Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Road Not Taken

I found this article by David A. Andelman, executive editor of, and the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, which focuses on the risks he took during his time as a war correspondent in Cambodia in the spring of 1975.

A Road Not Taken by David A Andelman

Ever wonder about the road not taken? In the spring of 1975, I took that road - and the risk that nearly cost me my life. The scene was Cambodia, just three weeks before the end of the war from which the U.S. had formally "withdrawn." I was a New York Times correspondent reporting on the final days before the takeover by communist insurgents known as the Khmer Rouge. By March 26, 1975, these bloodthirsty rebels had drawn a tight noose around the capital, Phnom Penh - the last tiny corner of the nation not already under their control. The battle lines had come so close to the capital that it was possible to drive to all four fronts in a single day. Each night, Khmer Rouge rockets fell on the capital, many exploding in the area around the Hotel Phnom where Western journalists were camped. That Wednesday morning, I decided to visit one of these front lines with Dith Pran, a 32-year-old photographer-interpreter who saved my life, and that of my Times colleague Sydney Schanberg, more times than either of us could count.

Schanberg, Pran and I discussed carefully the route we would follow, how far we would go and just when we should be expected back. Shortly after dawn, Pran and I each boarded separate motorbikes piloted by Cambodian drivers and headed up Route 4, looking for the troops of the Cambodian army - those loyal to America’s ally, President Lon Nol. Just a few kilometers out of town, we heard the thump of mortars and stopped at a small village straddling a narrow dirt road that seemed to lead toward the sounds of fighting. Pran was a cautious man. Before we headed down any unknown path, he carefully questioned the locals about its safety - when had the Khmer Rouge last been seen in the area? Where was "our" army's forward firebase? Was it safe to get from here to there? Reassured, we headed off on foot down that dirt road, and after several hundred yards, we found Lt. Col. Hak Mathno in his tiny command center - a small, abandoned and decaying wat, or Buddhist temple. He had with him one aide and an American-issued field radio that crackled to life every now and then and into which he would issue brief, crisp orders in Khmer. The young American-trained officer pointed to a line of palm trees across a large rice paddy, explained that the insurgents were holed up in there and that his band of rag-tag troops, many of them plucked from hospitals and nearly invalids, were trying desperately to hold off their advance. We chatted for an hour with Colonel Mathno, then told him we thought we'd head back to our motorbikes, which were awaiting us up on Route 4.
"Oh no, you won't," Colonel Mathno replied calmly. "While we were talking, the Khmer Rouge have circled around behind us and cut the path you came down." Pran blanched; I was speechless. "But don’t worry," the Colonel continued blithely. "Give us a little time and we’ll fight our way out."

Pran and I had placed our lives in the hands of the army that had already lost the war to a bunch of desperate insurgents who had swept across this nation and would ultimately hold it in a brutal slavery. I knew what had happened to my colleagues who had fallen into their hands or those of their Viet Cong counterparts. NBC News correspondent Welles Hangen, photographer Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, and others were never seen alive again. Kate Webb, the extraordinary UPI correspondent, had stumbled out of the jungle after 23 days in captivity, burning up with fever and suffering from cerebral malaria. The next hour was the longest of my life. Pran reassured me that we had not taken any unusual risks in getting to Colonel Mathno’s command post - that it was simply one of the uncertainties that were an integral part of the constantly shifting battles being fought in a war that America had already lost. The colonel continued to chatter into his radio. Pran listened closely, hoping to pick up some clues as to the brigade’s progress. Gradually, his mood began to brighten. "Well?" I whispered anxiously. " Well?" Pran motioned with his hand, urging patience.

An hour later, the Colonel turned to us and said matter-of-factly, "OK, we've cleared the road for the moment. It’s as safe as it’s ever going to be. But move quickly and stick to the path. We've just managed to push the Khmer Rouge off into the jungle on both sides." I've never moved more quickly in my life. While it had taken a half-hour to get to the firebase, it took us half that to regain Route 4 and meet up with our motorbike drivers. On the way back, Pran snapped a photo of me clinging for dear life. Such were the risks of being a war correspondent - risks that all of us (even other journalists) tend not to think about until something goes horribly wrong. Like my one-time foreign editor and lifelong friend Seymour Topping used to say, "Nobody cares how you get the story. They care about the story."

1 comment:

dandelman said...

I am SO delighted to have come across your blog entry on my commentary on Cambodia and that you have noticed by book, which will be published next month in the US and UK, "A Shattered Peace."
This was indeed an epiphanal event in my life ... and helped to form the kind of journalist I would become over the next 32 years ... it also resonates deeply in "A Shattered Peace" where I devote a lengthy section to the treatment by the western powers of a young man who would later become Ho Chi Minh ... their snubs contributing substantially to his transformation into a Comintern-sponsored communist and his return to Indochina to lead the revolution.
The lessons from those days, however, a pertinent to a number of regions that I discuss from Mesopotamia to the Balkans that you mind find quite intriguing.
I'd be delighted to hear your further reaction!@

All the best,