the world disappeared. No one lifted a finger to stop the holocaust that followed.

A Capital Emptied

His day began with a phone call at 7 a.m. from the hospital director. “What should we do? The Khmer Rouge are in the capital. The Yotha are coming in in all different directions. They are in groups wearing black and carrying AK 47’s with olive green kepis.”

The Yotha were young soldiers, 14 to 15 years old. “The people greeted them with joy. The people thought the war was over and these are the winners. They were welcomed with white flags. A few hours later there was total chaos,” Dr. Oum recounted.

The Khmer Rouge ploy to get people out of the capital was to tell them that they had to leave, that the Americans were going to bomb the city. It would only be for a few days. The people were ordered to bring nothing with them, they would return in three days.

“The Chinese took things with them,” Dr. Oum said. “They could survive longer since they had things to trade with the young Khmer Rouge soldiers. I stayed in the hospital. I believed in the neutrality of my profession. Doctors keep on helping people in war.

“It was unique in warfare, the Khmer Rouge killed the doctors. The Khmer Rouge used Chinese that had six months training, maybe in acupuncture.

I stayed in the hospital. I believed in the neutrality of my profession. Doctors keep on helping people in war.

“I lived in the Chinese quarter of Phnom Penh. I couldn’t get home to my mother. The Khmer Rouge sent young soldiers into the hospital. You leave.” The emotion of the memory of that day forty years ago brought tears to his eyes.

“They are sick,” he told the Yotha with their menacing guns. “‘Leave before six or stay at your risk,’ they said. I asked about the sick. They said, ‘That is your problem.’ Our hospital was in the north. During the last week the intense battles north of the hospital brought many wounded. The triage was full. Patients were laying on the floor. Doctors on staff had been working all through the night. They needed relief.

“I called a doctor that lived on the other side of the city. He said he couldn’t get in, there were Khmer Rouge all over. I sent an ambulance to get him.” When the doctor never showed up, Dr. Oum called him again. The ambulance had never arrived at his house. He sent the hospital’s second ambulance. That one as well disappeared. There was no way for the doctor to get to the hospital.

“There were no surgeons to reinforce the doctors on duty. There was the hospital director, Dr. Ly, and myself and three other doctors in the hospital. The young soldiers sent the staff away. I was with Dr. Ly. We were trying to figure out what to do. A nurse came to us and said that the Khmer Rouge ordered everyone to leave.”

By noon the Yotha ordered that everyone was to leave the hospital. The staff and the sick. “I told the director that we cannot argue with the young soldiers or we will be killed for nothing.”

“By 1 p.m. I went to the pediatric department. We didn’t know what to do. This was unheard of in the history of humanity. It was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. We had no words.

“The radio said the Khmer Rouge infiltrated the Ministry of Information. Now the news was that they chased the Americans out. I went on seeing my sick. The Yotha came into the pediatric ward and demanded I leave by 6 p.m. I asked who will take care of the children. They said they will. I said, ‘They will all die in a few hours.’ The hospital turned into an open tomb. No one came to get or save the children.

“It was now six at night. By seven it would be completely dark. I looked out it was like a volcano spitting lava. There were 2 1/2 million people being pushed out of Phnom Penh. A river of humanity.”

Marching to the Tropical Gulag

Forced out of his hospital, Dr. Oum could not get home to see his mother. He did not have time to change out of his white hospital gown. He took nothing with him when he joined the river of humanity on the road out of Phnom Penh.

“It took one hour by foot to advance a hundred meters. From 6:15 until 9 p.m. I didn’t travel 5 or 600 meters. At 9 p.m. I stopped to sleep. We were near Esso and Shell gas stations that were in flames on National Route 5. I was with the hospital director. He did not get to see his wife and kids. It is always with remorse that I could not get to see my mother again.

“Others joined us to form a little family. We called it ‘La famille de circonstances.’ If you had a family and did not hold hands you would be lost forever. It was a prison without walls. There was nothing to eat.”

Dr. Oum’s tale of leaving the sick children behind along with the war wounded, sick, and critically ill in his hospital haunt him to this day. When the Khmer Rouge doled out rice it was about 250 grams that was to last 2 to 3 days. “The World Health Organization says that a person needs 450 grams a day to survive. I concluded that I have to escape this tropical gulag. It was hell on Earth.”

Nal Oum is shown in a photograph taken shortly after he escaped from a Khmer Rouge death camp in 1976. As a known physician, Oum understood he had a narrow chance of surviving under the Khmer Rouge. (Nal Oum)
Nal Oum is shown in a photograph taken shortly after he escaped from a Khmer Rouge death camp in 1976. As a known physician, Oum understood he had a narrow chance of surviving under the Khmer Rouge. (Nal Oum)

Dr. Oum arrived at a village about 30 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh. In a month that was all the progress the refugees made. “In the village you were responsible for everything except the small amount of rice. ‘Mchaska,’ the Khmer Rouge said. It means yourself, everything. It was a trip without return.”

Dr. Oum witnessed murders, saw dead bodies, and smelled the stink of rotting flesh. The Yotha and their commanders insured compliance with terror. It was as former New York Times stringer Dith Pran had said, “I saw many killing fields everywhere. They kill people like you kill the fly or mosquito.” Sidney Schanberg, a New York Times reporter in Cambodia said, “Holocaust. You can use that word. A civilization has been erased.”

A young man begged his captors for rice. Dr. Oum saw a black-clad Khmer Rouge soldier jump down off a truck and shoot him. Dead bodies lined the roadway. People were being bludgeoned to death with clubs, tortured and shot for no reason.

Escape Toward the Border

On his own he decided to escape. Dr. Oum could tell no one. Denunciation was required on pain of torture and death. Any farmer working in the rice paddies that saw a fugitive and did not report it would be killed. He had no map to the Thai border. No compass.

“In my mind I concluded on how to get out of this. There was no food, no water, there was danger. The border with Thailand was far away. I waited patiently.”

In September 1975, Dr. Oum, and other refugees in his group, were deported to the northwest province of Battambang. Prisoners were moved to maintain control and confusion. They were taken in a Chinese aid truck to a train depot.

“There were ten or twelve trucks in my section. Fifty people in each truck. I compared it to a can of sardines. We were dropped off at a train station. There were four or five wagons. We were crowded worse than if it was an animal train. There were 7,500 in a convoy. So crowded I had to climb up on top of the train. It was then that I saw red flags on the engine. I thought it was the same train as Doctor Jivago, that is how the French spell it.”

“At the station we had to be in a group of ten. If you were alone you had to join a group to make ten. We were transported by tractor to different destinations.”

It was then that I saw red flags on the engine. I thought it was the same train as Doctor Jivago, that is how the French spell it.

Dr. Oum was now closer to the Cambodian border with Thailand. He began saving small portions of his rice every day in a sleeve he tore from a shirt.

His chance to escape came in April 1976. The Khmer Rouge declared three days of holiday to celebrate their victory over the Americans. The guards enjoyed their revelry. The refugees were given time off from work in the rice paddies.

He snuck away knowing that if he was caught he would be brought back to the refugee camp and slowly tortured to death in front of the people to discourage others from trying to escape.

“There were rice paddies and a lot of people along with Khmer Rouge patrols. It was a full moon so I could see at night. I decided to walk at night and sleep in the daytime. I walked barefoot in thick grass, there were poisonous snakes. I would hide in thick grass during the day so no one would see me and no dogs could sniff me out.” By this time all dogs had been killed for food, which made his escape free of their barking.

In time Dr. Oum reached the forest. The dense tropical foliage presented other dangers. In the jungle, there was no risk of being seen, so he would travel during the day and sleep at night.

“I would climb up in a branch of a tree to sleep. I used vines to tie my arms to the branch of the tree. If I fell when I was asleep the vine would hold me. I could tell no one. I could make no fire. There were denunciations or penalty of death.

“I decided not to be captured alive. I had forty tablets of a drug in the family of Nivaquine. It could paralyze your heart. If caught I’d have to have time to swallow that medicine. My chances of survival were 20%.”

He contracted a virulent strain of malaria in the jungle. He was on his last bit of energy when he came to a river. Unable to cross it at night, Dr. Oum slept concealed.

In the morning he came out of hiding when he saw an old man. He spoke to him in Cambodian and asked him where the Thai border was. The old man replied that he was already in Thailand. He was cautioned not to speak loudly since the Khmer Rouge were just across the river. It was a river he never crossed. It would have put him back in the hands of the communists.

From Thailand to France to America

The Thais were not sympathetic. They imprisoned refugees for illegally crossing their border. They didn’t want Cambodians on their soil. Reports came to United Nations aid groups that Thai soldiers threw hand grenades among refugees to discourage them.

Dr. Oum was placed in a Thai prison sentenced to two months for illegally entering Thailand. He was in the last stages of malaria.

“I knew I was going to die. I could not even write. I asked the jail guard to allow me to send a letter to the French ambassador. I got someone to write the letter for me. It was in French. The Thai prison warden called me in, he couldn’t read French. He asked me what it said. I told him I was requesting help. That was permitted and my letter was mailed.” Dr. Oum wrote that he was a doctor, educated in France and was dying in the Thai prison and would die in five days unless he received help. The Thai warden realized that Dr. Oum may have influence, thus had him transferred to the prison hospital.

The French embassy sent a priest to visit him. Pere Venet arranged a transfer to another hospital and at the end of June he was out of Thailand enroute to France.

He was reunited with his first wife and two sons. He sent them out of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took the capital, to be safe. His sons did not recognize him.

Nal Oum (L) is pictured with Père Venet (C), and fellow Cambodian refugee Kul (R), on June 15, 1976, in Thailand's Cham camp. Venet was sent by the French embassy to visit Oum after he was released from the Thai hospital. (Nal Oum)
Nal Oum (L) is pictured with Père Venet (C), and fellow Cambodian refugee Kul (R), on June 15, 1976, in Thailand’s Cham camp. Venet was sent by the French embassy to visit Oum after he was released from the Thai hospital. (Nal Oum)

Dr. Oum eventually remarried and had a daughter. He reentered the medical profession and received a Diplome d’Etat from the French government establishing him as a licensed physician able to practice medicine in France.

Dr. Oum remained in France with his second wife and new daughter for fourteen years. He heard from other refugees that his dear mother died somewhere along the road in Phnom Penh.

In order to give his daughter an American education Dr. Oum agreed to come to the United States in May 1990. They spent time in California. He and his second wife Chanly now live in a central Florida community. The residential neighborhood is quiet and well kept, the home spacious and neat.

Dr. Oum has written a book in French titled “A Doctor Among the Khmer Rouge.” The cover is a photograph of an old fashioned steam train engine with large red flags in the front surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

No one raised a finger to intervene. No victims of the Nazi holocaust lobbied the U.S. Congress to stop the murder of innocent people in a nation plagued by Chinese communist inspired killers. Children in black uniforms capable of any atrocity went berserk. Black, the symbol of death, hatred, the devil’s color. Black, the uniforms of Nazi murderers wearing the skull and SS symbols. Black, the uniforms of the Khmer Rouge.

Rouge, Black—Communists All the Same

The Cambodian people have endured 40 years of black death. The current leader, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander. Hun Sen joined the Vietnamese communists when he feared being purged by the Khmer Rouge. He returned with them when they invaded Cambodia in 1979.

It took the Vietnamese communists to rid Cambodia of the black plague. They in turn established control of the country under their communist puppets. Hun Sen has stalled and impeded prosecutions of Khmer Rouge murderers. Pol Pot, their leader, died of old age and disease.

The Khmer Minh established a stranglehold on Cambodia. The January 23, 1973 Paris Peace Agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam contained Article 20. Vietnam was to withdraw their forces from Cambodia and not establish bases in Indochina. Like the Japanese in World War II, territorial ambitions by the communists would not be sated. The Vietnamese have established a dictatorship in Cambodia. They are populating the country with Vietnamese.

Farmers that complain that their lands are confiscated are tortured or murdered. Vietnamese imperialism has made a sham of the Paris accords.

In these circumstances Dr. Oum cannot return to his native land. He cannot practice medicine in the U.S. He is 79 years old, spry and active. He drives his car without glasses. He speaks fluent French and English. His is not a “cause celebre” among the American fashionably charitable.

The news media considers Cambodia a side show unworthy of coverage. It is over. That some three million people were murdered or died of starvation means little since they were not white Europeans or freedom marchers that eventually saw justice in their lifetimes.

Returning American veterans of the wars in Indochina were treated little better. Their suffering from exposure to herbicides was declined for decades as unproved and thus unrelated to the war. If U.S. veterans were treated poorly, allies and victims of the war were dismissed out of hand. Cambodia suffered from the communists during the war, were murdered and tortured after the U.S. withdrew and are now enslaved by Khmer Minh, puppets of communist Vietnam.

“I will try to tell what happened and what is happening in Cambodia. It will be my mission until I die,” Dr. Oum said. He has a kind face. His eyes illuminated with glistening tears. Will anybody hear him? It has been 40 years since the black death entered Phnom Penh. Will anybody care?

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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