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“Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ We are with the West! Let’s join together!” said a Khmer Rouge cadre

5 Dec


“Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ We are with you, the West! Let’s join together!” said the Khmer Rouge leader

After threatening to assassinate American civilians, the Khmer Rouge leader told me “Why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation. Join together! We are with you, the West!” he said, growing increasingly animated, half breaking into song. “‘We are the World!’ Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the world!’ Let’s join together!”

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission from the author.)

By Nate Thayer

A non-descript Khmer Rouge operative, dressed in civilian clothes was standing in the hallway outside my seedy hotel room in the still dark hours before dawn in The Thai border town of Surin. He waved me out urgently, nervously checking to see that the hallways were clear and I accompanied him at a pace too fast to be inconspicuous through the hotel lobby outside to a beat up pickup truck with a Thai civilian in the driver’s seat who refused to identify himself.

The truck had Thai civilian license plates. Tuoch, the Khmer Rouge agent, refused to tell me where we were going or with whom I was scheduled to meet. “You will see,” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know himself.

He would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel and deliver me safely to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing the attention of anybody.

In late July 1996, now more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed that enemies were everywhere. And they were right.

Life for the Khmer Rouge in their jungle redoubts by mid 1996 was a far cry from the previous years, where hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese military hardware was trucked across the borders from Thailand, coordinated by Thai military intelligence units, and with the political backing of the United States, and more than 120 member countries of the United Nations.

Khmer Rouge leaders had compounds in the relative luxury of Thai provincial capitals and traveled in chauffeured cars to Bangkok. Now they rarely got permission from the Thais to leave their isolated jungle hideouts.

The pickup truck was driven by a very nervous Thai civilian with a mobile phone that would ring periodically and he would grunt a few responses and hang up. He insisted he was not a serving military officer and I believed him. He was nervous, grim-faced, eyes darting and reluctant to utter a word, driving way to fast, and clearly uncomfortable.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche to travel these border regions still under Thai martial law since it was infested by armed guerrillas of the Communist Party of Thailand only a few years prior, and Thai military intelligence could pull rank with the flash of an ID card, getting a no-questions asked salute, and look of fear at any military checkpoint. I had seen it many times.

This fellow I was with had no permission to transport a foreigner through the Thai frontier, and certainly not to smuggle him across national  borders into a zone controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel faction at war with the central government in Phnom Penh, of which Thailand had formal diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly proclaiming they had no contact with the Khmer Rouge, and now, except for the legitimate national security functions of gathering intelligence, monitoring Khmer Rouge activities, and keeping their options open, they were largely complying.

He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, specifically to avoid Thai military checkpoints. I wrote down every turn, drawing a map in my notebook, in case I needed to find my way back—or was ever inclined to sneak back this way again.

After a couple hours, the pickup turned down a dirt path into a small non-descript Thai village and pulled over at a thatched roof noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows of the pickup shielded me from the solemn but prying eyes of the half dozen peasant farmers milling about. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for a minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper into rice fields down rutted dirt tracks used only by water buffalo and farm equipment.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan tree amongst the rice paddies and waited. I was told to stay hidden in the truck. I was given a baseball hat with a Kiss rock-and-roll band logo of an extended tongue for disguise, sunglasses, and told to wrap a checkered traditional Cambodian scarf around my face.

Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through the rice paddies, a battered pick-up truck with no license plate and tinted windows approached from the east out of the jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border a couple kilometers in the distance. It pulled next to us and a uniformed Khmer Rouge soldier got out, greeting my companions. With little small talk, I was promptly ordered in the cramped, small rear bench seat behind the driver, my 6-2 inch frame stuffed awkwardly like a sardine, my knees bent up to my chin. The Khmer Rouge soldier was at the helm, his face serious, a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gearshift, young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel door that morning, in the passenger seat. We sped toward the tree line. The rice fields devolved into now unproductive, fallow fields. This was always a mark of danger. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, fields were abandoned because of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are the sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holdings—literally the source of the food on their table. Things have to be pretty bad for rice fields to be abandoned.

Periodically, artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, villagers killed or maimed, and they would retreat from their homes, waiting for the war that each side had nothing to offer them, to end. Hand painted blood-red skull and crossbones signs nailed to trees were everywhere, a crude warning to local peasants of landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionately to the importance of the area—either as a strategic road or military base or village of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through these abandoned, neglected fields, empty and silent, toward the tree line mountain escarpment on the horizon. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In these parts of the Thai-Cambodia frontier if there were trees, there were guerrilla soldiers hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle ahead, I was told—an isolated Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge driver checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, traditional Cambodian scarf wrapped around my head, with only my eyes exposed. “Tell them you are visiting your family, if anyone asks,” he instructed, rather preposterously. The checkpoint consisted of a single raw cut log suspended parallel across and above the road, weighted on one end by concrete and tied by rope on a post on the opposite side of the dirt track. A bamboo hut was beside it. Next to it, in the mid morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped against a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade. We had now entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai never suspected an American was being smuggled through. The explosions of incoming artillery followed the rumbling of their firing further down the mountain escarpment ahead.

The guerrilla stronghold on a high ridge of northern Cambodia’s Dongruk Mountain offered stunning vistas of tropical jungles and besieged villages encircled by bunkers and land mines. Grim faced Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them missing limbs and walking on crude hand carved wooden crutches, eyed me suspiciously, trying not to be obvious in the curiosity at the first westerner they had ever seen at their village.

One hut housed sophisticated radio equipment, its roof criss-crossed with antennas. Amputees in pea green Chinese style PLA uniforms, the elderly, and the women and children families of soldiers down the mountain in front line trenches battling government soldiers, walked the dusty single road through the guerrilla base or squatted smoking cigarettes and boiling rice over open fires around the village.

The rhythmic thud of incoming government artillery elicited no reaction from Khmer Rouge “Minister of Finance and Economy”, Mak Ben, as he emerged from a bamboo hut, wearing rimless spectacles and a grey Mao suit buttoned at the collar around his neck.

A blackboard on a thatched wall behind him shouted Khmer Rouge slogans in the Sanskrit based Cambodian script, proclaiming “Hate the Communist Vietnamese Aggressor!” and “Believe Deeply in Guerrilla Warfare!”

He walked over to greet me, extending his hand with a smarmy, insincere smile. “Welcome to the liberated zones!”

I, of course, had been given no idea with whom I was going to meet, whether we would continue deeper into the jungle, or whether I would be offered useful new information. I patiently exchanged pleasantries while fresh mangoes, papaya, and rambuttan fruit was served.

Mak Ben wasted no time launching into the lecture he was instructed to give me, denouncing the “Vietnamese puppets and their despicable alliance” who were darkly plotting to “swallow” Cambodia and eliminate the Khmer Rouge.

He saved special vitriol for the Americans. Much of the not very thinly veiled threats were directed at ears many thousands of miles away to official Washington.

“If you, the United States, continue to help the Vietnamese and Hun Sen fight us, we will use our right to self-defense. I must tell you that if you continue to aid the Vietnamese and their puppets, we cannot guarantee the safety of Americans in Cambodia,’ he smirked at me, betraying no friendliness. “One thing I should stress is we will never agree to surrender. Never!”

“We are very concerned, very interested in (U.S. National Security Advisor) Anthony Lakes meeting with (Thai) Prime Minister Banharn Silp-archa,” he continued.

A French trained engineer and former Khmer Rouge diplomat, Mak Ben held the meaningless title of Minister of Economic and Finance in the Khmer Rouge so-called Provisional Government. “We want to know exactly what Lake means when he says the U.S. wants ‘democracy, stability, and security’ in Cambodia? Is it security through national reconciliation, without the Khmer Rouge?”

I was beginning to seethe at the realization of what was happening.

I had been summoned from across the planet, on my own dime, to be lectured by a robotic mid-level Khmer Rouge minion because they, in their isolation-fueled paranoia, were reading dark plots into a routine stopover in Bangkok by a U.S. official.

And they wanted me to deliver their pathetic message to my “bosses” in Washington.

Anthony Lake’s comments meant nothing. They were the routine rhetoric of long stated U.S. policy, made on a courtesy stopover in Thailand on his return from Beijing to Washington, which was so short he never left the Bangkok airport.

But Mak Ben hammered on, visions of dark plots having been conjured up in these isolated jungles, attaching ridiculous significance to Lake’s visit.

That was why I had just flown across the world, drove to a remote Thai border town, holed up for days in a 1 star hotel hovel, and smuggled across international frontiers illegally: To meet this bonehead spout delusional rhetoric of a wholly out of touch with reality guerrilla band of murderous thugs caught in a time warp of their own making.

They were convinced that Lake’s routine, passing, entirely inconsequential comment was focused on destroying them, and  I had just traversed the planet on my dime so they could use me to relay to Washington that they would start assassinating American citizens working as humanitarian aid workers in Cambodia if the U.S. didn’t back off.

Mak Ben went on to describe a paranoid, fanciful geo-political strategy of the U.S. having entered into an alliance with Vietnam—using Cambodia as a theater—that aimed to undermine Chinese influence in the region. “

“After the cold war, Vietnam is too weak to carry out its expansionist strategy. But Vietnam will never abandon its strategy—which is deeply rooted among the old and young. Now 4 to 5 million Vietnamese nationals are in Cambodia. Laos is finished. Seventeen northeastern provinces in Thailand will encompass the Vietnamese Indochina Federation. The Vietnamese are breeding like rats. Vietnam is at our door. We cannot afford to be alone. We are with you! Who else if not the U.S., the West?”

He went on to contend that the Khmer Rouge enjoyed wide support in Asian capitals. “Diplomatically, ASEAN, China and Thailand are compelled to recognize the Phnom Penh regime…But morally we enjoy the support of the region,” he told me.

Mak Ben went on to downplay the influence of Pol Pot and the rest of the senior leadership, who had long officially retired but in fact remained in complete control. “Cambodia of the past belongs in the past. Let’s not talk about history. Pol Pot and all the Democratic Kampuchea leaders are very old. You can imagine how they are. They have lived 30 years in the forest without medical care.”

He continued to further piss me off.

“I would like to tell you that Pol Pot and the other old political leaders are not in the political game anymore. They are finished…I am here to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I tell you that we, our new group, abide and continue to abide by liberal democracy, to be with the western world—the U.S.! I dare to tell you we are with the U.S., the free world! You can believe it or not. I have to stress to tell you that this is our political position and we will never change. For the sake of our country, we cannot go communist…to survive as a nation.”

I had known Mak Ben for many years and always been particularly unimpressed with him. He oozed insincerity. And he had the self conscious, arrogant swagger of a nervous, gangly teenager who you wanted to feel sorry for except he was mouthing such dangerous dribble.

His eyes darted avoiding mine from behind his dark glasses.

“You have abandoned your children!” he said wagging his finger at me, referring to the American government. “Look at Funcinpec, isn’t it your child? And Sam Rainsy, he is a child of the West. They are all your children. You have given birth to them. You have given them food, milk! You have sent them to school. Are you going to abandon your dying children?”he scolded me.

Mak Ben failed miserably at trying to look intimidating.

I remembered Mak Ben well from 1991 in Phnom Penh. He arrived in late November with the Khmer Rouge delegation to Phnom Penh, led by  Prime Minister Khieu Samphan and the head of the Khmer Rouge security services, Defence Minister Son Sen, after the signing of the October 1991 Paris Peace Accords on the Khmer Rouge first return to the capital since they fled the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, leaving behind more than 1.8 million corpses under the feet of the broken souls of those who survived.

They were not warmly welcomed back.

Immediately upon arrival to their newly rented headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh, convoying in from the airport with armed United Nations protection, the Khmer Rouge delegation were besieged by a government sanctioned mob that attacked them, invaded their villa, beat them up, looted the contents, and burned it to the ground.

I invaded the house with the mob.

After Mak Ben and the others were trapped, beaten and terrified, he fled for his life through the crowd back to the jungle.

But while the mob was attacking Mak Ben and the other leaders, beating them bloody, I noticed nearby their unopened luggage and immediately began to loot it, rifling through looking for documents.

A very happy fellow next to me opened a suitcase with $200,000 American dollars in it.

Among many gems, I found Mak Ben’s Yugoslavian passport. And a letter from his daughter. She was a young girl, a refugee herself from the Khmer Rouge killing fields, who found her way from the UN refugee camps in Thailand to Australia as a very young child. She hadn’t seen her daddy in years. It was a heart wrenching letter that begged her father to address rumors that he was a Pol Potist.

“They say you are a murderer, daddy, it said.

After fleeing the Phnom Penh mob back to the jungle, other Khmer Rouge made fun of Mak Ban, saying he was terrified of returning to Phnom Penh and being killed. He wanted to stay in the jungle, afraid to face the Cambodian people.

Every time I saw him, I saw a bully and a coward.

After lecturing me on the U.S. abandoning their “children”, and threatening to murder American citizens unless Washington knuckled under to these nearly irrelevant delusional, self-important thugs sleeping in the forest, he smiled at me and tried to lighten things up. “

America is a liberal democracy. We are nationalists. Democrats, too! So why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation. Join together! We are with you, the West!” he said growing increasingly animated, half breaking into song. “ ‘We are the World!’ Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson” Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ Let’s join together!”

Mak Ben blithely ignored the fact that the U.S. government really could care less what happened in Cambodia, and it’s only stated policy towards the Khmer Rouge, in 1996, was funding projects to gather evidence to bring him and his comrades to an international court of justice to face charges for mass murder, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Retreating from his absurd and comically ineffective attempt at hipness, he again tried to look menacing. “It is up to you. Our cards are on the table. We can fight for 100 years. We can eat grass if we have to. We have no other choice. We cannot accept that our nation, the great 2000-year-old nation of Angkor, disappears. As patriots, we will use our right to self-defense. It is better to die in the jungle.”

I was very angry by this time.

It was clear to me that I had been summoned around the world to be lectured and to be a courier to deliver half empty threats to Washington.

I was not to see anyone important and I was not to learn much useful.

I asked, of course, to meet Pol Pot and others and to stay in the jungle and travel to guerrilla bases.

“The leaders are all busy,” he said dismissively.

He told me that I would have to leave that afternoon, before dark. “It is not safe here.”

Down the mountain I could see smoke rising after the ground shook from each burst of mortars and artillery. which shook the earth beneath us.

At lunch, a village elder looked morose. “We moved here last year to get away from government attacks,” he said. “For the people here it is a very hard.”

He eyed Mak Ben to make sure he wasn’t saying something wrong. “

We used to have hope that the Paris Agreements would bring peace. We want national reconciliation. In our hearts we want national reconciliation and peace,” he said, softly and quietly. “Especially peace.”

The village elder, like I, was fed up.

I left shortly afterwards, telling Mak Ben, in a moment of uncontrolled fury and indifference, to pass the message not to invite me back unless they were prepared to let me meet senior leaders. He was insulted. I didn’t care.

While he betrayed nothing of the matter that day, July 30, 1996, as we spoke, the jungles just south of here were simmering with a similar attitude, and rebellion within their ranks was about to erupt into violent mutiny and mass defection that would, later that week, deliver the biggest blow to Pol Pot and his loyalists since they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion 17 years earlier.

It was the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his movement had begun to implode. Simmering rebellion against the Mak Ben’s and their ilk at the top would soon result in bloodshed and resistance. In the Khmer Rouge, to resist meant either total victory or total destruction. There was no room for debate or discussion or disagreement or compromise. You either won or you were dead.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination, in whole or part, without express written permission from the author.)



The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism: Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil

13 Nov

The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism. One close encounter with religion, death, and victory

By Nate Thayer

Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. No reproduction or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission of the author)

 Your Financial Support is Needed for the publication of “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge”

Please excuse, in advance, the insufferable self-promotion seeking funding. Believe me, it mortifies me more than it will annoy you. This is a pitch for funding to bring to fruition my campaign to publish my book and related accompanying data and documents and videos of interviews with the Khmer Rouge leaders and and observations of the Khmer Rouge and modern Cambodian political history. The new realities of journalism are that individual investigative journalists must seek independent financing and engage in self-marketing as the institutional support of large media companies has evaporated. I, and my colleagues who share my belief in in-depth, long term investigative journalism, almost universally no longer have institutional backing or other means of income to pay for the considerable costs of our genre of investigative journalism. It is, indeed, expensive and time consuming and requires considerable resources. It is also, in my opinion, both endangered and vital. For those able to support the project financially, it is both needed and appreciated. Please go to the upper right hand corner of this blog where there is a Paypal button. This will easily walk you through the simple steps to donate. As well, at the top of this page is a link to a page on this blog detailing other methods of providing donations to ensure this book is published in both hardcover and as an E book sometime in mid 2014)

By Nate Thayer

It was after midnight, before I was to be picked up before dawn by Thai military intelligence to be escorted into Cambodia to accompany guerrillas on a mission to attack and seize a Cambodian district capitol town.

It was monsoon season. As always, I was carefully preparing my equipment. There was an art to fitting everything I might need into a light backpack with lots of pockets and readily accessible under pressure. There were separate Ziploc bags for different speed film, for each Nikon lens, my two Nikon camera bodies, a point and shoot camera (what we then called a “drunk proof” or “idiot camera”), for an extra pair of dry socks and other dry clothes, a small medical kit, notebooks, a flask of whiskey, a poncho, a hammock, extra pens, a carton of cigarettes to give away to grunts on the front line, tape recorder, extra batteries, and more. As always, I never knew how long I would be gone for or what I might encounter.

There was a knock on my door, and the manager of my small guesthouse where I lived in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, a young boy of 17, entered. Ghung, who I had taken under my wing in the previous months, knew I was going to leave in a few hours on what might be a dangerous assignment. Ghung was very concerned.  I invited him into my spartan room and, with a very serious expression on his face, sat down. He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets.

“I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence.

Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”

Philip Blenkinsop photo

Philip Blenkinsop photo

The Kuman Thong effigy is revered in rural Thailand and Cambodia by many Buddhists, but it is Animist, not a traditional Buddhist practice, more “black magic”, or necromancy. Kuman Thong was created centuries ago by surgically removing the unborn fetus from the womb of its mother. The child’s body was roasted accompanied by chants. original Thai Buddhist texts say making a Kuman Thong amulet requires removing the dead baby from the mother’s womb, followed by a ritual of the baby cooked until dry. This process must be finished before dawn.

“Kuman Thong” means “Golden Baby Boy”. They say if you have a good relationship with your Kuman Thong, you will not have very bad things happen to you.

Ghung’s heartfelt gift had not gone through such an involved process, but it represented. to him, the same power. They are widely believed, in rural Thailand and Cambodia, to be very powerful, protecting one from danger, even bullets bouncing off of you.

Ghung was a very sweet and intelligent boy and we had become friends. I thanked him respectfully, because I knew he was very sincere and serious, but I didn’t really believe him. But it was touching.

I wrapped the amulets in my traditional Cambodian scarf and wore them around my neck when I departed for the Cambodian jungle, before dawn broke, riding shotgun in an unmarked Thai military pickup truck.

We arrived at a secret Cambodian guerrilla base in the jungle just over the Thai border and hour later. The guerrillas were gathered, waiting for me, heavily armed and sporting a dozen brand new  CIA supplied Yamaha 250CC dirt motorcycles. They also had a new, powerful, secret weapon that the government was unaware of which had been clandestinely delivered to their enemies in the days before.

We left the guerrilla base before dawn for an arduous trek through monsoon soaked ox cart paths that snaked through the jungle, led by the convoy of  dirt bikes, one of which I was riding shotgun on. Advance teams of troops were ahead and behind us.

The guerrillas had two new weapons; the German made Armbrust 69 mm shoulder fired one time use anti-tank weapon and the Swedish Carl Gustav 84 mm anti-tank weapon. For ten years, the government had tank superiority. For a decade, once the government tanks broached the front line positions, the guerrillas had no effective weapons to stop them. For years, the guerrilla commanders had offered a 50,000 Baht ($2000) reward to any soldier who could destroy a tank prior to that day. Their only weapon was a B-40 rocket propelled grenade launcher, designed to take out concrete bunkers,which required one to get within 20 meters of the tank, from behind, crouch and aim upwards and so it hit the undercarriage of the tank and took out the tracks to halt its advance. More often than not, the guerrilla would be killed attempting to do so, and if he was lucky enough to survive, it was likely he would be wounded by his own shrapnel backwash from firing the RPG from so close.

This time was different.

We entered the first government held town and immediately destroyed three tanks. The German and Swedish weapons, covertly supplied through Singapore, penetrated the tanks armor but the round would not explode until it was inside the tank, vaporizing the 3 or 4 man crew instantly. I took pictures of their incinerated, burnt corpses still sitting in the drivers seat and manning the tank turret gun, the twisted carcass of the feared armoured T-54 Soviet tank smoking and twisted and neutralized.

We captured that town within an hour.

The government troops fled in sheer terror, the psychological impact and confusion of knowing they no longer had tank superiority changed the face of the war that day.

Within two hours we advanced without hesitation and had captured the district capitol of Thmar Puok.

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

There, we destroyed 4 more tanks defending the perimeter of the sprawling city.

The guerrilla’s had a celebratory lunch in the former Vietnamese military headquarters, the former only school house in the city and the only concrete building. Graffiti spray painted on the inside walls read in Vietnamese Roman script: “Long Live the Communist Party of Vietnam!”

This was 30 kilometers from the Thai border, more than 500 miles from Vietnam.

It was the first district capitol seized by the guerrillas during the long 12-year war. Government troops, terrified young boys who didn’t care a whit about politics and were conscripted like all troops on both sides of the war, surrendered by the hundreds, along with their Russian jeeps and transport trucks and weapons.

We drank lots of whiskey in the mid day sun. The people I was with were very happy. Other people, not so much.

For the civilians, none were happy. They were satisfied, like most Cambodian’s,  if they did not die, their daughter was not raped, their life possessions not looted, and their water buffalo not stolen. Peasant villagers in Cambodia knew that no army or government, regardless of ideology, actually had anything to offer to make their lives better. It was the faction that wreaked the least havoc, who took away the least from their already meager lives, which they would least detest.

It was a big story, I knew. I had very good pictures and an exclusive eyewitness account.

We toured the new liberated zone of dozens of villages with no electricity, schools, running water, or hope. This stretch of real estate, for a very, very long time, only knew war.

Then, after 12 hours, we began the return trip towards the sanctuaries of the rear military bases straddling the Thai Cambodian border, as dusk began to fall, west, towards the Dongruk mountain escarpment far on the horizon marking the border.

The heavy, daily late afternoon monsoon rains had begun.

I was eager to file my story and pictures, which would be, still, many hours away. I still needed to cross out of the jungle, be transported back across the border to Thailand, and down 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.

From there, I would call the Associated Press office in Bangkok and dictate my story by landline telephone.

Ghung, the sweet and cocky 17 year old boy, who had given me the Buddhist amulets late the night before, would always, for months now, push the button on a stopwatch and time my calls and charge me by the minute.

The undeveloped photographs, still on 35 mm film, would be given to the long distance bus driver of the commercial bus company which made a half a dozen trips through the day and night from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. We would give him no money for fear he would then take the film and sell it to local Thai papers. In Bangkok, an AP messenger on motorcycle would be dispatched from the AP office and meet the bus at the bustling Moenchit bus terminal. There, they would exchange cash for film and he would return to the AP office, where the film would be souped and developed. A few pictures would be chosen and put on a roller and sent over telephone lines to Tokyo and New York. From there they would be transmitted to AP customers worldwide. To get story and pictures out from when they were taken to when they were seen and read could often be days.

But this day it didn’t work out, as it really never did, as planned.

We began the motorcycle ride on our CIA dirt bikes through the uninhabited savannah and jungle, headed west towards Thailand. Bombs and gunfire were everywhere. This area had been under government control when dawn emerged earlier that day. It was, in reality, now under control of no one, but the government had fled. The guerrilla’s had never been here before.

Then the motorcycle convoy of a dozen or so got separated. The dirt tracks were a meter deep in mud. We got separated. Then our motorcycle broke down. Dusk was rapidly approaching. One guerrilla stayed with me. We finally abandoned the motorcycle and began walking west towards the silhouette of the Dongruk Mountains still a dozen miles to the west. That was Thailand and that is where I wanted to be.

“Are there any landmines around here,” I asked the young guerrilla grunt.

“No. No landmines,” he replied

“Where are we,” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

What it feels like after not dying

What it feels like after not dying

“Well, if you don’t know where the fuck we are, how the fuck do you know there are no landmines? I asked, now tired, dehydrated, and hungry.

It had been 12 hours since we left the guerrilla base on motorcycles and seized a couple hundred square kilometers of territory. Many, many were dead. That didn’t much bother me. I had not eaten all day. That didn’t much bother me either. I was dehydrated. That made my mind fuzzy. But, mostly, I wanted to get my story and pictures, which I knew would be a minor scoop in the world news, out, safely.

We entered a thicker jungle and bushwhacked ourselves through by hand.  We did not know where we were. It was now dark. There were no longer front-lines defined. No one knew what territory was now controlled by the enemy or friends. As far as I was concerned, there were no friends and there was no enemy. I only wanted my pictures and story to get out.

Then we heard the sounds of trucks idling ahead in the jungle.

That was a very bad, frightening sign.

The guerrilla’s I was with—troops of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, did not have any trucks.

We halted. We moved slowly through the light forest and peaked through the trees and foliage.

There, idling on an oxcart path, were two Soviet Zil transport trucks with several Cambodians, in government military uniforms, carrying Soviet issue AK-47’s.

My lone guerrilla companion turned to me, after a long period of silence, and said: “I think they have defected to us.”

“What the fuck do you mean ‘You think they have defected?” That is not fucking good enough! They either have defected or we are about to be dead or become prisoners of war.” I was, honestly, ready to surrender if the latter was the case.

He had a look of fear and uncertainty in his eyes. That scared me even more.

“You wait here. I will go check,” he instructed me, failing in his attempt to give the impression he was in control of the situation.

He tried to be quiet as he pushed aside the forest brush and not alarm the armed men in government uniform in government military trucks.

I waited, crouched, decidedly not comfortable in the savannah. My guerrilla guide returned with a smile on his face. The armed men and vehicles had, indeed, defected in the previous hours.

I was ecstatic. It was dark. We were lost. Our motorcycles had broken down and been abandoned. It was rainy and muddy and hot. I was hungry and we had no water. We were in territory under unclear control. Now we had a truck and we would be back in Thailand within an hour.

I emerged from the jungle and was greeted warmly although with the concomitant, quizzical look that is directed towards animals in a zoo.

There were about a dozen troops in the jungle clearing with two trucks. Some were guerrillas and some were freshly defected government troops. We all piled into one truck. The driver was a government soldier hours before. Now he was a guerrilla. Three of us were in the front seat, myself squeezed in the middle, between the driver and an impressive fat guerrilla officer. About a half dozen troops were in the open back carriage of the 2 ½ ton Russian military transport truck.

We were laughing and giddy as we slowly negotiated the mud soaked, deeply rutted ox cart path, headed west, towards Thailand. The dim silhouette of the Dongruk mountain escarpment still visible under the moonlight about ten miles to the west.

I remember being scrunched up tightly between the fat guerrilla commander and the skinny young boy government conscript, now a defector, in the driver’s cabin of the Zil. I was sitting in the middle. I was in a very happy mood. I had great pictures and a great story and I was the only journalist there and I was now in a truck being driven towards a safe place where I could transmit them to the few interested around the world. I remember chatting to the driver, smiling and laughing. He was happy, too, mainly because he was not dead, a fact I am sure he was concerned about at the start of that day.

I loved this life.

We had been driving only a few minutes and then something–in an instant–terrible, something life altering, and for some, life extinguishing happened.

The sound was so profoundly loud that I could not hear it. My eardrums were blown out. The concussion of the explosion was so great my brain shut down. I remember the liquid in my body became so heated I could feel it simmering near boiling. I could hear my blood boiling, gurgling from what seemed like heat. I felt my brain being tossed around like a rag doll bouncing off the insides of the wall of my boned skull.

Our 2 ½ ton truck was thrown in the air several meters and, luckily, hit the side of a tree, and bounced back down, landing upright. Actually, I don’t remember that part. I saw it, afterwards. It looked like a shredded child’s toy Tonka truck.

We had driven over two Chinese anti-tank mines.

Specifically, our left front tire, which was less than 1 ½ meters from where I had been sitting.

This is very Cambodian. One does not need two anti-tank mines to blow up a tank.  One will do. But, for good measure, just in case, the guerrillas had placed one on top of another. The mines were placed by the guerrilla’s themselves. Because they had no vehicles—until that morning.

We had just driven over our own landmines.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious.

I do remember waking up that night, with clarity and vividness, that startles me in my sleep and jolts me awake, regularly, now many hundreds of nights and some days, to the present, years later, in a mixture of unspeakable fear and grief and confusion and sadness.

There was a severed leg lying across my face. I held the leg up and looked at it. It was not connected to a body.

I was in the remnants of the engine compartment of the truck, its tattered carcass spread meters across the muddy jungle ox cart path.

I needed to know whether it was my leg I was holding in my hand. But I was very scared to find out. I reached down and ran my hand over my left leg and it was still attached to me body. I did the same with my right leg. It, also, was still attached to my body.

I had no idea what happened. I looked around me.

A few feet away was the young Cambodian truck driver, moments before with whom I was laughing and smiling and chatting. Life, for both us, would be, from that moment on, very different. His would be much shorter than mine.

He was sitting up, with a look on his face of raw terror and amazement I will never, ever forget. He was holding tightly the stump of his thigh, eyes locked, fixed, wide open, staring at what was no longer there. He did not panic. He didn’t seem in pain. He cried—no he moaned–loudly, but in words profoundly mournful.

He only called for his mother.

“Mother, please help me!” he repeated over and over and over and over.

I extricated myself from the engine and went over to him and held him in my arms. “You will be OK,” I lied. “Everything will be fine.”

For perhaps ten minutes, he called for his mother, staring in utter terror and horrid curiosity, his mind racing over, I suspect, his brief past, perhaps his never realized hopes, and his now very, very brief future, while grasping tightly the shredded stump of his muscle and bone and meat in his hands, the end of what was his leg, now within easy reach of his clutching hands.

And then he died on this irrelevant, muddy jungle dirt ox cart path, in the rain, at night, far from his mother. Probably, no one, other than the half dozen of us there that night who remained alive, to this day, knows how and where he died. He just never came home.  There are millions of Cambodians whose loved ones simply never came home and they don’t know why.

We left him, dead, on the dirt path, in the dark, alone. I am sure, no one amongst us even knew his name.

The man who was sitting to my right, the fat guerrilla commander, before the driver died, was angry.

He had taken shrapnel to his head. It penetrated his skull. There was a gaping hole on the side of his skull, above his ear, leaking increasing amounts of blood and other, whitish, grey coloured liguid, mixed with chunks of solids. It was his brains.

I remember him cursing the truck. He got up and he kicked the side of the truck with a ferocious boot and yelled and blamed the truck. Who else was there to blame?

Then he died, too, falling on the mud path, on his face.

We left his body there as well.

After I had fled in slow motion the dying, legless driver, another man, lying down, prostrate,  who I thought was dead, bolted upright.

He jumped up and yanked his pants down and, terrified, grabbed hold of his cock and balls and inspected them to make sure they were intact.

That made sense to me and I immediately did the same. I later learned this is a common reaction to the freshly wounded in war.

I remember asking him: “What just happened?” I had no idea. I had no idea we had run over a landmine. I did not understand why, in the dark, and mud and rain there were people dying and suffering.

“”We hit a landmine,” he said, with no discernible emotion.

Then, strangely, I became obsessed with locating my film, my cameras, my notebook from the wreckage of the debris of the truck and human carnage littering this irrelevant jungle patch, which, really, was of importance to no one, save those of us who died, or didn’t die, there that night.

I became obsessed and started  sifting through the metal and mud, in the dark and the rain, looking for them.  I need to salvage a purpose, an excuse that I had a reason to be there. Two other surviving troops came over and helped me. We found my Nikons and lenses and film and small,little backpack next to the bodies and under the remains of the truck. They had survived unharmed. I was greatly relieved.

Most everyone that night was killed, but several of us were not. Two were severely wounded. We cut two tree branches and attached hammocks to them, and two guerrillas carried the badly wounded through the night, in the rain and dark, for three hour, for 7 miles, a silent, sad trek, everyone lost in their own thoughts, to the nearest guerrilla base.

There, 7 miles away, they had felt the earth shake from the explosion from the landmine that was planted under the dirt less than 2 meters from me that night.

We began a long silent, sad walk.

I didn’t know that bones were sticking out of my leg until I stepped in a mud hole on that walk and a jolt of pain went from my leg to my brain. I didn’t know that I had shrapnel in my head until I tasted blood dripping into my mouth and wiped my hand over my face and looked, in fear, as it was covered in bright crimson fresh liquid.

I didn’t know I had permanent brain damage. Or that my ear drums were burst, or that my sternum was broken. Or that my liver was dislocated. And other stuff.

I just walked. Because we had no choice.

We arrived, hours later, at the guerrilla base. They knew we were coming. They piled us wounded into the back of a pickup truck and took us to a CIA funded guerrilla operating theatre in the jungle. It had a gas powered generator to provide electricity for an antiseptic operating room. There was an air conditioner in it. But we were put into an open air thatch roofed room. The loud din of a chorus of frogs croaking in celebration of the heavy monsoon rains, along with crickets, was soothing, but was so loud one had to speak louder to be heard.

A dozen or so soldiers,  all on crutches, their freshly bandaged stumps of legs covered in bright red fresh blood, their legs and arms and some one or both of each, gathered and stared at us, the new arrivals to their new world.

I was placed on an elevated military cot. Next to me was the most badly wounded soldier. The kind eyed, French trained doctor spoke softly and touched and poked me, my badly wounded neighbor on the stretcher next to me, and one other severely wounded guerrilla.

Then two soldiers walked in with a chainsaw, headed towards me.

I had bones sticking out of my feet. I jumped up like an Olympiad on methamphetamines and screamed in at least three languages to get the fuck away from me. I was forcibly restrained and reassured that the chainsaw was not destined for me. It was for the man next to me in the stretcher. They were massaging his heart. His leg was attached by a few strands of ragged tendons to his torso. he was not conscious. The medics, who, in truth, only had training in amputating limbs,  cranked it on and cut his leg off with no anesthesia, two feet from me. I stared emotionless at this. I was drained of any reserves of emotion by then.

I watched, in retrospect, with a calmness fueled and mitigated, I guess, by the context of the evil of that night. He died not so long afterwards.

They took me to the operating room. They took pieces of metal out of my legs, my torso, and my head. They sewed it up. They did their best.

Honestly, I felt very little pain, even then. I had just been blown up I then walked 7 miles with bones protruding from my foot, dozens of holes in my body, pieces of metal embedded in my head my torso, my legs, my feet. I had several broken bones. But in the coming days, for weeks, I would not be able to move from the pain.

Despite the unpleasantry of the previous hours, I was fixated, oddly, on one thing–to get my photographs and story to the Associated Press office in Bangkok. I knew then I could relax, my job done.

I repeatedly asked to be taken back the 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. I needed—not wanted—I NEEDED—to file my pictures and story. In the darkest hours before dawn, I was driven by Thai military intelligence in an unmarked truck back to my hotel.

I was bandaged. I was confused. My whole body hurt by then.

My good friend, Philip Blenkinsop, the photographer, was staying in another room in the sparse ten room ground floor motel. I knocked on his door. It was before dawn.

He opened the door and stared silently for a few seconds. Philip, who I love dearly, didn’t say “What happened to you? Are you OK?”

He said, and I won’t forget these words: “Don’t move, mate, Great pics. Let me get my kit.”

I felt comforted,  as if I was now home and out of danger and with my people. He took these, and other pics.

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

The young boy, Ghung, the 17 year old Thai hotel manager, came to the room a while later. He had  a serene and loving look on his face. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘I told you they would protect you.”

Ghung knew he had saved my life that day. And I was pleased he believed he did. His black magic dead fetus was still wrapped around my neck.

Both he and I were very thankful and quite satisfied with the day, for different reasons.

Later the commander and chief of the guerrilla army came to my hotel room with a dozen roses. I liked this man. He smiled and chuckled and said: ” I told them not to drive down that path” and he handed me the flowers.

But the memory since has never left me, and never will leave me with any sense of peace or conclusion. I am not sure this story can be adequately conveyed. But that is the best I can do, today, 22 years later.

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

14 Oct

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

Excerpts from “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalists memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

An unpublished manuscript (Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

By Nate Thayer

One day in July 1996, while in my office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. , where I was a Visiting Scholar after being expelled from Cambodia for writing about corruption and the rise of organized crime in control of the government, I received a telephone call from a friend in Europe with an urgent message. The Khmer Rouge wanted to see me in their guerrilla control zones in Northern Cambodia. Could I come to the jungle immediately?

The message was an urgent request I fly across the world to Bangkok and make my way to a particular small, sleepy hotel in the remote Thai border town of Surin, as soon as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I was to call a number in Europe and give my hotel room number. I was then to wait and someone would “contact me.” That was the entirety of the message. It was a typical set-up for a meeting with the Khmer Rouge. There was no mention of who I was to meet, when I would be contacted or by whom, where I was going to go, how I was to get into the Cambodian jungles, or what the subject matter would concern. I didn’t even know who within the Khmer Rouge was contacting me.

The routing of the message was typical in its circuitous layers to obscure any prying eyes or ears. And it was designed for the Khmer Rouge to keep complete control over the process that would end in me arriving at one of the most forbidden territories on earth, It denied me any ability to double cross them if I was so inclined, or to pass on information to American or other intelligence officials or other enemies. Importantly, anyone monitoring my communications or movements would also be frustrated if they had nefarious intentions. But it also left me very vulnerable if something were to go wrong.

There was always a palpable undercurrent of dark unease for me when I began the clandestine process of accessing their leaders and the clandestine territories from which they opererated.

A Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris, who was married to a Frenchwoman and therefore held French citizenship, had called my friend. My friend, a Franco-Khmer, was trusted by the Khmer Rouge, but was not a member of the Party. He, in turn, was known to be close to me. The French based former Khmer Rouge diplomat had been contacted by another “former” Khmer Rouge diplomat living underground in a safe house in Bangkok. In actuality, that safe house was operated by an extremely clandestine unit of Thai military intelligence which, technically, did not exist. That Bangkok based Khmer Rouge diplomat maintained human runners who would be dispatched back and forth overland across the the Thai border, slipping into and out of the Cambodian jungles.

The Khmer Rouge in the jungles had relayed information or invitations to me in Washington, Asia, and Europe and elsewhere this way for years. None of the compartmentalized operatives involved would be told more than they needed to know to get the information to their intermediary contacts, destined, ultimately, to me. My response would travel a similar maze to obscure the entire communication process and content. That information was limited to simply the logistics of accomplishing a rendezvous. Even if they were arrested, monitored or inclined to talk, they didn’t have any information useful to their enemies.

The diplomat in Paris did have one fully equipped man, a specialist trained in China to transmit coded communication, who was able to transmit and receive top secret messages from a counterpart in the jungle in times of crisis or extreme urgency.

But for the purposes of my rendezvous, it could routinely take weeks between a message being dispatched from the jungle and a reply from  me arriving back in their jungles.

So, as always, I told my friend in Europe to relay the message that I would depart immediately and would be checked into the Petchkasem hotel in Surin, Thailand within 72 hours. I boarded a plane from Washington’s Dulles airport that night for the 36 hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok, it was a ten hour drive to the obscure Thai border town abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles, which were over and down the mountain escarpment to the east.

From the Petchkasem hotel, I dialed the contact number in France and informed my friend simply what hotel room number I was checked into. No names were used. No countries were mentioned. Even the name of the hotel was omitted. “How are you, my friend? I said. “I have arrived fine. I am in number 302. I will wait here.”

“I will let my friends know now, “he said. “They will contact you. Be careful.” He couldn’t tell me, even if he wanted to, when, by whom, where I was going, who i would meet, or what to expect.

Then, I waited…..for days.

I forget how many, but several. mainly I stayed semi-drunk. I did sit ups and ran in place.I left the room for one hour each night to swim at a lap pool in the town. I ate noodles and rice from the lobby nightclub, a neon lit coffee shop which doubled as a whorehouse. From there I had a view of the lobby through which all had to enter or leave. I cleaned my camera equipment and read literature and documents on the Khmer Rouge I always kept for interesting distraction. I had read everything at least once before.

As usual, I had no idea whether I was to have to walk through the jungle for days, whether I would meet important leaders, including Pol Pot, or when the contact liaisons would arrive to retrieve me.

So all that uncertainty and the various potential scenarios required contingency preparation. Jungle clothing, still camera, video-camera, charged and extra batteries, film, notebooks, hammock, mosquito nets, food, rolls of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and zip-lock bags of all sizes to protect against the monsoon rains and other jungle elements.. Everything had to fit perfectly into a small Khmer Rouge knapsack on my back in case I had to walk for days.

And i couldn’t really leave the hotel room, not knowing when the Khmer Rouge operatives would arrive, and not wanting to draw attention to myself in the interim. The small hotel staff knew me well, after years of passing through, and it was no secret what, in general, I was up to. They knew I was going to nearby Cambodia, where there was a war. But they really didn’t want to know any more than that. I would always leave, usually before dawn, and never checking out, utterly failing at being inconspicuous as I passed through the lobby dressed in jungle clothing with a backpack laden with camera equipment. Often, I would return days later, muddy and dirty and accompanied by fit men who didn’t speak much, wearing sunglasses even after dark.

On a number of occasions, I was escorted by Thai military intelligence operatives, whose demeanor didn’t require them to show the ID cards they carried, which struck fear in anyone towards whom they were flashed The hotel staff knew better than to ask any questions.

To get to Surin, the Khmer Rouge had to sneak across the border from their mountain base camps, through numerous Thai military checkpoints and, if everything went smoothly, drive several hours through remote rice farming regions dotted with small villages to get to Surin. Lots of things could go wrong, and often did. Getting a simple message from one Khmer Rouge base to another in order to dispatch a runner to pick me up could itself take several days.

Then one rainy morning while still dark at 0500, there was a firm knock on the door. I asked who it was, first in Thai. Silence.

Then in English. Again, no answer.

Then in Khmer. After a long pause, a hushed whisper replied, in Khmer, “It’s me.”

A non-descript Khmer Rouge soldier, dressed in civilian clothes, waived me out nervously and went ahead of me to check to see whether the hallways were clear He then motioned me urgently out and through the lobby to the parking lot and into a beat up old pickup truck with Thai military license plates.

He refused to tell me where I was going, or who I was scheduled to meet. “You will see, ” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know. But he would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel in the neighboring country and deliver me, illegally across international borders, to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing attention to anything or from anyone.

Now, In July 1996, more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed there were enemies everywhere. And they were right.

The pickup truck from my hotel was driven by a very frazzled Thai in civilian clothes with a mobile telephone who insisted he was not a serving Thai military officer. I believed him. He was nervous, grim faced, his eyes darting, not wanting to talk, clearly uncomfortable, and drove like a fucking maniac.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche and could pull rank with a flash of an ID card, receiving a no questions asked salute and a slight look of fear at checkpoints as the grunt trotted briskly to lift the concrete barrier poles that blocked the road. I had seen it many times. This fellow clearly had no permission to transport a foreigner towards,  through, and across the Thai frontier still under military martial law. And certainly not to smuggle me across national borders into zones controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel group at war with the Cambodian government of which Thailand had diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly denying claims they had any contact with the Khmer Rouge.

He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back farm roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, to avoid Thai military checkpoints. I wrote down every turn, drawing a map in my notebook, in case I needed to find my way back. or was ever inclined to sneak back in via this route in the future.

After more than a hour, the pickup truck turned down a small dirt path into a a cluster of bamboo huts that constituted a Thai village and pulled over at a noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows protected me against the solemn staring eyes of the half a dozen peasant farmers milling about in the early morning hours, the heat already promising to become stifling. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper, east, into the rice fields down rutted tracks used only by water buffalo and crude farm vehicles.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan Tree and halted. And waited. I was told to stay hidden in  the truck. I was given a hat, told to put on sunglasses and wrap my traditional checkered Cambodian peasant scarf–a krama–which was around my neck over my shoulders, around my face.

Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through rice fields,  a battered pickup truck with no license plates and tinted windows approached from the east, where there was a jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border in the not far distance. The truck pulled alongside us and an uniformed Khmer Rouge officer got out, greeting my escorts. With very little small talk and no smiles, I was promptly ordered in the back of the newly arrived vehicle, where there was a bench seat behind the driver. The uniformed Khmer Rouge officer, his face serious, and a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gear shift, its 30 round ammunition clip inserted in the weapon, got in the drivers seat. Young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel room door earlier that morning, got into the passenger seat. We sped toward the treeline to the east.

Quickly, the rice fields devolved into fallow, unproductive land, abandoned. This always is a mark of danger lurking. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, the fields were totally abandoned, the scene of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar, unsettling scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are a sure sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holding–literally the source of the food on their table and in their stomachs. Things have to be pretty bad for a rural Asian peasant to abandon their rice fields.

Periodically artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, and villagers would be maimed or killed. Soon, they would simply retreat from their land, to wait for the latest, seemingly endless war to ebb. Hand painted,  signs on trees of skull and crossbones painted in blood red colours, were everywhere, a crude attempt at warning local peasants of hidden landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionally as we neared our destination, as they do to denote  the importance of the area–either a strategic road or military base or encampment of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers or contested area between front-lines of enemies.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through fallow fields, empty and silent, towards the tree lined mountain escarpment in the horizon coming into clearer focus. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In this part of the Thai-Cambodian frontier, if their were trees, there were guerrillas with guns hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle in front of us, I was told–a Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge officer checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, tradional Cambodian scarfed covering my face, only my eyes exposed.

“If they ask, tell them you are visiting your family,” he instructed rather preposterously. It was highly unlikely a 6 foot two inch Caucasian had relatives in the nearby jungles controlled by one of the world’s most notorious revolutionary political movements.

The checkpoint consisted of of a single hewn log suspended across the dirt track, weighted on one end by a concrete slab and held down on the other by a rope tied to a stump. A bamboo hut was beside it. next to the structure, in the late morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped on a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade.

And we entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai grunt never suspected an American journalist was just smuggled through past his prone and droopy eyes. I relaxed, even though I could hear the rumbling of artillery, closer and closer, in the direction we rumbled toward, picking up speed……..

(Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

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