T WENTY years ago they captured images of brutality and deep compassion. Now, all
but one are dead. Only Ou Neakiry (right) survives in Cambodia - and still
Kry, as he is commonly known, was part of a brave and often
talented band: more than a score of photographers and reporters who helped cover
the Cambodian War for foreign media organizations till the Khmer Rouge captured
He and his comrades went to the frontlines almost daily,
returning with images of severed heads, burning villages and mothers dying to
save their children. They were wounded again and again. They were fiercely loyal
though their pay was pretty low.
In April 1975 the US-backed government
collapsed and a terror unleashed by the victorious Khmer Rouge engulfed the
country. Years later, stories emerged of how Kry's colleagues were executed. A
few fled, while the fate of others remains unknown.
My memories remain
strong - Meang Leang, who was never very conscientious at his job of censoring
our copy, quit that task and helped us write stories near the end; the gentle
Saing Hel, whose real loves were fishing and writing romantic novels; Sun Heang,
whose famous voice dubbed actors' lines in countless Cambodian movies; Yuthi,
barely out of his teens and besieged by girlfriends; Tea Kim Heang, wounded
They were about the bravest - and may I say the best - men
I'll ever hope to meet.
Despite my efforts, of all these men, Kry is the
only friend and colleague I have found.
Mean Leang was the last to
communicate before the fall of Phnom Penh. He, like others, broke the rules. He
didn't melt into the crowd, stick with his family, play dumb. The roly-poly man,
sweat no doubt dribbling from his chin, rushed around with his typewriter
between the office and the French colonial building from where we wired our
April 17, 1975, and the Khmer Rouge penetrated Phnom Penh. It
was a big story.
Mean Leang didn't know much about the news business or
the organization, and God knows there wasn't any money in it. But he wrote about
the final clashes and the white flags of surrender, and the initial relief of
the crowds that the five-year war was over.
He sat down at the office and
wrote: "I alone in office, losing contact with our guys... I feel rather
trembling. Do not know how to file our stories now... Maybe last cable today,
Kry has come full circle. He again works for Associated
Press and says he has rediscovered the thrill of capturing scenes of his
homeland for the world.
Relearning his craft last year, he won a
nationwide photo contest sponsored by US media foundation Freedom
"After the Khmer Rouge I didn't want anything but rice and salt
because we had become used to living like animals," says the 42-year-old Kry.
"Now we must think about the future."
Kry's future is now his wife, his
job and house, which is also home to his sister, the only surviving member of
his four-strong family. Three brothers died under Pol Pot.
It was one of
them who got Kry a messenger's job at AP. Fascinated, he picked up photography
tips and battlefield survival skills and soon became part of the band.
month before the KR victory, as he ran toward a government gunner for a closer,
better photo angle, rocket shrapnel tore into his stomach. Offered evacuation to
Thailand, he elected local treatment - a decision which consigned him to four
years in hell.
Tears well up in his eyes when he talks about the gun
point evacuation of Phnom Penh, the crushing slave labor in rural communes, the
killings, certain that one day it would be his turn.
And it came.
Hands bound, he and others were led away to an execution ground.
Incredibly, he remembers, an official appeared and argued that Kry - relatively
young and strong - was essential to the commune's meager workforce. He alone was
After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Kry eked out a living as a
low-ranking civil servant, asked from time to time to take snap photos of
When I met Kry again during these years after 1979 he
had a hunted look, speaking in whispers and peering warily at strangers. I
didn't think I would ever see the old, free-wheeling Kry again.
like him, Cambodia is a composition of shadow and light.
freedom has not yet meant freedom from violence and poverty, and the diehard
Khmer Rouge continue their depredations. There is little joy in the ten
photographs Kry submitted when winning his national contest.
But Kry is
fast catching up on two decades of technology; his photographer's eye has
returned, and from time to time a smile brightens his face. "I am not sure, but
I think there is some future for Cambodia," he says.