Baset district, Kompong Speu province – The river meanders through the sun-baked fields, parched for lack of rain. Two pairs of water buffalo loll past, their carts tinkering behind them. On the bank, a small boy fills and empties a plastic bottle.
Veteran journalists, including war photographers Tim Page and Roland Neveu and Dispatch News Service founder Michael Morrow, gathered here Tuesday along with Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Chhang Song, who was the Minister of Information during the Lon Nol regime, to unveil a plaque in memory of nine journalists who were killed during the war in Cambodia in 1970.
The journalists—six working for CBS and three for NBC—perished as the result of an ambush on National Road 3 by Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Americans George Syvertsen and Gerald Miller, Indian Ramnik Lekhi and Cambodian Yeng Samleng died when a B-40 rocket hit their vehicle; George Syvertsen was shot to death after surviving the initial impact.
Later, Japanese journalists Tomoharu Ishii, Kojiro Sakai and Yoshihiro Waku, American Welles Hangen and Frenchman Roger Colne, who were traveling behind, were taken to a nearby village and hacked and shot to death near to where Tuesday’s ceremony took place.
For more than 20 years, the area was unyielding, keeping a firm hold of its dead. Then, in 1992, it began to relinquish its ghosts until the remains of all but one—Tomoharu Ishii, a Japanese CBS cameraman—were uncovered in a bend in the river.
“It’s very moving to be here,” Mr. Song said. “These journalists were close friends of mine.
“Every day we would hear of people killed or captured; it was very emotional for me.”
The area is quiet and typically rural; the atmosphere punctuated only by the crush of gravel under the occasional motorbike wheel. But its past makes it seem stark, desolate and lonely.
Near a thirsty looking Bodhi tree planted in remembrance in 2010, the plaque that was unveiled Tuesday reads: “In memory of the journalists killed at this place in May 1970 covering the war in Cambodia. Their words and images remain to remind us forever of the truth.”
Of all the years that claimed the lives of reporters covering the conflict in Cambodia, 1970 was the most ghastly as 26 journalists perished—most in April and May.
After prayers were read out by monks and a group of kneeling villagers clutching pink flowers, CBS cameraman Kurt Hoefle began reciting the list of the nine newsmen who died as a result of the ambush. As he read the name of his friend, George Syvertsen, his voice began to quiver.
“It’s really an emotional moment for me, because they were my friends who were killed,” Mr. Hoefle said afterward, adding that he had managed to talk his way out of the clutches of North Vietnamese soldiers who apprehended him and two Americans the week before.
“We were one of the very few lucky ones who survived,” he said. “You didn’t know where the front was…. We were driving air conditioned Mercedes around listening to rock ‘n roll music, having cold drinks in the back of the car.”
The war in Cambodia was fresh and utterly volatile. Reporters were thrust into a world of operating under very different circumstances; they would leave the heady luxury of the Le Royal Hotel and drive out onto the highways in rented vehicles in search of the front. Unlike Vietnam, to which many were accustomed, there was no U.S. military backup. The journalists were mostly left to their own devices, and while this afforded them new freedoms in searching for stories, it was also an extremely dangerous way of operating.
But ultimately, according to Mr. Kanharith, it was a very cruel and violent war—one that claimed more journalists’ lives in five years than 10 years did in the Vietnam War.
“So we want to say to all these people who struggle to bring news to the public, that they are not wasting their time. We have to remember them.”
Today, the “old hacks,” as they call themselves, will officially dedicate a memorial erected in front of Raffles Hotel to the 37 dead and missing.
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