Hacktreks: World Journeys
I lay awake at night and wonder
Im in Phnom Penh and cant sleep. I seem to always
wake up at this time, when the day is still dark and the only
sound is that of lazy thoughts shuffling inside my head. On the
other side of the hotel window a boat bangs softly against the
is windy and the monsoon is nearly at an end. I was told Cambodia is
a land of dusty sunsets but I find the county resplendent with green
paddy and the gurgle of the pale brown Mekong in flood. I expected,
too, to meet a morose and sullen people. But the Cambodians are warm
and cant repress their smiles.
Throughout the town small but smart restaurants cater to the foreigners
that work for the NGOs and UN agencies that finance and prop up the
social welfare system of struggling countries like Cambodia. Banners
pronouncing tourism as a tool to build cooperation droop
in the thick air. The tourists are back. Backpackers from Australia,
packs of Japanese and most ominously, ugly aging men on the prowl for
sex with young Khmer girls and boys. Cambodia is challenging Thailand
as the premier destination for sex tourism. Such are the hairline cracks
of a poor countrys development.
is another macabre little industry in Phnom Penh centred around
the horrific torture chamber known as Tuel Sleng or S-21. Tucked
deep inside a residential neighbourhood the former high school transformed
by the Khmer Rouge into a laboratory of evil, S-21 is a must
see for any visitor to Cambodia. Along with the temples of
Angkor part of the grand tour. Moto drivers call out to you, Tuel
Sleng. Look at Khmer Rouge jail. You can buy T-shirts with
disgusting recreations of faces behind bars on the backs. They also
sell bags and skirts made of bright Khmer silk right next to building
B where Pol Pots most important enemies were kept in tiny
wooden cages before being cut open like animals and fed to the demon,
Angkar, the Organization.
remember the name Pol Pot but his crimes were still unknown outside
of Democratic Kampuchea in those years, 1975-1979. Its an old
story now, how this country was transformed, almost over night, into
a giant slave camp. Cities were evacuated and left empty and the population
forcibly moved from province to province to reshape the face of the
land. Canals were gouged out of the earth. Dams glued together. Millions
of paddy fields planted. All done without the help of machinery, with
only bare hands and fingernails. Machines were deemed impure and imperialist.
Money was abolished as was religion, privacy and even talking. Democratic
Kampuchea was a massive experiment in applied paranoia. The people were
starved and then themselves became fodder: sustenance for Angkar. Hundreds
of thousands, even more than one million, perished. There is not a family
here that doesnt harbour the loss of a sibling, parent, child
Why didnt we hear of this when it was happening, I wonder?
I recall an exhibit at S-21. Instructions painted on a signboard to
those under torture. Among the many protocols is the command not to
yell out or make any sound when you are beaten with electric wire.
The single most important factor in the success of Pol Pots revolution,
according to most scholars, was the carpet-bombing by American B-52s
between 1970-1975. By the time Phnom Penh fell the people of Cambodia
were massively traumatized from years of dodging falling explosives
that wiped out their villages, families and animals.
I used to work in Iraq. One night the Kurds went wild and fired their
machine guns into the air. We lived in tents against the side of a hill.
We ate under a thatch and open sided cabana. For several minutes I felt
the terror of having no control over my well being. Shells from the
celebrating Kurds guns rained down from the sky thwacking into
the earth and cracking into rocks. I ran for cover but why, I dont
know. There was nowhere to hide. How was a canvas tent to protect me
from a hot piece of iron falling from the sky?
And how was a Cambodian peasant to protect himself from a massive cluster
bomb falling from an unseen American warplane? And not just once but
night after night, week after week? When the Khmer Rouge came to town
they didnt have to recruit. The people swarmed to
anyone who claimed they could stop the bombing.
Daylight is breaking over the city. I can hear street children laughing
now and the sky is white. Its going to rain some more today.
In the 1970s an American President doggedly pursued the national
interest and filled the air with airplanes and bombs and mighty
words about the need to stop communism from sweeping across the world.
More quickly than Presidents Johnson, Nixon or Ford could have imagined
and certainly more inelegantly then the American people were led to
believe, communism and the horror that the planes and bombs were to
supposed to eliminate, ran the Americans out of town. And tore apart
the people and society they were supposed to save.
Two years ago another American President began massive bombing against
another weak and troubled Asian country. "Were going to get
him dead or alive" the world was told. And something else too.
"This time were not going to let the Afghan people down.
Well change the leadership, establish the rule of law and stick
around to rebuild the country." Two years on the Taliban have regrouped.
Osama is neither confirmed dead nor alive, apparently relegated to the
too-hard basket. (Still broadcasting to taunt the Americans.
The rule of law remains a fantasy in Afghanistan and donor fatigue has
already set in. Of the billions pledged to rebuild Afghanistan to ensure
that terrorism has no room to hide, much has not been delivered. The
Afghans, it appears have once again been sold a line by their saviours.
President Bush is once more in dogged pursuit of American interests.
Come hell or high water, right or wrong, support or not, we were told
we must "change the leadership in Iraq, establish the rule of law
and get the UN to pay the billions needed to rebuild the country".
Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder.
What sort of new horror is going to arise from the ashes of Afghanistan
and Iraq, similar to that arose here in Cambodia? Will Americans wake
up and see the links between their crusades against communism and their
wars against terrorism and the misery and hatred that follow in their
© Nathan Rabe Jan 2004
Nathan Rabe is a journalist, novelist and senior operative for the Red
Cross based in Australia
see also: Tajikistanredux
Nathan Rabe's wonderful photographic journal about Pakistan
THE HINDUSTAN WAY
Black Taj Press
Chicago, Melbourne - Australia.
Nathan Rabe is a writer, novelist and senior organiser 'out in
the field' for the Red Cross
Available direct from the author
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