Christine Stansell in Dissent Magazine:
“Something terrible happened here. And I don’t know what it is,” Bill Herod remembers thinking in his first days in Phnom Penh in 1980. He was with Church World Service, one of a group of aid workers allowed into the country after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 and put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long nightmare of the Cambodian people. In 1980, Herod had just come from Vietnam. He had seen plenty of devastation, but this was something different, a higher order of magnitude.
In those first months, Westerners were only beginning to grasp the enormity of what the KR—as they’re always called in Cambodia—had done. In the city and the refugee camps on the Thai border, relief workers were piecing together accounts of starvation, brutal forced labor, and mass executions into some comprehension of the whole. Cambodians were stunned, largely affectless, many in a state of shock. Hospitals housed crazed, emaciated children who had been found wandering in the forests, abandoned and lost by parents fleeing KR camps as the Vietnamese approached.
Thirty years later, the extent and nature of the horror are no mysteries. Between April 1975, when the KR overthrew the despised Lon Nol regime, and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded, the rulers of Democratic Kampuchea killed—by murder, starvation, and forced labor—1.7 to two million people, close to a quarter of the entire population. In the torment they wreaked on a small country in such a short time, the KR ranks as possibly the most savage Communist Party to curse the twentieth century.