return of a journalist to the site of earlier cambodian tragedy by Jacques Bekaert
Aranyaprateth- Arrived yesterday in this border town where I came so often in the eighties.
The first time I visited Aran, as it is usually called, it was in early 1979. A few weeks earlier Vietnamese troops had forced their way into Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and were fast pushing the Khmer Rouge forces toward the Thai border.
I paid B 20 ($0.50) for a basic room at the Amnuay Suk II, considered the best hotel in town. The only refugee camp was a fairly open military compound, where hundreds of former soldiers of the Khmer Republic were stationed, waiting for resettlement abroad or for the day they could go back to Cambodia.
Aran was a sleepy town; the border with Cambodia had been closed since April 1975. I went to bed after a simple meal of rice and chicken.
The next morning, I woke up early and drove to the border: the physical border, the line painted on the road, with the red and white barrier. I had my first look at Cambodia as the sun slowly rose in all its orange beauty and harshness. On the Thai side, a young soldier was sitting on the barrier, playing a simple bamboo flute.
It was beautiful, remote, fragile.
Far away one could ear the rumbling of war. The flat sound of heavy guns, miles away.
On the Cambodian side a few men in black were intensely watching us.
“Khmer rouge”, said the Thai lieutenant who was my host. I asked if I could walk to the middle of the bridge, to the line that marked the extreme limit of Thailand.
You can, but the Khmer Rouge soldiers are crazy. They might shoot you.
I walked anyway, while a young Khmer soldier kept looking at me with a stone face. He could have been a statue.
Later that day, a few miles north, in Ta Praya, I watched hundreds of refugees, also dressed in black, arrive from the other side. Women, children and older men. They were as amazed as I was. They had probably not seen a westerner in ages.
A few months later, hundreds of thousands had crossed the border and new names became as familiar to me as those of the streets of New York. Nong Chan, Ampil, Sakeo, Khao I Dang…
This initial visit to Aran was followed by dozens more, several times a year, until the action moved away from the border, deeper into Cambodia.
The refugees went back home in 1992 and 1993, in time to vote in the first Cambodian general elections, controlled by the United Nations.
Tonight, I'm staying in the old compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I remembered it as a lively and busy place, with a nice rustic restaurant. I used to stop here on the way to the border, the refugee camps and the resistance bases, to say hello to friends, to gather the latest news. I developed good relations with the organization. I never had any problem to share with them what I knew, and they were open to my questions. We knew the rules. We kept sources off the record. They helped me a lot, and I did what I could. This relation later moved to Cambodia, and some of the ICRC people there became good friends.
Meow, who lives nearby, informed me yesterday that the old ICRC place has been transformed into a hotel, or at least into a kind of guesthouse, “nice, with air-conditioned, a lovely garden, and a cosy atmosphere”, she said.
When the ICRC left Aran, in the early 90s, they offered their compound to the Thai Red Cross. It seems that in turn the Thai Red Cross, not knowing what to do with this property, left it in the good hands of a local family.
What I find now are the ghosts of a recent past. The buildings are still there, and the garden, and the nice restaurant where I had so many dinners over so many lively conversations…There is still a fading sign that proclaims: Medical Coordinator. But it is all empty, all falling apart.
The woman who runs the place with her two children recently divorced.
She is bitter, anxious to avoid all contacts. My room is half in ruin. The A/C works, yes. But there are big holes in the wall, no key, and the bed is about to collapse. The toilet has not been cleaned in a recent past. The shower consists only in a short rusty pipe, the rest having long disappeared.
Tonight I feel like the last survivor of a time when Aran was on the map of the world, the strategic center that supervised hundreds of thousands of refugees, dozens of camps; the front line town, with a war only a few kilometers away.
At first Aran seemed a doomed city. In 1979, it was not foolish to believe that the Vietnamese army could soon parade in the quiet streets of the town. The great Spring Victory of 1975, the conquest of the South and the fall of Saigon were still fresh in the mind of the Thais. And so were the "liberation" of Phnom Penh, and the fall of Laos into the communist gray world.
The afflux of refugees brought to Aran the international relief community, the good, the bad and the ugly. Those who came with the bible in one hand, the bowl of rice in the other. Those who came to help and asked no questions. Those who saw in the refugees a source of income. Intelligence gathering became a cottage industry. The town grew rich. Too rich too fast.
Tonight I'll sleep with the ghosts of my past: the doctors, the nurses, the refugees, the spooks and the distant sound of guns. The guns never slept for long in Cambodia.
"Aran needs some new refugees, it was so good for business", said a local merchant. Yes, it was so good, with plenty of money made from selling a small bag of rice for a golden ring, some cooking oil for a diamond, and a few tin cans of tuna for your body and soul.