ON A SUNDAY MORNING IN MARCH 1975, Phung Ton, one of Cambodia’s most esteemed academics, packed his bags and prepared to fly from Phnom Penh to Geneva, Switzerland, under different circumstances a quite unremarkable trip. The 54-year-old, a former rector of the University of Phnom Penh who had held a series of government posts, was no stranger to official business abroad—the all-day conferences, the dinners with dignitaries, the nights alone in opulent hotels. He was used to being separated from his wife and children for weeks at a time.
During that spring, however, unremarkable endeavours were complicated by the ongoing civil war between the Lon Nol government and communist insurgents. Armed clashes were fast closing in on the capital. In the hours before Phung Ton was to fly out, several rounds of aerial bombardments struck not far from Pochentong Airport. His airline, Air Cambodge, instructed passengers to gather at its office near Central Market, from which they would be escorted to their flights under tight security rather than drive to the airport themselves.
Im Sunthy, his wife of 20 years, opted not to go with him. They bade farewell at their house, a villa near the Independence Monument in the city centre. She massaged his back as he lay face down on their bed, and when he had gone she holed up in his office, where she waited for his call from Bangkok to inform her that he had exited the country safely.