New Zealand chief petty officer John Oxenham, held hostage by the Khmer Rouge with
five other United Nations Military Observers earlier this month, described himself
as the group's "morale officer" and is credited by a fellow Kiwi with "carrying"
the hostages through their three-night ordeal.
While the British officers of the team were getting anxious about their predicament,
Oxenham said he was playing with a Khmer Rouge soldier's slingshot, sampling their
home brew and "bludging their cigarettes."
Described as the "joker among the pack" by the group's most senior officer,
British Lt. Col. Mark Walton, Oxenham-a stocky, 33-year-old, Kiwi kept the peacekeepers
laughing at even the most stressful of moments.
The British officers recalled one of "Oxy's best moments" shortly after
their release when they were greeted by UNTAC Chief Yasushi Akashi at Kompong Thom.
They watched in horror as Oxenham grabbed the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative
around the waist and asked, "How would you like to be photographed with a media
"Oxy", as he is known to his mates, is renowned for his sense of humor
by the other New Zealanders at Kiwi House in Phnom Penh and New Zealand naval Lt.
Nick Quinn-who monitored from the capital communications with the six hostages during
their ordeal-said he was impressed with Oxenham's practical and pragmatic thinking
during their detention.
"One of the [hostages] commented to me that Oxy's humor and his ability to relate
to the Khmers were a tremendous help. Oxy was the one who carried them through,"
Oxenham says he decided the Khmer Rouge were going to get fed up with him before
he was fed up with them, and he wanted them to be cheering when he finally left.
Lt. Peter Verney, said he succeeded just short of the cheering.
"Oxy, if they ever see you again, they will hide and pretend it is not a DK
post," Verney told him.
"I thought, 'Well, bugger it, I'm going to make these guys sorry that they ever
detained me.' I was morale officer," said Oxenham.
"I used to walk around the camp and give the locals a hard time and ask them
what they were doing and bludge smokes off them and bludge anything I could off them
in the hope that if I made such a nuisance of myself, they would be more than happy
to get bloody rid of us," said Oxenham.
"I thought that if we just put up happy fronts, looked as though we were enjoying
ourselves, they'd get tired of it before we would and when we actually got in our
boats to leave, they'd say, 'Yeah, go. We've had enough'," said Oxenham.
The peacekeepers were assigned a bamboo hut-15 feet by 5 feet-and they tried to share
their two mosquito nets to ward off the "mozzies that had teeth and could saw
through your clothes," said Oxenham. "It was after the first 24 hours that
we actually realized 'Okay, this may drag on,' and so we started rationing our rations
and conserving our water."
While the British officers kept in contact with their headquarters in Kompong Chhnang
and Kompong Thom, and while the U.N. and the NADK tried to resolve this situation,
Oxenham-armed with his Khmer-English dictionary-whiled away the hours chatting with
his captors and going fishing on the river. At night Oxenham had the UNMOs doing
drills to keep them active and gave English lessons to an NADK soldier.
Oxenham even cadged a NADK uniform as a souvenir.
"One of them was fairly young, he couldn't have been more than 15 and he kept
looking at my watch," said Oxenham. "I gave it to him and I thought 'Well,
I ain't leaving here without a souvenir,' so I got him to strip down from his hat
right down to his thousand-milers-you know, the old sandals-and I had me a whole
DK uniform for my watch. . .I had him down to his shorts."
Oxenham plans to donate the uniform to New Zealand's naval museum in Auckland.
On the second day of their detainment, Oxenham decided it was time to raise the flag
and establish a U.N. outpost and soon the familiar blue and white cloth was flapping
from the flagpole.
Quoting from his diary, Oxenham said, "We established a U.N. post by raising
the flag and we joked amongst ourselves we were going to canton these guys and disarm
Oxenham says his greatest fear during his stay with the NADK was that his family
would find out what had happened and "I'd have all my sisters marching over
here and slapping the DK around the ears." He has six sisters.
But Oxenham understood the gravity of their predicament, especially in light of their
unsuccessful attempt to escape.
"We all jumped in the boat very casual like and every time we made an attempt
to leave, they'd fire warning shots," said Oxenham.
"When you go out on patrol and shots are fired, that's totally different because
you're mobile and you can take evasive action," he added. "But actually
getting in the boat ... knowing that they've got arms and knowing that they may very
well use them, that is a frightening experience."
The warning shots were enough to make the UNMOs abandon their plans to leave and
return to shore, whereupon the NADK deflated their boats.
"Actually my real concern was that if we'd taken a casualty we would have been
in real trouble," said Oxenham. "The medical kits we have with us are pretty
basic and if we'd have had a casualty it would have been very hard for us to look
after the casualty."
When they were finally released on the morning of Dec. 4-after three nights with
the NADK-Oxenham was welcomed back to Phnom Penh with a barbecue at the Kiwi House
and a night on the U.N.'s tab at the five-star Floating Hotel. Oxenham also received
7 days leave.
"I would just say it was a learning experience," Oxenham said. "I
would actually do it again given the chance, I mean go back there again. I mean,
it's a job."