For television cameraman Peter Chhun, leaving Phnom Penh in March 1975 was easy. That’s because he didn’t know at the time that it would be 11 years before he would return to his native Cambodia.
Nor did he know he would never see his mother again.
“I never believed the Khmer Rouge would come so soon,” says Chhun, now 54, and still with the NBC television network that originally hired him in Phnom Penh. “I felt the pressure. I knew they were close to the city. But in my heart, I never believed it.”
He dutifully shot footage at the Bangkok airport as refugees arrived in April 1975.
“Then I starting seeing US officials [from the Phnom Penh embassy]. Then the flag. Then the ambassador,” he says.
Phnom Penh had fallen.
“I started crying, crying, crying,” he recalls. “The main thing was my mother. I left her behind.”
“I lost contact completely. You can’t call in,” he says. “I mean, the city’s empty, right…? At that time, I tried to picture my mother, walking with them” as everyone in the city was marched into the countryside.
He wound up in Los Angeles, still working for NBC, building a life in the US. It was a strange twist for a boy who had grown up in Siem Reap province, was educated in French and who had originally wanted to be in the movie business.
In 1970, Chhun was 22 years old. He started as a “runner,” then became a cameraman. He was “thrilled” to be working with foreigners and befriended NBC newsman Welles Hangen, who disappeared down Highway 3 in Takeo province along with four other journalists in 1970.
Chhun spent another 20 years looking for the remains of his lost friend.
“We spent a lot of time on the front line together,” he says. “There was a bond between us. I just wanted [closure].”
One day in 1971, without telling anyone, he jumped onto his Honda motorcycle with fake humanitarian aid identification and information on the possible whereabouts of Hangen and the others.
He traveled 6 km beyond the lines of the government troops, deep into territory tightly controlled by hardened Khmer Rouge fighters, and enlisted the help of an old man and his two sons to dig where he thought his friends were.
They unearthed the remains of two men, buried in a shallow grave.“The smell was terrible,” Chhun says.
They raced back to Phnom Penh, parking the Honda and its morbid cargo in front of the Monorom Hotel, where NBC was headquartered.
After Chhun explained what he’d been up to, his superiors called US authorities, who had the remains sent to Ho Chi Minh City, then called Saigon, for forensic tests. They were not those of his comrade.
In fact Hangen’s remains were not found until 1992, according to the US Embassy. Chhun had failed in 1986 and again in 1990 to find his friend.
In 1990, he learned his mother had died nine years earlier, after surviving the Khmer Rouge and finding her way back to her home village.
Chhun went on to become a successful television newsman. Last week, he led a news team to Angkor Wat, where he produced a program for the station’s “Today” show that highlighted the beauty of Angkor Wat. “It’s been a dream of mine,” he says.
When he retires, he says he wants to come back and help Cambodia, maybe even boost the quality of television programming here with a televised news magazine, or original Khmer dramas. He says he wants to do something to make up for being so lucky, for escaping when so many didn’t.
“The guilt’s always there. I mean, why am I here?” he says. “But what can you do? I make the best out of it.”
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