Sunday, 20 April 2008

Donald Kirk: Vanished in a time of killing

The Providence Journal
Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE YOUNG MAN approached me with a simple enough offer as I strolled through the grounds of the Royal Palace near the banks of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh all those years ago. Did I need a guide, maybe an interpreter?

The response was easy. Sure, why not? The price was right too — less than the equivalent of a dollar for a one-hour look-around as music tinkled from a pavilion and dancers rehearsed a ballet for the entourage of the ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Those were “the old days” when Cambodia was, as Sihanouk liked to say, “an oasis of peace,” at least as seen by correspondents visiting from the war in Vietnam, seemingly a much more dangerous story to cover.

My guide, named Ith Chhun, had learned some English from Christian missionaries, and he made just enough to support himself by showing people around the palace grounds and gardens.
He was happy to interpret for me on interviews in Phnom Penh and travels around the country.

Cambodia then was on the verge of the war that Sihanouk had hoped to avoid by staying “neutral” while the North Vietnamese set up bases near the Vietnam border. He was traveling from Europe to Moscow and Beijing when he was overthrown in March 1970 by a U.S.-backed group. The Chinese told him the bad news, and he stayed where he was.

As the war spread, Chhun interpreted for an article I did for The New York Times Magazine on the terrible Cambodian Army and for stories for the old Washington Star on battles down deceptively tranquil roads. One morning, after spending the night in a governor’s residence, we drove toward the South Vietnam border and discovered the bodies of 90 Vietnamese, men, women and children, mowed down by Cambodian soldiers as anti-Vietnam hatred ran wild.

Later, after I got back from writing a book on the widening war, I went down roads that seemed serene and secure, turning back when old men and women warned Ith Chhun the Khmer Rouge were nearby. While journalists were getting killed on forays from Phom Penh, I reported for the Chicago Tribune on villages terrorized by Khmer Rouge executions and on high-level corruption in the capital.

These memories flashed by as I read the other week of the passing in New Jersey of Dith Pran, the Cambodian interpreter who became famous from the film The Killing Fields. Pran, as we called him, worked mainly for New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg. When Schanberg was away and Chhun was with his wife and children in some outlying town, Pran worked for me and others. Pran and Chhun were among a small group of interpreters taking the same risks, setting forth with journalists in old Mercedez-Benz cars from the Hotel Royale in Phnom Penh.

I was in New York when the Khmer Rouge completed their takeover of Cambodia in April 1975, nearly two years after the U.S. had stopped the bombing in Cambodia and left U.S.-equipped government soldiers to fend for themselves. I read about the evacuation of Schanberg and others from the French Embassy compound, feared for Pran’s life and was immensely relieved when he showed up in Thailand after four years of survival in a jungle ruled by the Khmer Rouge.

I wondered, though, what had happened to Chhun. Stories of slaughter in the countryside, during the three years, eight months and ten days of Khmer Rouge rule, reminded me of the kidnappings and executions that peasants had told Chhun and me were going on in the early 1970s while scholars were writing that nothing bad would happen when the Khmer Rouge took over in an “agrarian revolt.”

I thought of Chhun concealing any knowledge of English, throwing away his glasses and books and notes, joining the peasantry as their new masters drove them from the cities, into the fields.

As a Christian in a Buddhist society, Chhun would have been more vulnerable than even the Buddhist monks whom the Khmer Rouge killed off as they destroyed pagodas and shrines.

When I returned in May 1985, after covering the 10th anniversary of “the fall” of Vietnam, I ran into people in markets, repair shops and drink stands who remembered me. Some pointed to scars on legs, arms, backs where they had been bound and beaten. They all told of the loss of relatives and friends.

I asked about Chhun, revisited the palace, heard from drivers who thought maybe they had heard about him but weren’t sure. The last time that I was there, six years ago, no one remembered “Ith Chhun.” Chhun was a common name, and no one knew which Chhun I had known.

I wondered if Chhun’s bones might be among those piled up in “the killing field” that visitors see on the outskirts of the capital – a sampling of all the places where people were bludgeoned by bamboo clubs or strangled by guards to whom shooting would be a waste of bullets.

It was as if he had never existed, had vanished in a time of killing when 2 million people like him had died, their images faded in flickering memory, nameless and forgotten.

Donald Kirk, a longtime foreign-affairs editor and foreign correspondent, wrote two books on the Vietnam War, Wider War: the Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand and Laos and Tell it to the Dead: Memories of a War, republished in expanded form as Tell it to the Dead: Stories of a War.

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