Swain Recalls Strongest Love in Time of War

Jon Swain was on the last flight into Phnom Penh before it fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

The plane should never have taken off, Mr Swain said yesterday, but the American pilot was determined to rescue his girlfriend here.

Mr Swain, by contrast, was a journalist who felt a “sort of inner compulsion to be in Phnom Penh.”

“I’d come here when the war started, and I thought I should see the end of it.”

Phnom Penh seemed oblivious to the impending danger when he arrived, Mr Swain recalled.

“In the local newspaper there were obituaries of Josephine Baker, for example, and not much about the imminent collapse of the city,” he said, referring to the US entertainer who died on April 12, 1975, the day the US Embassy here closed its doors.

On April 17 the Khmer Rouge took control of the city, and Mr Swain was captured and narrowly escaped death. He was saved by Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who negotiated with their communist captors. The scene is portrayed in Mr Swain’s 1997 memoir “River of Time” and the 1984 Roland Joffe film “The Killing Fields.”

Mr Swain returned to Phnom Penh on Tuesday, one of roughly two dozen journalists reuniting in the capital after covering the conflicts in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s.

Now 62, Mr Swain spent most of his twenties as a reporter in Southeast Asia and said he does not think he or any other journalists at this week’s reunion are much of a story.

“We shouldn’t be the story,” he explained. “The story is what happened to the people in this country.”

He and his colleagues were fortunate to do work that “really mattered in such an extraordinary place at such an extraordinary time,” he explained.

Mr Swain has gone on to do a lot more work in extraordinary times, reporting from conflicts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Soon after leaving Cambodia in 1976, he was captured and held for three months by Ethiopian guerillas. He was in Baghdad in 2003 when Iraq was invaded by US-led forces. And as recently as last year he wrote on war-torn Somalia for The Sunday Times, which has employed him since 1975.

But Cambodia and Vietnam hold a special enchantment for Mr Swain, he said yesterday. He first came here in 1970 and until 1975 moved between the capital and what is now Ho Chi Minh City.

“I developed an attachment and a love affair with this place and Vietnam which I’ve never felt so acutely for anywhere else, in any other war zone, and I’ve been in a lot.”

The graying Mr Swain, who was born in London but raised in eastern India, spoke softly during yesterday’s interview. He described Cambodia as “sensual, charming, beautiful, exotic,” language also used on his years in Southeast Asia in “River of Time.”

Early in the book, he quotes a friend who uses the old term for the region: “Indochina is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why.”

Cambodia also struck other reporters as enchanting, but it was a very dangerous place in the 1970s, as Mr Swain pointed out. Reporters and photographers here went to battle sites in taxis rather than US government helicopters, as in Vietnam.

In 1970, the deadliest year for the conflict’s reporters and photographers, 26 foreign and Cambodian journalists died or went missing. In comparison, 24 journalists died in Iraq in 2004, the first full year of that war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Those are high stakes, but Mr Swain said this sense of danger can also be exhilarating.

“When you’re in a war zone, everything comes much more acute. You feel things much more strongly because you’re living on the edge of death,” he said.

 

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