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Hacktreks: World Journeys

Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder
Nathan Rabe

Tonight I’m in Phnom Penh and can’t 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 jetty.

It 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 can’t 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 country’s development.

There 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 Pot’s most important enemies were kept in tiny wooden cages before being cut open like animals and fed to the demon, Angkar, ‘the Organization’.

I certainly remember the name Pol Pot but his crimes were still unknown outside of Democratic Kampuchea in those years, 1975-1979. It’s 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 doesn’t harbour the loss of a sibling, parent, child or spouse.
Why didn’t 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 Pot’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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. It’s going to rain some more today.
I wonder.

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. "We’re going to get him dead or alive" the world was told. And something else too. "This time we’re not going to let the Afghan people down. We’ll 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 wake?

© Nathan Rabe Jan 2004
Nathan Rabe is a journalist, novelist and senior operative for the Red Cross based in Australia
see also: Tajikistanredux

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Nathan Rabe is a writer, novelist and senior organiser 'out in the field' for the Red Cross
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