The first time Phnom Penh ever came up in conversation I was in the departure lounge at Kinshasa airport. I was leaving Africa having spent four weeks covering events in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).
There, a civil war had been raging, and I and some of my journalist friends and colleagues had braved the marauders and the looters and the rag-tag bands of drugged-up soldiers to cover the aftermath of the fighting and the installation of Denis Sassou Nguesso as the Republic of Congo’s new president. We had travelled with the victors with transportation arranged by Sassou Nguesso’s victorious commander General Giap – but even that didn’t guarantee our safety as we toured the destruction and chaos that was the new Brazzaville.
Among our number was a young American journalist who worked for an opposing news agency. He was tall and blonde and had a penchant for living life to the full. When he wasn’t ferreting about in the bush looking to cover stories about pockets of rebel resistance, he was drinking beer and chatting up the ladies. He spoke fluent French – which was a definite plus in the Republic of Congo as well as much of the rest of Africa – and he had a ready smile that he used to devastating effect on any young lady regardless of the nationality or the occupation. I would see him with journalists, NGOs, air hostesses and even local waitresses. He liked their company and they liked his.
However, upon our return from Brazzaville, my American friend took a break from his carousing and joined myself and some of the more hard-bitten journalists in the bar at the Intercontinental Hotel. We stood at the bar surrounded by colonial wood-work and pictures of days gone by as we knocked back whiskies and saluted each other’s bravery.
We laughed and joked and slapped one another on the back as we reminisced about our adventures on the other side of the Congo River. We swapped stories of drunken, cross-dressing soldiers as they manned makeshift checkpoints on the streets of the capital and we talked about the close calls we had as drugged-up militia emptied their gun-belts into the air in celebration. We even talked about the looter who had been dragged before us to endure a beating by General Giap’s men.
“It is justice,” the general had said stoically. “He shot his gun in the air when he was drunk and injured a young girl in the foot.”
We thought no more of it as we stood there knocking back our drinks at the Intercontinental. After all we had spent two weeks sleeping on the general’s balcony wrapped in mosquito nets. It was the only safe place to be – with or without a ruthless kangaroo court in session nearby.
“Well, we survived another one,” seemed to be the toast du jour and the young American clinked his glasses against mine and that of my friends. He was relatively new to the news agency game but had made a name for himself in covering Africa. He fit in well.
The next day I said my goodbyes to my fellow journalists as I headed off to the airport. We were all nursing heavy heads and were heading off in many different directions. I was headed back to London, some were headed back to Paris and others to their bureaus in Nairobi. All except for my newfound American friend. He was headed to Cambodia.
“I’m going to Cambodia!” my American colleague yelled across at me as I entered Kinshasa airport’s departure lounge. “They found Pol Pot. He’s up in a jungle hideout somewhere and I’ve got to go find him.”
It sounded like an arduous task – but one that I was sure my American friend was up to. After all he was his news agency’s man in Africa and he was used to getting himself in and out of the most challenging locations and situations.
As for Pol Pot, well, everyone knew him as the notorious, murderous leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975-1979 emptying out Cambodia’s cities and forcing the population into the countryside to turn the country into a totalitarian agricultural state. Now, it seemed, he had been found and the Cambodians were planning to put him on trial.
As a journalist, the fact that someone had found Pol Pot and the fact that one of my competitors was travelling to Cambodia to cover the story, should have made me jealous. However, the truth of the matter was that, having spent the last few weeks living on the edge in deepest, darkest Africa, I was more than happy be going home. However, I didn’t want to rain on my American friend’s parade.
“Wow, that’s great!” I lied as we headed for the bar in the departure lounge. “You’ll have a great time.”
It is now twenty or so years later and I have never forgotten that departure lounge chat. I have never forgotten my friend’s excitement at the prospect of working in Cambodia.
Unfortunately, my journalist colleague never did make it to Phnom Penh. He was ‘stood down’ by his news agency in favour of someone in closer proximity to the story. They told him when he arrived at head office in London on a stopover en route to Asia.
A few months later my American friend was killed at a checkpoint in Sierra Leone. He was killed by a rebel soldier as his car approached a checkpoint in the capital Freetown. He died instantly. He was just 34.
Almost twenty years later – and having lived and worked in Cambodia myself – I now share my friend’s excitement when I too talk of Phnom Penh. I wish he could too.