baset district, Kompong Speu province – Yoko Ishiyama, the widow of Japanese journalist Koki Ishiyama, who was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1973, began the ceremony yesterday.
Ms Ishiyama moved forward on her knees, encouraged by former colleagues of her husband, and prayed in front of a makeshift altar while about one hundred villagers watched from the edges of a red and a gold-colored tent, which stood in a dun-colored rice field beside a stream.
Slowly, as the hypnotic chanting of Buddhist monks enveloped the crowd, some of the roughly two dozen journalists who sat under the tent joined her in tears. Incense floated up into the still heat, and the onlookers grew quiet.
Ms Ishiyama and the journalists were in Por Angkrang commune to honor the scores of people in the media who died or went missing during the 1970s conflict in Cambodia. The reporters, photographers and cameramen reunited in Phnom Penh this week after covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s.
Reporter Elizabeth Becker began reading the names of the dead and missing during yesterday’s solemn ceremony, but she only made it halfway before her voice wavered and tears rolled down her cheeks. Eventually she listed 37 journalists, foreign and Cambodian, who died here between April 1970 to April 1975, and another 31 Cambodian journalists who died after communist forces seized the capital on April 17, 1975.
“We did this to honor our colleagues who died during this war, and to show respect for what they went through,” Ms Becker, the author of two books about Cambodia and a former Washington Post reporter, said after the brief ceremony.
As the tent cleared, peaceful smiles began to appear on faces that had been contemplative or distraught, as if the ceremony had brought some closure.
“I am excited now,” Ms Ishiyama said afterward. She explained that she prayed for her husband, who worked for the Japanese news agency Kyodo, as well as other journalists who died. “I am very, very glad.”
On the side of the dirt road near the commemoration site, the group planted a Bodhi tree, which former Los Angeles Times correspondent Jacques Leslie called a symbol of rebirth after the “terrible tragedy” of the 1970s.
Only a small part of this tragedy is what happened to journalists, Mr Leslie said.
“The much bigger part is what happened to Cambodia and what the Khmer Rouge did,” he explained. “I hope the planting of that tree can symbolize a new era in Cambodia.”
Later the journalists gathered in the capital, in the park across the street from Hotel Le Royal, for the unveiling of a new memorial for the journalist who were killed and went missing during the Cambodian war.
Le Royal is where many journalists had offices and lived during the early 1970s.
The site of yesterday’s first ceremony, in Kompong Speu province, was chosen because it was close to the spot where five members of CBS and NBC television crews were clubbed to death in 1970. That mass killing came soon after four other staff members of CBS were killed by rocket and gunfire.
It was the worst incident of the war for journalists, and it all began when a Jeep carrying four people from CBS decided to go around a bridge that had been blown up, according to Kurt Volkert, a former CBS cameraman. They were hit by rocket and gunfire soon after they crossed the stream.
En route to yesterday’s ceremony, the bus of journalists stopped near the former site of the bridge, along National Road 3, and Mr Volkert described the events of that day: May 31, 1970.
The remains of the Jeep and the people in it were found soon afterward, but the five people in two other cars that waited at the bridge were taken prisoner.
Mr Volkert didn’t manage to piece together what happened to them until a year afterward, he said. They were taken to the site of yesterday’s Buddhist ceremony, close to Wat Po, and beaten to death, he explained.
In 1992, he and a US military team returned to the site near Wat Po and unearthed four of the five bodies. The remains of Japanese cameraman Tomoharu Lishi were never found.
“I feel sorry for Lishi, my colleague we couldn’t find, and I feel sorry for all of them,” Mr Volkert said yesterday, his voice heavy. “But life goes on.”