Cambodia: A different kind of jungle.
We are in Cambodia. Here, anything can happen. And everything did. I am suddenly surrounded by the impoverished souls of terminally broken people. These, little did they know it then, would turn out to be the future monsters of this lost and tragic nation.
They came silently in the night, protected by their tattooed darkened faces and, of course, the brush. My first raw instinct –since I had become an almost accidental photojournalist–was to announce myself as such, barely audible in a very shaky Khmer language, “Oh…Foreign Journalist!!…International Press!!!” (about seven vowels put together) hoping that would perhaps shield us from further danger, including straight out execution, a highly organized trait and preferred MO in the Cambodian jungles. They did raise their fully automatic AK’s, which was to be expected, so we all did the only counter-maneuver possible and readily available: palms together to the forehead in a prayer gesture. We were all frozen with fear, our likeness pale and drawn, for an instant that lasted two lifetimes, maybe more.
Only when one of them broke into laughter I took the most difficult step forward of my uneasy life, not for a second deviating my eyes from the huge long barrel and the face that owned it. Hardly breathing, I managed to break a crooked smile as I continued to repeat the same words over and over, almost as if I had assumed they didn’t hear me the first time nor the second. But I was a sorry excuse for a mantra-repeating terrified monk. Just as the moment came with a sense of a miracle in heaven, it dissipated just as fast. Not everybody was laughing, and just as the instant bore a promise, it immediately cloaked into another terrifying one.
He couldn’t have been twenty years old, but his eyes were forever. And so he took a life forevermore, and didn’t even change his expression. . . .
The count stops roughly at 1.7 million murdered Cambodians. Even more died in the aftermath of it, due to complications of the torture and subsequent maladies of the longest 4 years of that country’s existence, also known as the Magnificent Angkor.
I still have terrible trouble even trying to put these horrible events in ANY kind of perspective; therefore, I will stop attempting to do so, just like then, and hope that it will not ever be forgotten or shuffled down in the annals of History. I do find it abhorrent, however, that we, the free people of the West, allowed that implacable Genocide to occur, even after we had made the now obscene claim of –Never Again–! And yet, it was allowed to happen. We let a monster named Pol Pot, himself a Cambodian, drive and push his own country towards one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th Century.
On April 17, 1975, Pot himself–the monstrous leader of the communist guerrilla organization–transformed Cambodia into a virtual prison without walls. This extreme form of radical communism annihilated religion, culture, currency, personal property, hospitals, schools, the banking system and every other vestige of modern urban life.
Nearly half the population of Cambodia died in the four years that followed, many in the “killing fields” such as Toul Sleng, the slaughterhouse in Phnom-Penh. Those who survived emerged forever scarred by the four year nightmare of forced labor camps, starvation, brutality and mass murder.
But now it’s December, 1989, and 15 years later. What has really changed? Khmer Rouge is still roaming the countryside with impunity. The Vietnamese liberated the country from the iron fist of forced labor and human atrocities in ’79. And the only reason they left after 10 years of occupation was based solely on the fact that the Soviet Union stop supporting them–financially anyway.
The incredible thing is that, as soon as the Viets departed, Khmer Rouge decided to seek their revenge. Their own compatriots were killed, tortured and massacred. If there was a single unproven accusation that they cooperated with the Vietnamese in any way, shape or form there would be no trials, no defense; nothing but kangaroo courts, a circus, not a trial, and they would never be seen again. The US after taking a serious final licking by the North Vietnamese until ’75, having to leave a country in ruins, did not do anything. So, what improved? We were all over in South East Asia, provoking the war against Viet-Nam on a single Gulf of Tomkin incident, betrayed almost everyone who trusted us, breaking promise after promise, sold out our own allies who were helping us, and left a mess so bad that it would take decades to fix.
Even now, things aren’t back to normal; the countryside is full of unexploded bombs all the way from Cambodia to Laos, and all the stops in between. Children, those poor innocents who weren’t even born when the war was at it’s peak, are now getting blown to pieces from still active mines that all sides involved in the conflict, put candidly all over their countries. With the Khmer Rouge still very active, the Thais are the only ones who are helping out with the leftovers of a war that never really ended, by allowing refugee camps inside their borders near the small town of Aranyaprethet, working together with UNESCO. Having really nowhere to turn, Cambodians are trying to just make it, day to day, under terrible conditions due to overcrowding and lack of medicine and basic resources. The Cambodian’s plight is by far one of the most–very possibly the the worst– tragedy of the late 20th Century for SE Asia. And the sad saga continues on with a life of its own, when things that are bad are not getting any better, like some kind of Evil undead, where Bad is meeting Worse.
My friend and colleague Thung Miep swears the country is cursed. I look at him with an ironic stare, as I tell him, “Buddy, I could have told you that!”
And Pol Pot was still alive and well. He died much later —in 1997— alone and sick in the nomad jungle where he dwelt.
He was never charged with any crime