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Friday, April 23, 2010

War reporters pay tribute to Cambodia lost

BBC News

Some of the journalists said they felt a sense of closure after the reunion

More than three dozen journalists were killed or went missing in Cambodia during the 1970-75 war. This week, reporters returned to Phnom Penh to remember the friends they lost, as the BBC's Guy DeLauney reports.

It was almost like old times.

Dozens of journalists filled the Elephant Bar at Phnom Penh's Hotel Le Royal, while on the balcony the real-life inspiration for one of the main characters in the film The Killing Fields puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette.

In the first half of the 1970s, Le Royal had been the unofficial headquarters of the international media who chronicled Cambodia's downward spiral from an oasis of peace to the takeover by the murderous Khmer Rouge.

Now, it was the venue for the first-ever reunion of the correspondents, camera operators and photographers who covered a conflict which took a heavy toll on their colleagues.

At least 37 members of the media died over the five years that it took for Pol Pot's forces to capture Phnom Penh, but the early months were the most deadly.

Two dozen journalists died or disappeared in April and May 1970, as the press corps followed United States troops in from neighbouring Vietnam.


"To use the old cliche, it was stunned disbelief," says Carl Robinson, a former Associated Press correspondent, and organiser of the reunion.

"We had become very complacent from the way we had covered Vietnam, where you got to the airport and you would hitch a ride on a helicopter to the war.

"There was a naïve assumption that we would be OK with the Cambodian soldiers."

The journalists soon discovered that their experience in Vietnam meant little in the more volatile situation in Cambodia, where there was little respect for the media among the multiple factions and shifting alliances fighting for control of the country.

Travelling unescorted in private cars, journalists fell victim to ambushes and road-blocks manned by hostile forces.

"It was one of the most confused battlefields since something like Kursk," says British photographer Tim Page.

"But because of the pressure from the New York and Paris bureaux to get the story, people were outdoing each other to 'road-run', and they were disappearing in droves."

One of the earliest casualties was Tim Page's close friend and colleague, Sean Flynn.

Son of the film star Errol, he had earned a reputation as a fearless photographer in Vietnam.

'Risks taken'

When the war came to Cambodia, Flynn and fellow American snapper Dana Stone set off from Phnom Penh on their Honda mopeds in search of a story.

Their friends never saw them again.

"It wasn't worth dying for," says Carl Robinson, who had made Flynn the best man at his wedding the previous year.

"But we had this fantasy notion, in the evening after a smoke or two, of going over to see what the other side was like and getting the scoop of the war.

"But the reality was it was damned dangerous. God, it was a stupid thing they did."

Mike Morrow agrees with the sentiment.

The co-founder of the Dispatch News Service, which broke the story of the My Lai massacre, he was one of the few journalists captured in Cambodia who lived to tell the tale.

"There were lots of risks taken, and lots of lives lost - some of them very hard to justify," he says.

"It is important for us to reflect on our own roles - and to remember our colleagues.

"We need to answer questions, not just for ourselves, but for journalists who follow after us. There is plenty of war reporting still to be done."

'Sense of closure'

Outside Le Royal, thoughts turned to those who were missing from the reunion.

As Buddhist monks chanted a blessing, a small monument dedicated to the dead and missing was unveiled.

Afterwards, the veteran journalists posed for snaps in front of the memorial stone, and many spoke of feeling a sense of closure.

There was at least one non-journalist among those paying tribute.

The actor George Hamilton grew up with Sean Flynn, and said he felt honoured to have been invited to pay his respects.

Actor George Hamilton came to pay tribute to his late friend Sean Flynn

"I would love to know where Sean's remains are, but at least we are alive to come back and pay homage. At the end of the day, you really want someone to remember you.

"We're talking about some of the toughest combat journalists in the world, and they all deeply feel that.

"They're not showing up here to amuse people or get publicity; this is the real deal."


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