A book documenting the experiences of peacekeepers and aid workers in Cambodia in 1993 was launched on Sept 8. Written by Australian journalist Marje Prior, Shooting at the Moon is a collection of interviews with 75 people, illustrated with eloquent black and white portraits by Heide Smith.
Focusing on Australians and Khmers, Prior accumulated stories from a variety of people, from monks to mine-victims, from Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, force commander of Untac, to Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth.
"I interviewed 75 people in 42 days," she said. "The most important part is the stories. I have given a historical framework." Prior is also an oral historian and her book charts, through personal accounts, the elections, the problems of minefields, human rights, the returnees and rebuilding Cambodia.
Her interest in the country dates from 1979 when Khmer Rouge atrocities were broadcast on Australian television. Then her imagination was stirred by her friend Lorraine Sanderson, wife of the UN forces commander, and after only three visits, she completed the book within a 20-month deadline.
The title refers to the Khmer habit of shooting tracers at the moon when there is an eclipse. It terrified Shane Connelly and his fellow peacekeepers who, according to one of the book's narratives, flung themselves on the floor thinking that the dry season fighting had started. "It was probably the most scared I've been in my whole lifetime," he said.
Optimism and bravery, characterized most Australians she interviewed. "I whack on the rose-colored glasses every morning and off I go, determined that we can make a big contribution," said Denley Pike, who founded the Australian Centre for English.
Nevertheless, the perplexities of the country are addressed. "Khmer culture," declared Veng Sereyvuth, "is basically a violent one ... we have come from a warrior, warlike history." Prior shows how such aspects disillusioned outsiders. "I witnessed the actual breakdown within families," lamented Lyndall McLean, a foreign affairs diplomat, regarding issues of land ownership. "People were literally throwing out their grandmothers, mothers, brothers and sisters who they'd shared a house with for 10 years."
However, Cambodia is not all tragedy. "Cambodian children work all day carrying water, collecting fire wood ..," says one sad picture caption. But many children, swimming and playing all day in a countryside paradise, live idyllic lives compared to those trapped in Western inner cities.
What they lack is education, and Prior is donating the proceeds from the book to a Media Trust Fund for scholarships in Australia for journalists from developing countries, particularly Cambodia. "It was, in some small way, what I could contribute to the development and training of Khmer people," she said.
Certain prominent Australians, such as former ambassador John Holloway, are missing from the book. But new ambassador, Tony Kevin, attended the launch in the courtyard of the National Museum, supported by Australian phone company Telstra.
Also present were the Minister of Culture Nouth Narang, and Secretary of State for Education, Youth and Sport, Mom Chum Huy, as well as Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh. An ex- journalist, Sirivudh talked about peace, saying that democracy is based on liberty of thinking. "Before we talk about spoons, knives and plates, we must talk about the table." He asked for a minute's silence for the death of newspaper editor Non Chan.
It was a reminder that the work of peacekeepers has not finished.