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`LIBERATION' WAS WORSE THAN ENSLAVEMENT

Year Zero began for the people of Cambodia on April 17, 1975.

For most Cambodians, the entry of the young, disheveled, fighters of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army into Phnom Penh was welcomed as a sign that five years of civil war and mayhem had finally ended. They were wrong.Khmer Rouge commanders began ordering the evacuation of the entire city, whose population had swollen to more than two million, most refugees from fighting in the countryside.

No one was exempted. The very old, the very young, the sick, the wounded, all were forced at gun-point to leave.

The dislocation, the forced labor and executions that followed, starvation and disease would kill a million Cambodians before Pol Pot was driven from Phnom Penh by a Vietnamese army in the opening days of 1979.

A young Ieng Mouly, currently Cambodia's information minister, was in Paris in 1975. He recalls how he had initially welcomed news of Phnom Penh's "liberation."

"Frankly speaking," he says, "at the beginning of the 17th of April at noon in Paris, I was very happy when I learned the Khmer Rouge had liberated the country from the Lon Nol regime.

"But in the afternoon we learned that the Khmer Rouge had started to move people out and it was a great shock. I think for the first time I cried. I cried because all hope we put on the Khmer Rouge leadership disappeared at that time."

By 1976 he had started to help form a nucleus of anti-Khmer Rouge resistance.

In Phnom Penh, veteran U.S. photographer Al Rockoff, with journalists Jon Swain, Sidney Schanberg and interpreter Dith Pran, had been arrested by an angry group of Khmer Rouge, bundled into a captured armored personnel carrier and taken to a site on the banks of the Tonle Sap River.

"They were very firm. I sensed something was about to happen when one of the Khmer Rouge put up his pistol and held it to my right temple, and one other Khmer Rouge standing behind me moved away. I figured he doesn't want to get splattered," Rockoff says.

Dith Pran resisted efforts by the Khmer Rouge to send him away and his subsequent pleading with the insurgents saved the group from probable execution, Rockoff says. The scene was later recorded in the 1984 film "The Killing Fields."

Rockoff and his colleagues later joined hundreds of other Westerners temporarily interned at the French Embassy before being trucked to freedom at the Thai border two weeks later.

Cambodians seeking refuge at the embassy did not make it.

Mey Sisamith, then an 18-year-old student, had also welcomed the Khmer Rouge occupation of the city. Her father, a senior state employee and communist sympathizer, had told the family not to worry.

"At the time we'd been staying at home. There were lots of rockets and they fell everywhere in the city. There was no security and we stayed at home. All the hospitals in Phnom Penh were full of wounded civilians; there was no place for many of them," she says.

"My father thought communism was very good. There would be no corruption in government and people could live equally."

That dream was quickly shattered.

"On the streets there were a lot of Khmer Rouge soldiers and all their faces looked very, very stern. They were shooting into the air," she recalls.

Her family managed to survive the forced evacuation and stay together for six months before being ordered to northwest Battambang.

"In 1976 all my family died. My brothers died and my younger sister and my father died; all from overwork and starvation," Mey Sisamith says. Her last sister was executed in 1978 for "crying constantly" while working the rice fields.

Rare film footage showing the final days of Phnom Penh before the victorious entry of the Khmer Rouge was shown in the city last month.