SOF Frontline Report
Cambodian Border Massacre
American Crosses the Line to Save Lives
Text and Photos by George Jones (aka Nate Thayer)
Soldier of Fortune magazine
(Back to Bangkok: A few months ago, George Jones was a desk jockey in an eastern state bureaucracy with prospects of steady work, good pay, and engaged to be married. Reconsidering, Jones pulled the pin, went to Southeast Asia with a camera and started covering myriad mini-wars as a freelance photojournalist. SOF publisher Bob Brown recently met him in Bangkok, and as a result we are able to offer Jones’ first SOF story, about free-lance journalism on the weird and wild Cambodian border.)
I was not in a very good mood. I had just been kicked out of the Khmer People’s Liberation Front (KPNLF) main civilian base camp by the Thai military authorities.
Site Two had been closed to all non-essential personnel, including medical and United Nations workers, for several days as a result of daily Vietnamese shelling but I managed to get in that morning and was waiting with the terrified civilian population for the expected daily dose of big gun intimidation. Around noon the first 107mm rockets landed, killing one man and injuring a workman and a young child. They were probably coming from the former KPNLF base of San Ro, about 2 1/2 kilometers to the southeast, which had been captured during the previous Vietnamese dry season offensive. A woman showed me the trajectory of one piece of shrapnel which had gone through 17 bamboo and dry thatch huts in the densely populated camp, passing within a meter of her sleeping baby.
A “Situation Four” had been called, meaning too late to evacuate–take immediate cover. But the Thai authorities had heard I was there, located me, and escorted me to the perimeter. U.S. Vice president Dan Quayle was scheduled to visit the camp the following week as a show of support to the Non-Communist Resistance, but as I was riding out on my motorcycle, it was clear that the Secret Service folks scheduled to arrive in a few days would be looking for a change of venue. The Quayle visit was subsequently cancelled, moved several hundred kilometers to the civilian encampment of the other non-communist resistance, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukiste (ANS).
I returned to the Thai border town of Tapraya, 30 kilometers to the south of Site Two, not sure how I was going to spend the rest of my day. I stopped by a radio base station operated by a fellow I knew. Prasart was a well-connected former Thai military officer who had a love for electronics–radios in particular. Although he coordinates a complex system of radio field communication for the border relief effort, he has a number of two-way radios he monitors simultaneously, including those of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Thai military, and the Khmer resistance. He speaks fluent Thai, Khmer, and English. If anything is developing on this border region Prasart is often the first to know.
“George, you always seem to show up when things are interesting,” he said with a smile.
“Why, what’s going on/” I replied.
“You know there is a Situation Four in Site Two,” he said.
“I know. I just came from there.”
“Well, I just got word there are wounded coming out from north of Phnom Chhat,” he continued, referring to the Khmer Rouge headquarters of the 519 Division located about ten kilometers to the southeast. “It looks like the casualties are heavy. I just called papa and Whiskey for permission to send ambulances to a pickup point,” he said, referring to the Red Cross and United Nations field directors. “I think you might want to get down there.”
He gave me rough coordinates and I was off. There is no way to properly cover the war in Cambodia without a motorcycle, especially in the rainy season. Many areas are simply not accessible by car, and it can take hours to walk to many of the guerrilla bases once the roads end. This was just such a time, I thought, as I maneuvered through the two kilometers of rice paddies towards where the wounded were supposedly coming out.
There was a sense of controlled chaos when I arrived. In a clearing on the edge of rice paddy, about 50 people were gathered, most of them wounded. There were a few Khmer Rouge soldiers with their familiar Chinese Kalashnikovs and their green uniforms, who seemed to be monitoring the scene. The rest included about a dozen medical workers who, not being able to go to work at Site Two, had received a message over their compulsory hand-held radios that there were wounded in need of attention near Tapraya. There were no Red Cross ambulances yet and no coordination. The relief workers were doing the best they could with limited equipment. Most of them worked in hospital and primary-medical care facilities in Site Two.
With a population of 174,000, Site Two is the second largest Cambodian city in the world, behind Phnom Penh, despite the fact that it is a refugee camp several kilometers inside Thailand. Like any city, there is a need for an extensive medical infrastructure, and these folks have come from all over the world to volunteer their expertise. It has been said that Site Two has access to better medical care than any other comparable rural population in Southeast Asia. The Doctors and nurses there that day were not battlefield medics, however, and for most of them this was a new experience. The most severely wounded were treated first, with IVs attached after vital signs were ascertained. One doctor was squeezing an IV bottle with both hands, attempting to speed the process of replenishing a man who had lost a lot of blood.
I walked among the wounded taking pictures and asking questions in my broken Cambodian. Apparently, a group of more than 100 Cambodians, escorted by about 20 Khmer Rouge soldiers, were ambushed about 5 kilometers inside Cambodia by Vietnamese-backed Heng samrin troops. The dispute was over control of a lucrative cattle trading market, and casualties were primarily Cambodian cattle traders who had refused for the fifth (and the last) time to pay ‘taxes’ to take their cattle through government-controlled territory to markets in Thailand. The traders had come into Thailand in the morning, sold their cattle for between 4,000 and 12,000 Bhat each ($160-480 US dollars) and were returning for the four-day-and-four-night walk through the jungle to their homes. What they did not know was as soon as they passed through on their way to the Thai border, the Heng Samrin troops had set up an ambush site. With trip-wire activated mines set up along the path, a group of about 100 were killed or wounded within a matter of seconds. Those that were not hit by the shrapnel of mines were ambushed by a platoon-sized group of Heng samrin soldiers laying in wait with rifles and B-40 rocket propelled grenades. Except for the 20 or so Khmer Rouge soldiers, the rest were unarmed. The wounded I talked to said that more than five were killed in the initial attack and that many more were wounded. Many of the wounded fled into the jungle, trying to avoid the assault on the survivors. Many of the more seriously wounded were not able to get out, and probably were hiding in the jungle, unaware that medical help awaited them if they could make it to Thailand. Only 35 out of the more than 120 had made it and dusk was approaching.
I walked over to a Khmer Rouge with an AK and started snapping a few pictures. “No pictures,” he immediately barked, as he turned his back.
I followed him and smiled a friendly smile. “Fuck you, asshole. You are in Thai territory and you can’t do a thing about it if I take your picture,” I said, knowing full well he didn’t understand a thing.
There was a satisfaction in telling the Khmer Rouge to go to hell. Many journalists were killed during the fighting in Cambodia in the 1970’s, some of them disappearing into Khmer Rouge-held areas, never to be heard from again. They tend to see all westerners as the enemy, and there had been plenty of times they had taken my film at gunpoint, accused me of being CIA, and even arrested me. Not to mention that out of the thousands of Cambodians I have met over the years, I have yet to meet one who didn’t lose a family member or friend during the three and a half years the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. These were clearly some of the most offensive thugs to get together an army and take over a government in my lifetime. Besides, this Khmer Rouge unit had the task of protecting the traders on their return to Cambodia, and they obviously didn’t do a heck of a job. So, fuck you, asshole.
As I was interviewing the wounded, there were intermittent arrivals of more, some on makeshift stretchers (a hammock tied to a bamboo pole), some walking, and a few on the back of motorcycles. I went up to a fellow who seemed to be coordinating the retrieval of the wounded to try to get more information. It was getting dark, he said, but there were many more wounded still in the jungle. The problem was that Heng samrin troops were still in the area and the Khmer Rouge were refusing to send troops in to assist in the retrieval of the severely wounded. No one had been to the massacre site, but there would be attempt come daybreak.
“Could I come along,” I inquired. After a check with his compatriots, he returned and said yes. I was to meet him at dawn.
By the end of the day, 38 wounded had emerged from the Cambodian jungle, been delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and taken to the ICRC surgical hospital at the U.N. refugee camp of Khao I Dang 30 kilometers south of Tapraya. But there were many more wounded, and it could only be hoped that a rescue team could get to them before the Heng samrin troops, or before they died of their injuries. That was the task of those I was to accompany the next morning.
From our meeting point the next morning, I accompanied a group of four or five Thais in a pickup truck several klicks southeast toward the Khmer Rouge military base of Phnom Chhat. I wasn’t sure who these Thais were or exactly what they did for a living but you learn not to ask too many questions on the border, and as long as they knew what they were doing I really didn’t need to know. We abandoned the pickup several kilometers after we left the last real road, unable to move the vehicle forward over the scrub terrain. We got out and started walking through lightly wooded terrain, with elephant grass, brush, and thin trees. It was a strange area, with no huts or cultivated land for several klicks behind us. Minutes into the walk, three people appeared walking towards us from the east. One had shrapnel wounds to the legs, and the other two were assisting him to the Red Cross ambulance on stand-by near Tapraya. After spending the night in the jungle, he had come over the border at daybreak and had run into the other two. There were more wounded across the border, he was sure of it. Since they were over an hour’s walk to the ambulance, we sent our driver to accompany him in the truck.
We walked another 45 minutes to a small clearing, passing one body near the path. He had died the night before, I was informed. Coming with a group of several wounded, he had succumbed to his wounds here, and they left him at this spot while the others continued towards medical help.
At the clearing we met up with a ragtag group of six men, bringing our group to a total of 11, including myself. I was happy to see Noi, the fellow who I had seen just the night before when he had approved my request to accompany them to the massacre site. He was an impressive fellow, exuding quite confidence, and clearly in charge. Only in his early 20’s, I was to find out that Noi was the leader of a three-man Thai ground intelligence unit, whose job was to monitor the Khmer military situation in this area of the border. He was an intelligence grunt, who passed the information to some office in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. He had regular interface with the Khmer Rouge, the KPNLF, and the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin troops of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Given that all three of these groups regularly attack each other, Noi’s ability to move among the factions was impressive. He was just the type of guy I like to know in my line of work.
Noi laid out the itinerary: He had sent an emissary to the Khmer Rouge military commander to request troops to accompany us into Cambodia to the massacre site. We were to wait here until they returned. The massacre site was about six kilometers east, and the path was heavily mined. We would have a trained mine expert whose job it was to detect mines, and defuse them or lead us around them but it would be slow moving. The area where we were going was long controlled by Heng Samrin troops. No one had been to the massacre site yet, and we did not know what to expect. Our mission was to retrieve wounded, since more than 60 people were still unaccounted for, and those that were not killed were probably still in the area. If the Heng Samrin troops saw us, they would probably shoot us. Noi promised to do his best to avoid that possibility.
Our group of 11 was a strange and motley one indeed. A mix of Thais, Khmer Rouge, and a few who were fluent in both languages. None were in uniform, some were barefoot, others had Ho Chi Minh sandals. Noi wore a pair of relatively new military-issue combat boots, a white tee shirt and fatigue pants with a canteen attached. All of them had huge knives or sickles. There were a couple of guns and grenades among us. Everyone was quite sullen, some whittling wood with their knives, others rolling cigarettes with newsprint and raw tobacco, and still others eating plain cooked rice from small bags tied to their waist. There were sporadic rockets landing to the south of us, but they didn’t seem to merit more than a brief turn of the head from our group. Twice the dull thud of a landmine detonated in the direction we were to go, and a few would get up to assess the situation, walking a few meters to stare intently into the jungle, only to return to squat with the group. No one spoke much. I had little idea of what was going on. I had met a few of these folks briefly the day before, but I had no idea exactly what any of them were doing in this no man’s land about five kilometers from the nearest cultivated land. Since none of them spoke a word of English, we were communicating in my smattering of Khmer mixed with a few Thai words.
The emissaries Noi dispatched to the Khmer Rouge base camp returned in about an hour. We had been refused troops. The Khmer Rouge had said it was “too dangerous,” according to Noi, and besides, they didn’t want to travel with a Westerner.
But we had our human mine-detector and we began the next leg of our journey. In single file, we began to walk. Two scouts were sent ahead about 20 meters, and the Khmer Rouge fellow trained in mine detection was, of course, in front of the group. The jungle quickly became denser. Along the single path, less than two feet wide, visibility was about ten meters.
We were less than fifty meters into the jungle when a wave from the scouts brought us to a halt. They had discovered the first mines, buried on the path. They marked the spot with a simple X scratched in the dirt with a stick and put a couple of sticks on either side, guiding us around it. As I passed by, I tried not to ponder the fact that, to me, it looked no different than the rest of the path.
The jungle became progressively thicker, visibility decreasing to a few meters. We walked slowly. I felt guilty as I carefully placed my feet in the footprints of the fellow ahead of me. At one point I passed him, simply walking around him, stepping off the narrow path in the process. A whispered command came from ahead. Noi came back to me. ‘Stay on the path no matter what.” he said firmly as if he were talking to a child. His “you don’t get it, do you/” look made me feel foolish.
Hell, I thought, I am a city boy from Massachusetts. We don’t have jungles where ZI come from, and we certainly don’t have mines. I wouldn’t know the difference between a claymore and a half-buried Budweiser can. I have no military training. Hell, I don’t even have any photography training. Even if I do manage to get some good shots, I don’t know whether anyone will buy them. I have not forgotten the times before that I have photographed firefights only to be offered 25 bucks apiece for the best ones. “Good pictures,” they say,” But, frankly, a firefight in Cambodia isn’t of much interest in Peoria.”
We were waved to a halt. More mines, the relayed whisper confirmed. About three meters ahead, our Khmer Rouge human mine detector went to work. Savuth, only 19, had no family, and had lived in the Khmer Rouge border bases since the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1979. I was impressed. He was like a coon dog. Wielding only a thin bamboo stick and a determined gaze, he found more than a dozen areas that were mined that day. Some locations had several devices, with trip wires positioned on alternate routes around the mined path. Savuth motioned to me to come to him. “Right here,” he pointed to a spot in front of us. I looked intently, but saw nothing. He reached down and gingerly cradled a thin green wire stretched about three inches above the ground in some light brush. He followed the wire gently with his fingers off the path, poking the ground and digging gently with his stick at suspicious dirt. About a meter off the path, the wire led to a spring detonated Type 69. Savuth untied the wire from the mine and then proceeded to deactivate the spring detonator. He handed the mine to me.” You want it?” he said. “I have plenty.”
I am sure he did. The Thai-Cambodian border has served as a refuge for more than a generation of guerrilla fighters, starting with the anti-French Issareks shortly after World War II. During the 1970’s, a number of small groups of anti-Khmer Rouge resistance fled to the mountainous sanctuaries of the Dong Rak escarpment. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia on Christmas day 1978, hundreds of thousands fled to the border area, developing an armed resistance that now numbers more than 60,000. The first thing every unit does when they take over a piece of real estate is surround the perimeter with mines. The annual Vietnamese dry-season offensive has dislodged scores of camps during the ten-year-old war. But the mines stay behind, and the ritual is repeated as the guerrillas move to new sanctuaries. After so many years, the Cambodian border region has been turned into a series of mined paths that snake through vast areas, long abandoned, where every step is fraught with danger. The refugee camps have thousands of mine victims, and bustling workshops that are devoted strictly to churning out wooden legs. Often one will see a new mine victim helping to carve his own prosthesis in these surreal workshops, which are virtually a cottage industry on the Cambodian border of the 1980’.
We had been walking for almost an hour when the lead scouts again brought us to a halt. I looked ahead and saw 10 meters ahead of us what I instantly recognized as the infamous “K-5.” “K-5” is a barbed-wire barricade that runs more than 100 kilometers in the jungle parallel to the Thai border. It is a sophisticated barrier system, surrounded by mines on both sides with wire activated devices that run through the fencing itself. Shaped like an inverted V, the pinnacle is more than a meter-and-a-half off the ground, with one fence perpendicular to the ground in the middle, with booby-trapped wire fencing coming down from the peak on both sides at a 45 degree angle, reaching the ground about 7 feet apart. After the Vietnamese launched their crushing 1984-85 dry-season offensive, routing virtually every resistance base camp, they built this barrier several klicks inside Cambodia, to prevent the resistance from launching attacks from their new sanctuaries inside Thailand. It has proven very effective, eliminating many infiltration routes. I had heard many soldiers speaking of the disruption that K-5 had caused them in their forays into the Cambodian interior.
Ironically, it also proved a boost to the resistance as well. Thousands of Cambodians were conscripted into forced work brigades by the Vietnamese to build this barrier in the jungle. Thousands of people contracted malaria in these brigades, and hundreds stepped on mines. There was vast resentment by civilians throughout Cambodia, as people returned to their home provinces with horror stories from the west. Hundreds of young men fled to sanctuary of the resistance camps rather than be subjected to the labor brigades.
K-5 was an impressive structure but the fence had been cut, with a gap of about a meter, in the spot we were. It was in an area that was lightly forested, and then fence disappeared into the trees going in both directions. Savuth showed me two more Type 69’s and trip wires that disappeared into the fencing. He added the deactivated mines to his collection. “Why,” I inquired, “exactly are you saving those things?” It seemed that Savuth had a broader job description than I realized. Not only was he skilled in detecting and defusing these cylindrical nightmares, but he was charged with re-depositing them under some path somewhere else in the jungle as well. Waste not, want not, I thought, happy that Savuth was able to take a break from the flip side of his job to accompany us that day.
There was sober evidence we were nearing the massacre site. A man lay dead just off the path, with obvious shrapnel wounds to his legs and arms. He hadn’t been dead long, probably unable to continue, succumbing to his wounds suffered in the initial attack. There were also a couple of traditional Cambodian scarves lying on the ground, bloodied and dirty. Several spent B-40 RPGs lay just off the path.
We paused at K-5 for about 30 minutes, while the area was scoured for mines, and two scouts went ahead to assess the area. I could see them walking about 25 meters on the other side of K-5, crouching and listening. Noi squatted next to me. “The wounded who came out yesterday said the attack took place about one-and-a-half klicks east of here,” he said soberly. “This area is controlled by Heng Samrin. Two wounded who came out this morning said that they were still active in the area. We will try to get to the site to see if there are any more wounded. We will stay there only long enough to retrieve them. It is very dangerous. If there are any troops, or if there is gunfire, we will come back in this direction.”
The scouts came back and we were given the OK to proceed. I noticed that the tension level of the guides increased markedly. I also noticed that four of our group declined to proceed, opting to wait for our return.
Within a hundred meters, the lead scout motioned for us to get down, and everyone sank to a crouch, leaving us still clearly visible in the shallow scrub surrounding the path. Although the area was medium forest, the terrain was rolling, offering numerous hidden sanctuaries less than ten meters from the path. It occurred to me that the platoon that lay in wait for the traders yesterday could easily be within meters of us on either side, with ample concealment. I didn’t dwell on it. We moved slowly and gradually quickened the pace. It seemed that the guides knew where we were going and were trying to get it over with, calculating that the risk factor was diminished proportionally to the amount of time we spent in the area
Within a twenty minute span we were twice ordered to hit the ground as someone thought they had heard sounds or saw movement off to the side. There was increased evidence that we were closing in on our objective. Two more bodies lying off the path spoke volumes of the recent chaos. Pieces of clothing, brand-new tape players still in their boxes shattered by shrapnel, packages of dried noodles and other small items lay on the path, obviously dropped by people fleeing the area.
I moved up to the front of the line, staying immediately behind the scout, checking my camera for the proper settings. The scout came to an abrupt halt. Ten meters in front of us the path was strewn with bodies. As I came up to the first one I was overwhelmed by the smell of death. Spitting out the air in my lungs and trying to hold my breath, I got off some quick shots, and counted bodies strung in a row on the path. They obviously had been walking single file when the mines went off. It wasn’t hard to see what happened. The mines had been placed on either side of the path, parallel to it for about ten meters. The first person in the line set off the trip wire, detonating all the mines on the path. We were told they were claymores and Type 69s. The platoon of Heng Samrin was lying in wait, and then opened fire as the wounded started running away from the initial explosion. Off the path were several groups of bodies. There was a pile of six only two meters from the path. Another grouping of about ten lay a little further away in the other direction. There were several other clusters of legs and heads and arms. I counted 32 bodies in all, but some of them were piled on top of each other and it was difficult to make an accurate body count. I stood over one body that had a number of shrapnel wounds. Looking closer, I picked up a spent AK cartridge laying next to his head. There was a clean hole near his temple with a ring of burns surrounding the entrance wound. Someone had finished him off while he lay wounded, I thought.
The lead scout next to me suddenly fell to the ground on all fours, looking toward the tree line and an embankment about 15 meters to the north. Everyone silently followed suit. I clearly saw someone move in the clump of trees, and my heart raced. We were totally unprotected, lying in the middle of a minefield. The scout had just told me not to venture closer to the clusters of bodies lying off the path, because sometimes soldiers booby-trap the bodies after an incident. I saw someone stick his head up in the tree line and then duck down. I snapped a picture for the hell of it, knowing that it would only show a cluster of trees, and couldn’t possibly reflect the tension of the moment. The jungle was silent for what seemed like forever. No one knew quite what to do. Our scout whistled softly in the direction of the movement. Again, a head appeared from behind the trees, and then an arm waved—motioning us to come closer to him. No words were exchanged and the jungle remained silent.
“Who are you,” our scout whispered loudly in Cambodian, “Where are you going?” Jesus Christ, I thought, what thee fuck do you mean “where are you going?” We are lying in a minefield in the middle of the jungle surrounded by dead bodies. The way I figure it, pal, he is either sitting there bleeding to death or he is about to pop out with about 20 others and waste me. This is hardly the time to inquire about his travel plans. Perhaps I lost something in the translation.
I didn’t understand the response from the figure in the tree line, but our two scouts reacted positively, and they started making their way gingerly off the path towards the figure. There was no way to tell how many people were in the tree line, and whether or not they were friendly. The guides were obviously reluctant, not confident enough to incautiously proceed forward.
It was one of the traders, and he was wounded, the scouts called back to us. They scurried to help him. He was talking rapidly as the two scouts carried him the short distance back to us. The boy, only 19, had avoided any shrapnel wounds, but had been hit twice in the leg by the subsequent AK fire. He had run into the woods and been hiding since the attack, now about 19 hours before. Heng Samrin troops had come back twice since the initial attack, he said, each time killing any of the wounded they could find. The last time was less than an hour ago, he said, as he pleaded with us to take him to safety. I took the Cambodian scarf off my head and used it to cover his wounds. A hammock materialized, and they tied it to a long pole. This was a very lucky man, I thought, looking at him. The expression on his face was a queer mix of pain, joy, and fatigue. He looked like he was trying to laugh, but his injuries were sending other messages, resulting in an incongruous mix of facial expressions.
The boy said he had seen no one else alive other than those that the soldiers had killed on their return trip. The news that the Heng Samrin soldiers were in the immediate area made all of us very nervous and the scouts kept grabbing me, telling me to run. I had shot less than two rolls and was reluctant to go. We had been there less than ten minutes.
We left the massacre site in a considerably different manner than we arrived. We trotted along the same path that only minutes before we had inched along. I reminded myself that this was the same path our scouts had relieved of a dozen mines within the last few hours. As well, there were three occasions (or was it four?) where they chose to leave the mines intact, and guide us around them. I briefly reminded myself of these remaining mines as we walked briskly back toward Thailand and hoped that Savuth, our mine detector, deserved his reputation for thoroughness.
It seemed to me that our return trip through the jungle was rather reckless, as we moved quickly and in a group. But I just followed the lead of those in charge and tried not to think. I had adopted an attitude in covering the war that a French photographer had impressed upon me a few years back. The two of us were on the front lines with the KPNLF, awaiting an expected Vietnamese assault to overrun a resistance camp. The Vietnamese had already captured half the village; all 17,000 civilians had been evacuated many weeks before. The opposing front lines were a series of trenches facing each other less than fifty meters apart.
When the expected assault came, it was clear the Vietnamese intended to own that piece of real estate by the end of the day. They laid a heavy artillery and mortar barrage on our position and were sending in assault teams to dislodge our front lines. Our platoon would have been more than happy to retreat immediately, but the shelling accompanied by dozens of AKs on full auto left us unable to move. There were three guerrillas in my particular trench. One had taken a round at about his sternum and was breathing heavily with a wet gurgling sound with every breath. The second was in tears, and the other was crouching with his AK held high over his head on full automatic pointed in the general direction of the Vietnamese. I had basically abandoned any serious thoughts of photography and was, in a prone position, reassessing my career objectives. The Frenchman, however, was standing outside of the trench, slightly in front of us, casually focusing his camera and taking our picture. There were numerous AK rounds hitting the dirt around his feet, not to mention the big guns which had bracketed our position. He was wearing bright yellow pants. I knew right away that this man was simply crazy. We, of course, survived the unpleasantness, and later over dinner safely back in Thailand, I inquired why he seemed to have divorced himself from sanity earlier that day.
“Look,” he said, “I travel all over the world trying to photograph combat situations. Maybe, if I am lucky, ten hours per year I will be in a hot situation such as today. I just empty my mind and take pictures. You can’t think about the danger too much or you won’t get any shots. And anyway it doesn’t do any good, since usually there is nothing you can do about it.”
He was, of course, right. He also had good pictures. Every one of mine that day turned out to be out of focus or the victim of camera shake. Most also were at a peculiar angle, with lots of rim shots of the trench taken from below. So not only did I risk my life, but I didn’t even have any saleable pictures to show for it. This job did not make a hell of a lot of sense to begin with, but it made absolutely none if I didn’t have any pictures. I did think, however, that thee Frenchman’s day glow yellow pants were entirely unnecessary.
It took us less than 45 minutes to make it back over the Thai border. Although we were safely past the mined path, it was another 45 minutes where we had left the truck. Our focus was on getting the wounded boy to a Red Cross team that was stationed back in Tapraya. I said some quick goodbyes to our Khmer Rouge scouts, for whom I had developed a fondness ever since they found the first Type 69 in the path in front of us. They were Cambodians and were not allowed to venture freely on Thai territory, so they headed south through the elephant grass to their Khmer Rouge base camp. Noi, myself, and a small contingent with our wounded friend moved west toward the pickup truck. I had spent the better part of two days around these folks and still had no idea who they were or exactly what their function in life was. Some of them we seemed to acquire in this no-man’s land, wandering about with no explicable purpose. With their huge knives and bags of cooked rice, groups of two or three seemed to appear out of nowhere at several points earlier in the day. Usually they would sit down, often with no one acknowledging each other, and silently roll a cigarette or eat plain rice with their hand out of a bag. This had been a strange day.
As we walked toward the truck, I saw three soldiers standing in the path waiting for us. Three Royal Thai Army soldiers armed with M-16s several klicks from the nearest road were clearly not just passing though. The Thai’s do not control this area and there was only one reason they were there.
“We have been ordered by our commander to confiscate your film,” said one of them in a perfectly friendly tone. The Thais are some of the friendliest people in the world, and they have the ability to make you like them, even if they have orders to ruin your day. How did they know so quickly I had gone in, I thought. I had tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. But it is hard for a six-foot-two-inch white guy with a camera to blend in on the Thai Cambodian border.
“Oh, man, you can’t do this to me,” I said. “I worked hard for these pictures.” They were friendly but firm. They were just grunts with orders, and I knew they could not return to their commander without film.
“Check his pockets,” said one to the other. “And the film in his camera as well.’
“All right,” I conceded. I rewound the film in my Nikon and popped it from the case. I handed it to them along with two rolls from my pocket. They had a job to do and they were pleasant enough. They let us go, mission accomplished as far as they were concerned. At least they didn’t arrest me, I thought. It had happened to me more than once coming over the border from someplace I wasn’t suppose to be.
What the three Thai soldiers didn’t k now was that I had taken all my exposed film and hidden it in my socks periodically throughout the day. I have had my film confiscated before, and vowed to be prepared in the future. A photographer without film isn’t worth much to anybody. They had gotten two unexposed rolls I keep for just such occasions, and the film in my camera, which had less than five exposed frames. My damage control strategy had been effective.
We made it to the truck and arrived at the Red Cross stand-by ambulance by mid-afternoon. The doctor who administered to the boy before he was transferred to the ICRC surgical hospital said that he would live, although a bullet was lodged in his knee and could permanently impair his ability to walk. If he had not received medical care today, said the doctor, he probably would have died from blood loss or dehydration.
I went back to Tapraya to assess the last 24 hours and try to sell the story and pictures.
(TAPRAYA, THAILAND) ‘Vietnamese backed Heng Samrin troops ambushed a group of more than 100 Cambodian cattle traders today in an apparent dispute over control of this lucrative cross-border black market. At least 37 people were killed, all Cambodians and mostly civilians. Forty-five wounded managed to cross the border into Thailand, and were taken to the International Committee of the Red Cross hospital at Khao I Dang refugee camp, 20 kilometers south of this Thai border town of Tapraya. Thai military sources said seven of the killed were Khmer Rouge soldiers who were escorting the traders back into Cambodia after selling their cattle. Red Cross officials confirmed reports that as many as 30 wounded were unaccounted for and their fate appeared grim. Attempts to organize a rescue effort were complicated by continued fighting in the area. Thai military and relief officials said it was one of the bloodiest clashes of the year in the ten-year-old civil war in Cambodia. The Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge are the strongest of the tripartite resistance coalition fighting the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia since December 1978.”
I called a wire service I had worked for in the past to try and sell the story. “Sounds interesting,” said the editor, “How does fifty bucks sound?”
The fact is that a firefight in Cambodia doesn’t raise many eyebrows in 1989, 19 years since Sihanouk was overthrown and the United States sent ground troops across the Vietnamese border to dislodge NVA sanctuaries. The same music with different words had been playing on Radio Cambodia for a long time, and the world was getting bored. I accepted the wire service offer. Knowing that soon the ambush would be yesterday’s news. I understood it received a full paragraph in the New York Times next to a department store ad the following day. I was surprised they even printed it.
I would send the pictures to Bangkok to make the rounds and see if anyone was interested. Freelance photojournalism is an unpredictable business. You never know what will sell or for how much. Or if at all. If I made a couple hundred bucks from the last couple days product, I thought, I would be lucky.
It was getting dark and I was sitting alone in a small restaurant in Tapraya, having my first food since yesterday. I had spent the day walking through a minefield with some very suspicious characters in order to take pictures of dead people. Now I was eating dinner in a restaurant on the Thai-Cambodian border. Four months ago I was working as a bureaucrat for a state government in the northeastern United States. Steady desk job, good money. I was engaged to be married. Shit, the wedding had been scheduled for next Saturday, I thought over my fried rice with chicken. But I decided to make some changes. My mother is not happy.