Cambodia’s ‘Year Zero’ Haunts a Photographer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, July 8, 2000 : He risked his life to take the pictures 25 years ago in one of the most terrifying moments this country has known. And in a few more years, he says, he may finally be ready to publish them.

Al Rockoff, once a wild and daring much wounded freelance photographer — and now an only slightly less wild free spirit with a frighteningly untrammeled gray beard — has become a part of the history he recorded, pretty much by standing still.

He is the man portrayed by John Malkovich in the movie ”The Killing Fields” — a portrayal he hates — who stayed here in Phnom Penh, along with the tiniest handful of other journalists, to photograph the end of the war and the dawn of Cambodia’s horror under the Khmer Rouge.

For the last decade Mr. Rockoff, 51, has been returning regularly from his tiny home in Florida to chronicle the country’s slow emergence from the devastation of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, under which two million people died from 1975 to 1979.

But he hasn’t got it quite right yet.

”I hope to finish in maybe two or three years,” he said as he sat under the ceiling fans of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia, whose view of the broad, unchanging Tonle Sap River is dotted with tiny fishing boats.


Al Rockoff testifying at Khmer Rouge trial, 2013. Photo via ECCC

”It will be the history of Cambodia from the 1970 American invasion,” he said. ”There are still a few key events that I need, like the passing of King Sihanouk. That will be the end of a cycle. It could be soon; he’s 77 now.”

Or, Mr. Rockoff conceded, it could be many more years.

While he waits, he has decided for the first time — apart from a half dozen pictures that were published years ago — to let people take a look at some of his work in an exhibition of 55 photographs that cover the walls of the club. The pictures focus on the day of the fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975.

They are a heart-stopping glimpse of a moment when history came to a standstill; ground zero of what came to be known as ”Year Zero” — the moment when thousands of grim Khmer Rouge soldiers trooped single file into the city, tough, sometimes barefoot young men in black pajamas silently carrying their rifles and grenade launchers, looking at nobody.

”They knew they had just won a victory, but there were no smiles,” Mr. Rockoff said. ”They weren’t like Americans. If Americans had won a victory they’d be smiling, high-five-ing.”

From the top of a tank or a jeep or walking side by side with the silent soldiers, Mr. Rockoff captured the fear of the city’s residents as they watched in careful clusters, smiling hopefully, raising a tentative cheer. No one could imagine the devastation, the ruin, the mass killings that were about to begin.

The photographs show men with bullhorns and pistols riding through Phnom Penh telling people: ”The war is over. Do not resist. The war is over.”

People wanted to believe, Mr. Rockoff said. But the moment of hope was brief. ”The first two or three hours it was easy getting around,” Mr. Rockoff said. ”Then on two occasions they started asking for Americans. I just kept walking and then I hid behind a truck.”

His work became more furtive as the day became more dangerous. Along with other reporters, Mr. Rockoff was stopped repeatedly. Twice, he said, his camera and film were taken from him and then, miraculously, returned.

As the shifting shadows in his pictures show the progress of the day, the occupying troops take up positions around the city, corral the crowds, collect weapons, make arrests. The faces of the onlookers grow more worried.

Then comes the poignant and chilling photograph of officials from the defeated government responding to a call to gather at the Information Ministry, standing under the trees as a Khmer Rouge officer addresses them. Some of the officials have put on their cleanest clothes and neckties for their surrender. Some may know what is coming.

”I took this picture probably an hour before they were all taken out to the back of the building and shot,” Mr. Rockoff said.

All around the city the Khmer Rouge, in their new twist on communist utopia, began to assert their law: all 2.5 million residents of the capital were forced into the countryside, where thousands of them died in the following days of hunger or exposure or by execution.

In the afternoon foreigners were ordered into the French Embassy, where they remained for three weeks before being trucked across the border into Thailand. Mr. Rockoff’s pictures show his colleagues walking toward the embassy as hundreds of Khmer Rouge soldiers continue to file past them into the city.

In the weeks that followed, Mr. Rockoff chronicled the scenes inside the embassy, but he also spent considerable energy concealing his film, hiding it in the dry tank of a toilet and then, during the truck ride to Thailand, taping it to the inside of his leg.

”If they had destroyed my film it would all have been for nothing,” he said. Apart from death, he said, ”that was another fear I had, that I’d get out alive and have nothing to show for it.”

And now, 25 years later, he is just beginning to show what he has to show for it: the images of impending horror that he has lived with and dreamed of and spent hours alone studying in his darkroom.

Today Mr. Rockoff lives what he describes as a minimal life in Florida, using a bicycle rather than a car and living mostly off his benefits as a wounded former Army photographer in Vietnam.

He denies that he is obsessed with Cambodia and the trauma that he witnessed and shared. But he is quite happy to describe himself as suffering from what he calls P.T.S.D. — post-traumatic stress disorder.

”Yeah, I’ve got it,” he said. ”But how you handle it defines whether you’ve got P.T.S.D. For what I’ve got, I’m normal.”

As proof, he said, ”I’m not so P.T.S.D.’d that I can’t live in America. I still spend half the year there. This is my other life. I’m glad that I could come back here all these years. I consider myself having a reason to be here: taking pictures for my book.”

Copyright The New York Times