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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'An irresistible tragedy'

'An irresistible tragedy'

(AP) - Television cameraman Neil Davis documented the Cambodian war for his company

almost single-handedly, roaming the battlefields with a battered, handheld camera.

Two decades later, his one-time employers rushed in seven staffers and 1.5 tons of

equipment for this week's election.

Along with Davis, no more than a dozen foreign journalists were based in Phnom Penh

to cover the apocalyptic 1970-75 conflict. The U.N. organized election has drawn

nearly 800, unquestionably the largest number ever in the country.

Much has changed on the media scene in Cambodia. But there's one constant: a coterie

of middle-aged Western journalists who have charted Cambodia's agony since the beginnings

are back, drawn again and again to the place and the story.

"The tragedy of this country is so intense that for me it has an irresistible

pull," said Lewis Simons, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Knight-Ridder

chain. "I feel this compulsion to see it through."

Others like Simons also cite Cambodia's seductive beauty, the stoic smiles of a people

who have known little but suffering and their own memories-both youthfully exuberant

and tragic-as reasons for their attachment.

Although most have ranged the globe on assignments, the old hands invariably say

few others in their careers have been so compelling.

James Pringle, a Scotsman who has worked for British and American publications, even

bought a home here, hoping one day to retire to a peaceful land with his Cambodian

wife.

Another veteran couldn't stay away despite a fortuneteller's warning that he should

not fly this year. So Tiziano Terzzani, an Italian working for the German newsmagazine

Der Spiegel, simply took a slow boat from neighboring Thailand.

His long hair and beard streaked with gray, Al Rockoff haunted old hangouts, talking

about the war and the time he was medically dead for minutes after being wounded

on the battlefield as if it happened yesterday.

A photographer form Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Rockoff was a character in the highly acclaimed

film "The Killing Fields," which depicted the foreign newsmen in the last

days of the Cambodian War and the Khmer Rouge horror, which ensued.

"If you keep your eyes half closed it's still wonderful despite the years of

destruction," said Johbn Swain, a correspondent for Britain's Sunday Times who

was also portrayed in the film.

Old timers do, however, take painful note of the graceful French villas bring razed

by developers, the thickening traffic and the crude behavior of some U.N. peacekeepers

which has soured the hospitality Cambodians had always offered foreigners.

The French colonial Hotel Royale, the center for journalists, spies and gossip, during

the war is on its last seedy legs and deserted by most in favor of the Cambodiana,

an air-conditioned Western ghetto where rooms go for U.S. $200 a night.

Scores of younger journalists now make their rounds of the Gecko Bar, No Problem

Café and other spots in what has been dubbed "The Swilling Fields."

Many are freelancers, taking advantage of free U.N. helicopter rides and hoping for

a big, violent story.

The ones who have witnessed Cambodia's procession of horrors are hoping for peace.

Simons, who first reported from Cambodia in 1969, said he has become so personally

involved that he must make an effort to maintain his professional objectivity.

A quarter century later, British photographer Tim Page still lights incense for the

colleagues he lost in Cambodia.

More than 20 foreign journalists were killed or are still listed as missing.

Their Cambodian counterparts suffered even more casualties. Davis, an Australian

who worked for VISNEWS, went on to cover more conflicts and was killed in a Thailand

coup attempt.

Wounded five times in Indochina, Page was once talked of as a war lover.

He first came to Cambodia in the mid-1960s and recently celebrated his 49th birthday

in Phnom Penh.

"Are we chasing nostalgia? No, I don't think I am anymore," Page said.

"Personally, we want to see what gave us what we are. And for Cambodia? I think

the older and wiser of us really want to see these people have some peace,"

he added.

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