by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Cambodia, 2004 - This spring marked the 27th anniversary of the fall of Cambodia to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that went on to rule the country for four years.

It's thought between one and two million Cambodians died during the 1970s, but few people outside the country took notice of the atrocities until a film in 1982 told the dramatic story of Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran, who failed to escape the Khmer Rouge terror when his Western colleagues were helicoptered out of Phnom Penh.

For many of those who were there, those days have always been too painful to recall. But recently another photographer, also portrayed in the film, has shown his work from that time at a gallery in Phnom Penh.

The "Killing Fields" movie told the story of the dramatic days after the fall of Phnom Penh. In the film, foreign journalists are held hostage in the French embassy while the Khmer Rouge force the city's residents into the countryside.

The film shows American photographer, Al Rockoff, desperately trying to save Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran, using a false passport. But he fails. However, according to Al Rockoff, that interpretation of events does not reflect reality, and he now wants to set the record straight.

I spoke to Rockoff at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Phnom Penh.

"In the movie they show the photograph I took fading," he explained to me. "And the French counselor official is saying to Jon Swain, 'It will not work.'

"That did not happen. I took an existing photograph Dith Pran had in his possession. I glued it into John Ackentiel Brewer Swain's passport. I took the first and last part of the four-part name off. Dith Pran was to say he was Pakistani, but a British subject.

"If Dith Pran had tried it, I feel he could have gotten out. The passport forgery scene did not fail, as they show in the movie."

He paused for a moment.

"It's an important movie," he admitted. "It puts Cambodia on the map in the minds of many people. But it has nothing to do with me. Absolutely nothing at all."

To mark the anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, Al Rockoff said he did not want to discuss the movie further. Instead, he wanted to talk about an exhibition of his photographs from that time. Many of them had never been seen before.

One photograph depicts what looks like a 7- or 8-year-old girl with all her belongings packed up on the back of a bicycle. Next to her is a boy, probably 15 or 16, with his belongings packed in a wooden cart. Behind them is an enormous column of smoke and what looks like a section of Phnom Penh is burning.

Other photos are graphic and depict people who are dead or dying in appalling conditions.

Rockoff described one to me:

"Here is a shot of an executed soldier. You can see his arms are tied behind him -- entrance, exit wounds in his head, and then he was gutted for his liver. A very horrible way to die. That was my first indication that the Khmer Rouge were capable of these atrocities on and off the battlefield."

Rockoff said he chose photographs like this so people do not forget the traumas of the past.

"I see many of the older Khmer people coming, looking at the photos. Looking at faces, faces in the crowd. One Cambodian was here with a magnifying glass looking at the pictures, faces in the pictures."

I noticed that the exhibition had a mixed response among the local population.

Pal Vutha was just six years old when the Khmer Rouge stormed the capitol. She said the display has been popular among foreigners living here, and that some Cambodians, too, took notice.

"Let them come to see," said the 21-year-old waitress. "Maybe they will come to see -- maybe they want to see the brother or sister or family in the photo, I think."

But not all Cambodians could bring themselves to remember the past through such graphic images. Lao Mong Hay runs a Cambodian think tank. He was studying abroad in Wales when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.

"It's too much for me -- all those pictures," he told me in his office. "I have not been able to pluck up enough courage to see the 'Killing Fields' movie, to have gone to a torture center museum -- no. I couldn't bear it.

"Being out of the country and living in security and safety in another country, that gives me guilt. I have a deep sense of guilt.

"So the question is not just more witnesses. The question is action. How to deal with that past. How to deal with -- my guilt."

Rockoff's work was on display at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Cambodia. While his work may serve as a reference point for those who barely remember the Khmer Rouge, it also is a painful memory for those who do.

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