The Fall

ON APRIL 17, 1975 Phnom Penh, Cambodia fell to revolutionary communism. The Surrender of Cambodia?s capital signalled ultimate victory for a guerrilla movement spawned in the rice paddies of rural Cambodia ? a movement which in five civil war-torn years had overtaken an entire nation.

The Fall of Phnom Penh signalled some thing different for my young family and me, and seven million other Cambodians. Twenty-four hours after the city?s collapse, my wife, our two-month-old son and I would begin a literal journey into the unknown. We would become exiles in our own country, stripped of everything but life itself. But we would also discover an awareness of God in ways we never dreamed.

The drive for communist control of Cambodia had begun in earnest in 1970. Outlying regions became the first battlegrounds for clashes between government troops and the Khmer Rouge, an army formed from Cambodia?s peasant population and aided militarily by the country?s communist neighbor to the east, North Vietnam.

By the end of 1974, the rural skirmishes had grown into full-scale fighting for control of Cambodia?s major metropolitan areas. Almost every day in Phnom Penh, a public plodded in flames from bombs planted by the Khmer Rouge or from hand grenades thrown into buildings at random. The sky was constantly alight from bombs overhead, and the toll on human life was rising. Hospitals were overflowing with the injured and dying. Already the communists had sealed off major supply routes into Cambodia?s cities, and they were closing down communication lines within the country Cambodia?s economy was in upheaval, and inflation was running rampant.

As 1975 dawned, the political situation in Cambodia became even more difficult. Because of the frequent bombing around Phnom Penh, electrical power was sporadic at best and usually non-existent. Stores and shops closed down; frustrations were building in Phnom Penh?s residents as they tried adjusting to the loss of a modern city?s conveniences.

Samoeun 1 and I are native Cambodians, and we were serving then as staff members with Campus Crusade for Christ. We had just arrived back in Phnom Penh seven months earlier from a ministry training time in Manila, Philippines. We had thought through carefully that we were returning to a very insecure situation, but we loved our people and were fervent in our desire to share with them God?s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

1. Pronounced Sam-w?n

We worked mostly with students at the University of Phnom Penh from which I had graduated a year earlier. I went on campus daily to converse with students about Jesus Christ and to give spiritual guidance to those who had already placed their faith in Christ. At the university I found a spiritual hunger that was not there before the war had reached such proportions. Many students came to know Christ during those first few months.

In the beginning of March, top government officials began to leave Phnom Penh as the actual fighting approached the city limits. Many men were rushing their wives and children out of Cambodia while there was time, and several people who loved us much urged me to send Samoeun and our new-born son, Wiphousana 1, out of the country to safety.

Mindful of our friend?s concerns, Samoeun and I prayed hard about what to do. As we thought of the enormous burden God had placed on our hearts for the Cambodians who did not yet know Christ, we decided together to stay in the country even though we knew how dangerous that would be.

On April 7, 1975, I write the following letter to Bailey Marks, the director of Campus Crusade?s Asian affairs, in Manila, letting him know of our decision to stay.

Dear Mr. Bailey Marks,

First of all, we would like to [apologize for writing] this letter by hand. As you know in this situation we don?t have electricity to use our English electric typewriter; within [the last] 48 hours, we have electricity only two or three hours....

Now all classes are closed (college, high school, private school).... The situation is very hard. We cannot say that will happen for [the] next day, [the] next week, but we are happy to live and to die for our Lord Jesus Christ... We have decided to serve our Lord Jesus Christ until our last minute of lives (sic) in reaching Cambodia for Him. Please continue to pray for our strength both physically and spiritually. We do hope that if [it is] God?s will we can see you once again before we die or we?ll meet each other in heaven.

Please give our regards to all our beloved staffs (sic) of [Campus Crusade for Christ] around the world.

Yours in our Lord Jesus Christ,
Huong and Samoeun and baby

We sent our letter by airmail to Bailey, almost afraid to hope that it would ever reach him. By then the postal service was nearly non-functional, and the Phnom Penh airport open erratically. We wouldn?t learn of the letter?s fate for years.

Just after we had mailed our letter off to Bailey Marks, life in Phnom Penh lost all sense of order and predictability. Whole families shuttled between homes of relatives and friends, as different parts of the city were transformed into war zones.

During this time I remained in close contact with my older brother, Chhirc 2, who worked in administration with the Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh as an army major. Chhirc had been a strong spiritual influence on me all my life, and his commitment to Christ remained firm as always. ?Recently he had had to make the difficult decision of sending his wife out of the country for her protection while he stayed in Cambodia.

In the days preceding the city?s fall, Chhirc met early in the mornings with Samoeun an me to pray, and to discuss creative ways to witness for Christ in our difficult situation.

We finally decided to try holding a two-day training class in evangelism and discipleship for the university students with whom we had been able to maintain contact. The Takmoa Bible School, about sex miles from Phnom Penh, was chosen as our site because it was presently removed from some of the main areas of fighting.

(It may seem that we were quite reckless to hold a training session under such violent circumstances. Although our intention was not to foolishly risk our lives or the lives of the students who volunteered to join us, we sensed that time was running out for opportunity to express our faith. We wanted to make the most of any options left. We didn?t know, of course, how close at hand the city?s collapse was.)

We scheduled our training institute for April 13-15, dates which happened to coincide with the Cambodian New Year. By the 13 th, 100 students had registered for the training, and we all miraculously convened at the Bible school, having navigated our various ways through the hazardous streets and roads.

Unexpectedly, heavy fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge started up all around us as we began our class at the Takmoa Bible School. Midway through the first session, a Khmer Rouge cannonball exploded not more than 300-400 feet from our meeting place.

As I tried to continue on through the lesson, bombs were starting to fall around us like rain. Because many of the explosives were aimed for buildings, I decided we should continue on a grassy area just outside the meeting room. I instructed everyone to lie down on the ground, and we opened our Bibles to Psalm 91.

Trying to raise my voice above the noise and confusion, I began to read aloud the comforting passage, ?He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide into the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ?my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I by night, or of the arrow that flies by day; of the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not approach you...?

We prayed for God to take care of us, as He had just promised through His Word. As we finished praying, we looked up and saw a group of people running toward our area, many wounded and bleeding and crying. They represented a tiny segment of the massed continuing to stream out of Phnom Penh; some people on foot carried only their essential belongings and some poled in cars which were packed with as much as could hurriedly be gathered.

Smoke filled the sky as factories went up in flames and gas stations ignited in the distance. I know we had to move our group back into the city. We had a shortage of cars, and so we all moved inside the building again to wait as trips were made back and forth to transport everyone to Chhirc?s house. While we waited our turns to be taken back into Phnom Penh our building suddenly became the front line of fighting as a Lon Nol tank discharged shells into one section of the school, and the Khmer Rouge returned fire.

Miraculously, we all made it safely in the cars to Chhirc?s house, which was located across the street from Phnom Penh?s Olympic Stadium, right in the middle of the city. After everyone from the training seminar had gathered at his home, I brought Samoeun and Wiphousana from my house.

A large group of the students with families in Phnom Penh decided that they needed to reunite with them, but about 30 students, some who were attending the university away from home, remained with us to continue the classes. As the noise escalated around us, Chhirc and I decided to change the training program to a prayer program.

For the next 24 hours, we formed a ?prayer chain? with our students, as it was almost impossible to sleep. Through the night the city sky was bright from explosions and burning buildings. Chhirc?s house had a flat, patio-type roof, and often we prayed up there when we couldn?t sleep. Our tears came down often as we viewed the destruction of our city and thought of the thousands of people dying without Christ.

At times we wondered of all we were witnessing might not be God?s way of dealing with our land. Sadly, we recognized that our nation was corrupt; disrespect for the law was widespread, and the corruption in Lon Nol?s administration was hardly a secret.

In our last ditch attempts to share the gospel, Chhirc suggested that we concentrate on government offices, located near his house. So from 6 to 8 each morning for two or three days, we dashed in and out of government buildings, distributing Christian booklets and stopping to discuss Christ whenever possible.

On the morning of April 17, we finished our pamphlet ?blitz? about 8:30 a.m. As the students, Chhirc, Samoeun and I moved back toward the house, we looked up in the sky and saw a rapid volley of cannonball flashes going off in fireworks fashion, and realized it was the Khmer Rouge way of announcing victory. The insurgent army was now marching full-force into Phnom Penh.

We scrambled into the house. When everyone was in, I glanced out a window over to the Olympic Stadium, where the retreating Lon Nol forces had been bringing their tanks and artillery. From my vantage point I saw the white flag of surrender flying out of several cannot there.

I went over to the door and closed it. Chhirc and I asked everyone to sit down. On a blackboard we had set out for the training class, I explained to them the suffering that was now very likely to be upon us. I told them that we would probably all be separated soon and encouraged them to stand firm for our Lord Jesus Christ. I reminded them of the Apostle Paul?s words in Romans 14:9 that whether we live or die, we are the Lord?s.

Many in the room began to cry quietly, as the reality of everything set in. After about a half hour of instruction and encouragement, I erased everything from the blackboard.

A few minutes later, there was a hard knock on our door. I opened it to a group of black-uniformed Khmer Rouge soldiers who ordered us to evacuate the house immediately and leave the city. We were some of the first Phnom Penh residents to receive such an order, because of our proximity to the city centre and the government offices, where most of the soldiers had converged.

For the first few hours of the Khmer Rouge takeover, many other areas of the city were jubilant over the victory. To most people, it promised the end to civil war and the return of peace and stability. But joy soon turned to horror as the soldiers, without warning, spread their evacuation orders throughout the city of two million, allowing no time to contact family or friends or to gather personal belongings.

For us, when the soldiers moved on, we realized the time of our separation had come. The students wanted to make last frantic attempts to find their families or other relatives and friends, and Samoeun, Wiphousana and I needed to get back to our house. As tears came down again, we sang a song together about reunion in heaven, and then the students departed.

Not many people yet understood the kind of revolution fomenting, or the totality of it. My brother, Chhirc, because of his access to classified government correspondence, comprehended the implications of this day more clearly than most.

As soon as the last of the students left, Chhirc took out his army identification card and tore it to pieces, knowing possession of it now would bring him certain death. As he prepared with us to run, he tucked his Bible under his arm and asked if we were going to accompany him. I felt it only fair to urge him to go on; my wife, baby and I needed to stay together, and he might be able to move faster fleeing alone.

Chhirc left the house, and I have not seen him since.