MONIKA Warnenska, with a firm, bright voice, doesn't require prompting as she talks
of her recollections of 17 trips to Indochina since 1962.
From witnessing the return of people from the countryside to Phnom Penh in 1979,
to meeting Ieng Sary's mother in southern Vietnam, she has memories of many of the
main events in 30 years of turmoil in Cambodia and Vietnam.
A Polish journalist-turned-novelist, and author of three books on Cambodia, 79-year-old
Warnenska was recently back in the region and - as ever - couldn't resist another
visit to Cambodia.
With gray hair and eyeglasses, she willingly settles back into a chair to recount
her many travels, helped by her position as a journalist from an eastern European
"My first Asian encounter was with North Korea, during a trip organized by the
writers' association. North Korea was not as crazy as it is now," she says with
But it was in Vietnam and Cambodia that she spent most time.
She first went to Vietnam in 1962 as a writer for the now-defunct Polish weekly Perspectiv,
with the aim of getting permission to travel through the jungle from the North to
visit the partisans in the South.
"In the sixties, I was mostly interested on the issues of the division of Vietnam.
I could compare that to what was happening in Europe, but the division in Vietnam
was even more strict."
She remembers how simple matters such as sending mail between North and South Vietnam
was no easy task.
"I was asked several times to take letters out of the country. For example,
a letter from Hanoi would go through Warsaw, Paris and the United States before being
able to get to Saigon."
It wasn't until another trip to the North three years later that she got the much-wanted
clearance to visit the Viet Cong guerrillas in the South.
In May 1965 she set off down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a "good lesson" as
she puts it. "I so desperately wanted to do to the south that all the obstacles
were not so important. Before I went, they taught me the basics of living in the
She spent six months with the Viet Cong, trying to set up an education and cultural
unit for them, in the Vietnamese jungle.
On her return trip, going along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodian territory,
she took a detour and visited Phnom Penh.
Granted an audience with then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, "I had to excuse myself
for having entered the country illegally."
"In Phnom Penh I was in a country with peace. In Vietnam the war was really
furious and it was a great chance for a country to be able to keep calm when the
war was at its borders.
"Sihanouk prevented his country from falling into war for several years,"
On her next trip to Phnom Penh in 1969 - after being able to visit Saigon as part
of an international monitoring mission - she says she felt distinctively uneasy.
She feared that something bad was going to happen.
Six months later, she returned a few weeks after Sihanouk had been overthrown.
"It was the first time I felt afraid. There were anti-Sihanouk banners and people
had changed their minds very fast."
Warnenska pauses and says sadly: "But I saw how war entered Cambodia."
During another trip to Hanoi in 1970, the Polish journalist met with Sihanouk in
"He was really pleased, because I gave him a picture of an anti-Lon Nol demonstration
in Phnom Penh," she recalls.
From Poland, she asked for permission to visit the Khmer Rouge areas in 1974, but
was refused. Today, she reckons she was lucky.
"I would not be here with you if I had gone," she says with a smile.
In 1975, after Phnom Penh had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, Warnenska received a call
from Saigon. Saigon was also about to fall to the Viet Cong, she was told, and invited
along to witness it.
She spent four months there, initially hopeful that peace had finally come to Indochina.
"I thought the war was over, but in fact I had to come back to cover the war
again in 1977 and 1978.
"Every year, I thought this would be the end of the war. But after the big war
against the United States, there were small wars with China and Cambodia.
"I love both [Vietnam and Cambodia] and I thought they would have cooperation
after the war, but they did not. In fact the struggle was really cruel."
In the late 1970s, she went to see Vietnamese villages attacked by the Khmer Rouge.
She recalls meeting Heng Samrin - a former Khmer Rouge who was later to lead Cambodia
under the Vietnamese occupation - in a camp in Vietnam.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia, Warnenska was one of the first outsiders to arrive
in Phnom Penh in 1979.
"The first day it was crazy. To see this town was even more terrible than to
see the places bombed by the Americans in North Vietnam. The city still existed,
but it was dead.
"I went straight from the airport to Tuol Sleng [torture center]...the torture
tools were still there - as well as the blood.
"I spent twelve days in Phnom Penh. I was staying at the Samaki [Royal] hotel
and I saw the people coming back into the city. They told me their stories,"
she said. "They were not afraid, except for the kids."
She remembers meeting one man in particular: "He was old and very dignified.
He asked me 'Can you have this letter sent to my wife who lives in France?'
"I asked him about his life and he said: 'My name is Sisowath. I am member of
the Royal family and I have come back from forced evacuation in the countryside.
I was hunting birds in the rice fields to eat'."
Year after year, Warnenska returned to Cambodia to check on its slow rebirth from
tragedy and trauma. She compared it to the revival of the Polish capital Warsaw after
World War II.
On her latest trip, her first since 1989, the continuing plight of the people still
"It slowly moves forward, but people are so tired. I wish for the situation
to improve. It is always better than death camps, but still they have to fight every
day for their living."
It was as a novelist, not a journalist, that she has come here on her recent trip.
But she concedes she would have liked to have gone to Phnom Malai and interviewed
Had she done so, she would have had some personal questions - and a message - for
"I interviewed Sary's mother in 1980 in Kampuchea Krom [southern Vietnam]. She
asked me whether I had met her son. For me it was as if I were asked whether I had
met with Hitler.
"She showed me his wedding picture," she recounts, adding that Sary's mother
did not understand what people held against her son.
"I do not know anything about him. The police keep on asking me about his whereabouts,"
Sary's mother told her.
"'If you see him, just tell him that I am old and alone. All the neighbors have
families - I don't,' she told me," Warnenska says.
"You know, if I still worked for my newspaper, I would go to Malai and ask this
guy why he didn't even sends news to his mother," she says determinedly.
Sary's mother is now dead, and Warnenska doesn't have a newspaper to write for anymore.
But she doesn't mind. "It would be too difficult to explain" she says of
So rather than report, Warnenska is writing a novel: a love story between a Polish
archeologist and a Khmer woman set in the 1970s.
"I need to check a few things in Phnom Penh for my novel," she says of
her visit, adding that she went to the French embassy to have a glimpse of the place
where expatriates were kept in April 1975 before being shipped out of the country.
She also went to Angkor and recognized the first image she ever saw of Cambodia.
"It was during the Second World War. I was sixteen and I looked at an old paper
from before the war. There was this picture of wood and stone: temples in Angkor
captioned 'Cambodia'. That was the first time I saw Angkor."
Warnenska doesn't know when she will give up traveling- in November she was in East
Timor - but hopes to return to Phnom Penh again.
In the meantime, there's a novel to write from her home in Poland, decorated with
ornaments from the many countries where she has witnessed history in the making,
"I'm going back to my imaginary Cambodia," she said before her departure.