Tag Archives: Cambodia

Time of My Life, Part 46: Serving as ‘country coordinator’

One always should know that there are individuals who know far more than you do, who know their way around bureaucratic mazes and who can be of invaluable help when you are assigned what looks like a monumental task.

So it was back in the fall of 1989 as I helped prepare for a lengthy overseas journey as part of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a professional association to which I belonged.

NCEW would send teams abroad on factfinding missions. That year, NCEW chose to venture to Southeast Asia: to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Several of us on that delegation happened to be veterans of the Vietnam War, which made the journey even more special.

But then came this little wrinkle: NCEW wanted individuals to volunteer to serve as “country coordinators.” What is that? Well, it meant that we needed individuals to take the lead in establishing contacts with government officials in the host countries we would be touring. One NCEW member coordinated the Thailand leg, another did the same for Cambodia. Hey, no sweat, right? Not exactly.

I signed up to be a country coordinator for the Vietnam leg of that trip. Here’s the deal: The United States and Vietnam did not have official diplomatic relations; that didn’t happen until 1995. That meant the United States had no embassy in Vietnam. We had no official U.S.-Vietnam channel through which we could communicate.

That required yours truly to work with the Vietnamese mission at the United Nations. However, we were part of a huge network of experts who knew all the contacts we needed to make with the Vietnamese government.

I called on someone I knew only by reputation. His name was George Esper, who served as special correspondent during the Vietnam War. I read his bylined stories for years during the war. He was based in Boston at the time of our journey preparation. I called him at the AP bureau there.

Esper could not have been more accommodating, nicer and generous with his time and expertise.

He gave me the names of officials throughout Vietnam that we could arrange to meet while we traveled through the country. He offered me contact information at the Vietnamese U.N. mission, through which I would be working to finalize the details of our stay in that country.

Esper cautioned me about some of the roadblocks we might face, but also told me about how the Vietnamese would treat their American visitors.

Esper’s expertise was invaluable. I cherished the relationship I was able to build with him over the phone as we talked continually about our planning.

I regret that I never was able to shake this man’s hand. He died some years ago. However, the aid he offered and made our journey into a once-hostile — but gorgeous — land even more memorable.

A Thanksgiving to remember for the ages

I cherish the memories of many Thanksgiving holidays over the years. I will do so again this year. Our sons, our daughter-in-law and our granddaughter will join us for dinner. We will laugh and enjoy fellowship that only families can enjoy.

However, the most unique Thanksgiving of my life will be in the back of my mind. It occurred 30 years ago today. I was traveling in a faraway land, away from my wife and my sons. As I look back on it, I realize more clearly than ever the symbolism that Thanksgiving had in that time, in that place.

I was traveling through Southeast Asia with a group of editorial writers and editors. We traveled there to examine the issues of the day and to take a firsthand look at the ravages that war had brought to that region. We started our tour in Thailand. Then we flew to Vietnam, which to many of the Vietnam War veterans among our group filled us with another sort of emotion.

Then we flew to Cambodia, which in 1989 was a shattered hulk of a country. The Vietnamese occupiers who invaded the country in 1978 had just vacated. They left behind a nation in ruins brought to it by the horrifying Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.

We departed Cambodia by bus caravan back to Saigon. It would take us all day to get from Phnom Penh to the city now known officially as Ho Chi Minh City; except that the civilians still call it Saigon.

After a harrowing trip that included crossing the Mekong River on a rickety raft that served as a “ferry,” we arrived in Saigon.Ā We checked in to the Majestic Hotel. Then we went to dinner as a group, tired but ready to enjoy some good chow and each other’s company.

Our Vietnamese hosts knew that it was Thanksgiving Day, a uniquely American holiday. They went out of their way to make us feel “at home.” They served us a wonderful meal in the dining room of roast duck, mashed potatoes, peas and apple pie.

Was it the most scrumptious meal I’ve ever eaten? Not even close. One of my friends among the journalists gathered there called the main course “road kill duck.”Ā But, our hosts’ hearts were clearly geared toward showing us some supreme hospitality. They succeeded far beyond measure.

As I look back on that Thanksgiving dinner three decades later, I realize now how thankful I was at the time — and I am today — at the bounty we enjoy in this country. Furthermore, as I recall the lingering misery we encountered in Cambodia, I am reminded of just how grateful we must remain in this country, where we hope we never experience what those brave and glorious people had to endure.

That dinner gave me a special understanding of what this holiday means to all of us. May we never take what we have for granted.

Justice delivered to two of humanity’s monsters

Some events in world history make me question my opposition to capital punishment. Two individuals who took part in one of the 20th century’s most grievous crimes against humanity provide the latest test to my commitment.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea — the last known survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia — have been given life sentences for their role in the genocide that killed roughly 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s under the despotic rule of the regime led by the late Pol Pot.

These individuals are old now. They likely will die soon in prison. When they do they should both rot in hell right along with Pol Pot and the other monsters who committed those atrocities against Cambodians.

Pol Pot was captured in the late 1990s and died in custody.

I have had the distinct honor of twice visiting the site of the Khmer Rouge’s unspeakable brutality. The killing field at Choeung Ek and a prison camp at Tuol Sleng will last forever as the Khmer Rouge’s legacy of murder, misery and mayhem. The monsters tortured and killed the intelligentsia of their country at Tuol Sleng — once the site of a school — and then buried their remains at places around the country such as Choeung Ek.

They sought to create a totally agrarian society. Learned professionals had no place in that society. Neither, shockingly, did their children.

In 1989 and again in 2004 I was privileged to see first-hand those sites. The sight of them and then hearing the testimony of those who survived that dark time filled me with immense grief, touched with a tinge of guilt. The Cambodians have built a memorial at the site and filled a “stupa” at Choeung Ek with skulls excavated from the mass graves that were discovered by Vietnamese troops during their years-long occupation of Cambodia, which ended in 1989, about a month before I arrived there with a group of journalists.

In 1989, after touring the killing field burial site, and after hearing from a woman who survived the mayhem that “If the Khmer Rouge return, we all will be soldiers” who will fight them to the death, I boarded a bus, waiting to depart.

I broke down and cried.

Justice has been delivered to two of the monsters who brought such heartache to a beautiful land. May they live the rest of their lives on Earth in abject misery.

Happy Trails, Part 11

We have beenĀ doing some housecleaning around here lately.

Moving day will arrive eventually as we prepare to launch ourselves into a new adventure. Retirement has given us time to do some serious evaluation and re-evaluation of what we possess and what we should keep or discard. Those of you who’ve been through this get my drift.

I have been rifling through my home office desk and I’ve come across three items that — strangely enough — I just cannot discard.

Two of them involve tools of the craft I pursued for nearly 37 years. Old-line journalists will know of what I speak. The newbies out there, well, listen up.

One of them is a pica pole. It’s like a ruler only with a specific newspaper-related purpose.Ā  A pica is a unit of measurement. Six picas equal one inch. The pica pole has inch markings on it, but when you’re working with this device in a newsroom, you rely on the pica measurement.

It tells you how wide to make your photographs, how wide your columns of type will be, how deep the stories will run along a page of type.

Pica poles are relics of the past. To my knowledge, they have no practical use today in this age of desktop publishing.

I actually have two of them, one of which I am certain was issued to me at the first full-time journalism job I had, at the Oregon City (Ore.) Enterprise-Courier. The E-C, as we called it then, also has gone dark. It no longer publishes. The building has been wiped off the slab at its downtown Oregon City site.

My boss at the time told me to “guard this with your life” when he issued it to me back in 1977. I have done as he said.

The second item is a proportion wheel. We used this item to measure the size of pictures we would place on our news pages. You line up the inner wheel measurements with the outer wheel measurements and you determine by how many percentage points you want to expand — or shrink — the original print to make it fit theĀ space you have on the page.

That’s all done electronically now.

The third relic from my former life? That would be a luggage tag I collected on the trip of a lifetime I took in November 1989. It’s a Thai Air tag that went on a piece of luggage from Bangkok to Hanoi — yeah, the city in Vietnam.

I was among a group of editorial writers making a fact-finding trip to Southeast Asia. The National Conference of Editorial Writers arranged for this trip that originated in Thailand, then to Vietnam, then to Cambodia and back to Vietnam.

Once the official NCEW portion of the trip concluded, I was able to travel to Da Nang with two of my colleagues and visit the place where I had served 20 years earlier as a member of the U.S. Army. A life-changer? You bet it was.

I am not sure why I kept the Hanoi bag tag, but I am glad I did.

It is one of those wonderful — if small — reminders of the many great things I was able to see and do pursuing a craft to which I was deeply devoted.

That was then. The here and now beckons my wife and me to places still to be determined. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanksgiving brings back a special memory

hotel majestic

Most of my Thanksgiving celebrations have been of a fairly standard variety.

Turkey and all the sides. Fellowship with family. Lots of laughs. Sometimes even some pro football watching on TV.

But I’ve got a special Thanksgiving memory I’d like to share here.

It occurred in 1989. Twenty-six years ago I had the honor of attending — along with about 20 other journalists from all over the country — a three-week journey through Southeast Asia. Our trip took us — in order — Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and back to Vietnam. Our delegation represented the National Conference of Editorial Writers, which has been renamed and reorganized into the Association of Opinion Journalists.

It was a marvelous experience at many levels. Just going so far from home in itself was a treat. For several of us on that trip, it gave us a chance to return to Vietnam, where we had served during that terrible war and to see a country no longer shrouded by that conflict.

But along the way, we ventured to Cambodia. In 1989, the country was just beginning to recover from decades of war. Phnom Penh, the capital city, was in shambles. Vietnamese forces had just evacuated the country after liberating Cambodia from the heinous rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The city’s infrastructure was decimated.

We spent several days in Cambodia, laying eyes on a notorious killing field and seeing up close a former prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their countrymen.

But then the Cambodia portion of the trip ended. It happened to be Thanksgiving Day when we boarded our vans and headed east, back to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as Saigon).

We traveled all day along a terrible road. We crossed the rapidly flowing Mekong River aboard a “ferry” that in reality was little more than a glorified raft.

After a grueling day of travel back to Saigon, we settled into our hotel, the Majestic. Then we were informed by the hotel staff that they had prepared a special meal for us.

They wanted to make us feel a bit more “at home” by serving usĀ a Thanksgiving-style meal in the hotel’s main dining room.

We all sat down to dinner that evening and enjoyed a serving of what one of my dear friendsĀ refers to this day as “road kill duck”; we also enjoyed some fresh peas and mashed potatoes.

The meal was just OK.

What made it so very special, though, was the hospitality displayed by our Vietnamese hosts, who were delighted to treat us to a meal thatĀ enabled their American visitors commemorate a uniquely American holiday.

A day that began with some trepidation as we looked forward to a long, tiring and potentially harrowing trip back from a nation still bleeding from the wounds of war ended with warmth and good wishes — in a place so far from home.

 

A Thanksgiving to remember … in Vietnam

Thanksgiving is a day we express gratitude for all that we have.

It’s a uniquely American holiday and my friends overseas often are kind enough to extend wishes to my family and me at this time of year.

It also is a time to remember. And today I am remembering a particularly exciting Thanksgiving holiday.

I spent it far from home. I didn’t talk to my family that day. I was traveling in what once was a war zone and the site of one of the 20th century’s most infamous episodes of genocide.

Thanksgiving Day 1989 was spent traveling with fellow editorial writers and editors from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The day ended in grand fashion, for which we all gave thanks at the end of a harrowing overland travel experience.

The day began in Cambodia, where our group of about 20 journalists had toured several chilling locations, including killing fields, the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and where we met with survivors of the Pol Pot’s murderous reign of terror that ended nearly a decade earlier when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the dictator’s Khmer Rouge regime.

The country had been decimated. Two million Cambodians had been exterminated. The country’s infrastructure was in shambles. The people — beautiful as they are — were still in shock. The capital city of Phnom Penh was virtually empty.

We set out that day in several vans full of people and luggage along a crowded bumpy road. Ho Chi Minh City would be our destination. But first we had to travel several hundred treacherous miles.

The “highlight” of our journey occurred when we reached the Mekong River. We boarded a “ferry,” which in reality was hardly more than a motorized raft. Aboard that so-called ferry we loaded our vans, along with Cambodians traveling with carts, animals, loads of fresh fruit. The river, as I recall, was running fairly swiftly and I began to fantasize about overturning in the middle of the Mekong. I read an imaginary headline in my mind: “U.S. journalists killed in Cambodia ferry disaster.”

We made it across the river and then continued on our way.

Finally, several hours later we arrived at the Cambodia-Vietnam border. The line of traffic getting through the militarized checkpoint was quite long. We had a young guide, who we called Vibol. As with most business in Cambodia, a lot of it is transacted underground, under the table. Vibol collected some cash from all of us and then greased some palms at the gate. Suddenly, without explanation, our party was moved to the head of the line.

We slid on through to the Vietnamese side of the border, where we noticed a vision in the form of the young Vietnamese guide who had escorted us through Vietnam at an earlier portion of the trip. Her name was Mai and she was, as one might say, a sight for sore eyes — if you know what I mean.

Mai then escorted us the rest of the way to Ho Chi Minh City — which, by the way, the locals still refer to as Saigon.

We reached the city. Got to our hotel, unpacked our vehicles and were informed that the hotel staff had prepared a special dinner for us that evening.

We got cleaned up and went down to eat later. Awaiting us in a very nice dining room was a meal of what one of my colleagues called “road kill duck,” mashed potatoes, peas, rolls and a cake for dessert.

Was it the kind of Thanksgiving meal to which we were accustomed? No. But it was served with all the love and good intentions imaginable. Our Vietnamese hosts wanted to recognize our special holiday.

For that we all were thankful beyond measure.

After the experience we had endured that day, and in the previous days in a country decimated by war and untold inhumanity, we felt almost at home in a faraway land.

Happy Thanksgiving.