Gone, but not forgotten
The young man approached me with a simple enough offer as I strolled through the grounds of the Royal Palace near the banks of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh all those years ago. Did I need a guide; maybe an interpreter?
The response was easy. Sure, why not? The price was right too - less than the equivalent of US$1 for a one-hour look around as music tinkled from a pavilion and dancers rehearsed a ballet for Prince Norodom Sihanouk's entourage.
Those were 'the old days' when Cambodia was, as Prince Sihanouk liked to say, 'an oasis of peace', at least as seen by correspondents visiting from the far more dangerous war in Vietnam.
My guide, Ith Chhun, had learned English from Christian missionaries, and made just enough to support himself by showing people around the palace grounds. He was happy to interpret for me for interviews in Phnom Penh and around the country.
Cambodia then was on the verge of the war that Prince Sihanouk had hoped to avoid by staying 'neutral' while the North Vietnamese set up bases near the Vietnam border. He was travelling from Europe to Moscow and Beijing when he was overthrown in March 1970 by his US-backed prime minister, Lon Nol.
As the war spread, Ith Chhun interpreted for an article I wrote for The New York Times Magazine on the terrible Cambodian army and for stories for the old Washington Star on battles down deceptively tranquil roads. One morning, as we drove towards the South Vietnam border, we discovered the bodies of 90 Vietnamese, men, women and children, mowed down by Cambodian soldiers as anti-Vietnam hatred ran wild.
Later, after I got back from writing a book on the widening war, I went down roads that seemed serene and secure, turning back when old men and women warned Ith Chhun the Khmer Rouge were nearby. While journalists were getting killed on forays from Phom Penh, I reported for the Chicago Tribune on villages terrorised by Khmer Rouge executions and on high-level corruption in the capital.
These memories flashed by as I read recently of the passing in New Jersey of Dith Pran, the Cambodian interpreter who became famous from the film The Killing Fields. Dith Pran worked mainly for The New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg. When Schanberg was away and Ith Chhun was with his family in some outlying town, Dith Pran worked for me and others. He and Ith Chhun were among a small group of interpreters taking the same risks, setting forth with journalists in old Mercedes-Benz cars from the Hotel Royale in Phnom Penh.
I was in New York when Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, in April 1975, two years after America had stopped bombing Cambodia and left US-equipped government soldiers to fend for themselves. I read about the evacuation of Schanberg and others from the French embassy, feared for Dith Pran's life and was immensely relieved when he showed up in Thailand after four years surviving in a jungle ruled by the Khmer Rouge.
I wondered, though, what had happened to Ith Chhun. Stories of slaughter in the countryside, during the three years, eight months and 10 days of Khmer Rouge rule, reminded me of the kidnappings and executions that peasants had told Ith Chhun and me were going on in the early 1970s while scholars were writing that nothing bad would happen when the Khmer Rouge took over in an 'agrarian revolt'.
I thought of Ith Chhun concealing any knowledge of English, throwing away his glasses, books and notes, and joining the peasantry as their new masters drove them from the cities into the fields. As a Christian in a Buddhist society, Ith Chhun would have been more vulnerable than even the Buddhist monks whom the Khmer Rouge killed off as they destroyed pagodas and shrines.
When I returned, in May 1985, after covering the 10th anniversary of 'the fall' of Vietnam, I ran into people in markets, repair shops and drink stands who remembered me. Some pointed to scars on their bodies where they had been bound and beaten. They all told of the loss of relatives and friends.
I asked about Ith Chhun, revisited the palace, heard from drivers who thought maybe they had heard about him but weren't sure. The last time I was there, six years ago, no one remembered him.
I wondered if his bones were among those piled up in 'the killing field' that visitors see outside the capital - a sampling of all the places where people were bludgeoned or strangled by guards to whom shooting was a waste of bullets.
It was as if he had never existed, had vanished in a time of killing when 2 million people like him had died, their images faded in flickering memory, nameless and forgotten.
Donald Kirk wrote two books on the war, Wider War: the Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, and Tell it to the Dead: Memories of a War