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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



The Australian Justice Michael Kirby is appointed as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Human Rights in Cambodia. He quickly sums up the situation that faces him: ‘In the absence of cantonment the country continued to be rife with heavy weaponry … Armed gangs, petty gunmen, common criminals and off-duty police all freely [commit] murders and other acts of violence.’

When he visits Battambang Michael hears that Australians are working with a Cambodian team. He greets me with interest and I invite him to share breakfast at the salla. We often sit in a circle on the mat sharing something to eat and some hot glasses of tea before the day’s work begins; Michael agrees to join us there though he knows that the occasion will be very simple. The women of the team order noodles from the breakfast shop and bring fruit from the market. Since we have no chairs in our circle they stack cushions for our guest to be seated comfortably with the wall as a backrest. Michael enters graciously into the occasion.

The conversation is lively; it leads to the subject of impunity. When Michael wonders whether the Krom team worries that crime is not punished the talk becomes even livelier. Out in the villages we have seen countless examples of unpunished crime. There are times when one or other person on the team has helped good people of the village to bring wrongdoers to face the law. Some on the team argue that ‘rule of law’ is more important than rice: an amazing opinion from those who have suffered starvation.

‘And what about the Khmer Rouge? Will you remember what they have done?’ Justice Kirby asks. There is a slight pause before Ka speaks. ‘Mr Kirby, I will never forget what they have done. I saw them stand my father and my uncles in a line and kill them. I will never forget.’ There is a longer pause. ‘If I was to do something about it I would take a gun and not stop shooting until nobody was left standing.’

Justice Kirby knows, as this simple group sitting in a circle on the floor knows, that the ‘Khmer Rouge Tribunal’, as it is starting to take shape in Cambodia, will be far from the International Tribunal preferred by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. We sit in our circle silent before this major dilemma of impunity.

The Khmer Rouge troops are advancing on Battambang once more. Ka asks, ‘What did you do during the shelling last night?’ I admit that the attack did not wake me, but return to the Meas household for a brief time, as I promised to do whenever Battambang is being shelled. And I faithfully attend UNTAC Security Briefings in case there is information that the Krom Akphiwat Phum team should know.

The young Australian soldier in charge of the briefing is sharing information: the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang will be attacked by the Khmer Rouge as it passes through Moung district.

‘Is the source credible? Is it reliable?’

There is a high degree of credibility and a reasonable degree of reliability.

‘What can be done?’

A report will be filed but the train cannot be cancelled; UNTAC is not responsible for doing that. UN personnel and UN supplies will not be on this train.

Today there is no phone connection between Battambang and Phnom Penh. Tomorrow the train will have Cambodians on the roof and sitting free of charge in front of the engine. It is always like that.

I have no authority and no way to connect with those who have the authority to protect the Cambodians. They will not be warned of danger as they board the train in Phnom Penh. I stay behind after the meeting believing that something can be done, wanting to talk about it. The Australian soldier has a clear line of responsibility. He will file a report meticulously; I can trust in that. But he is not the one to make decisions; he has no more authority than I do. It is as if the ground is disappearing from under my feet.

At the doorway of the demountable office I miss the first of the three steps and fall. In the night I lie sleepless on my mat. I have never before felt so helpless.

The next day I am rostered as the one to ‘stand by’ the radio. Some of the team are working in villages in Moung district.

‘Oscar Bravo Base there are injured people and bodies along the railway line over.’

‘Injured people are crawling on hands and knees to find help. Over.’

Help is a long way away from the railway line.

The team do what they can. We check local estimates of casualties. There are more than twenty people dead and almost one hundred injured. In helplessness and rage I write to the Australian Ambassador in Phnom Penh. It takes time for the letter to reach him and time for his reply to reach me. Though there has been no media report of the attack he does not dispute what I am saying. He has taken time to check with authorities.

He acknowledges the facts and the tragedy of it. ‘Every life is equally precious.’

One night, as we are about to leave the salla, there is a radio message from Nee and Soeuy, a new team member. They have been on a motorbike together visiting a village in Khmer Rouge controlled territory on the edge of Highway Five. It is safe enough in the daytime but not safe at night. The bike has broken down.

Krom Akphiwat Phum has this week acquired a Toyota from a grant through OSB; it has a blue flag, a radio and the Krom logo painted on the side. Ka volunteers to drive this ute to rescue our friends who are, it seems, sheltering in a ditch at the side of the road. ‘If I am kidnapped you can get me back with a few bags of rice. If a barang was kidnapped,’ Ka shakes his head at me, ‘it would cost us a thousand dollars. You stand by the radio.’

Ka keeps transmitting radio signals. There is no signal from Nee or Soeuy; I suspect that their radios are switched off. I continue to call. ‘Oscar Bravo One … Oscar Bravo Six.’ No response.

Late in the night there is still no news; I am keeping contact with Ka but there has been nothing from the other two since their first distress call; it is reasonable that they should be cautious about revealing their location. Ka is driving backwards and forwards along the stretch of road where they last signalled, then further along into Khmer Rouge held territory. I bring the radio to my house in Wat Kundung.

Monee and I stand together in the starlight under the jackfruit tree listening for signals. There is a good, clear message from Ka but still nothing from Soeuy or Nee.

‘Oscar Bravo One, Oscar Bravo One, look for Toyota with logo passing you on the highway. Over.’ Time and again we hear no response.

Monee says, ‘He is a strong man. He will be alright.’

‘You always tell me that what you like about him is that he is gentle.’

‘Strong and gentle,’ she says.

‘Oscar Bravo Base. Oscar Bravo Base this is Oscar Bravo Two. Found them. Over and Out.’

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy