Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A book both shocking and revelatory

A book both shocking and revelatory

A book both shocking and revelatory

Cambodia: The Years of Turmoil

By Roland Neveu

Asia Horizons Books Co Ltd,


Reviewed by Tim Page

THE first time you walk into Toul Sleng, you are struck by the spookiness of the

place. There is a similar feeling entering into the concentration camps the Nazis

established all over Eastern Europe. The same spooky sensation lurks in destroyed

towns like Vukovar, Mostar, where intangible ghosts scream out for relief. Tortured

deaths seeking appeasement, a way to get out of the trapped space they find themselves

in. Swathes of Cambodia now and then echo these dangerous, intangible vibrations.

Roland Neveu's The Years of Turmoil reflects these emotions in a stark black-and-white

way that color does not quite achieve so hauntingly. There is something in the grain

of monochrome that mesmerizes the viewer, flashing back time-cards to the early years

when the book's first images were made. The war in Indochina, the full-on conflict

in neighboring Vietnam, had finally spilled across the neutral Cambodian border,

initially into the eastern provinces.

The North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front Viet Cong had long used the inviolate

Cambodian territory as a safe base camp as well as part of the arterial network known

as the Ho Chi Minh (Truong Son) Trail.

A resupply system run by the Chinese and sympathetic Khmers ran from the port of

Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) up to the border zones in the eastern provinces. This

was the Sihanouk trail. The US move to pinch off these lines and take out the rear

echelon areas brought the war across the border.

These moves were heralded by massive arclight strikes, carpet bombings by giant B52

bombers based out of Thailand and Guam. The Khmer population fled the terror from

above, decanting to urban centers, especially the capital, Phnom Penh.

The remaining folk were at the mercy of contesting factions, rapidly falling under

Khmer Rouge dominance as the government forces withdrew to safety with their military

coherence always in question.

These were times of confusion and turmoil, the Lon Nol, US-backed regime was always

on the defensive and continuously under siege. Children were drafted to arms and

dispatched on Coca-Cola trucks to the ever-changing and shrinking front.

The tenuous lifeline of the Mekong River was interdicted, forcing resupply by air.

Rockets zeroed in on an overcrowded, terrified, starving populace. Unlike in Vietnam

there were no rules, no gentlemen's arrangements, and no edicts from a central control.

When it is possible to call war feral this was it. Its overtones we later associated

with the Balkans, Central Africa and the Horn of Africa.

It likewise drew a desperate coterie of correspondents, many old hands of coverage

next door. It also brought a new group of adventurers and would-be snappers like

junkie moths to the flame. The place took a fearful toll on the media.

In the spring months of April and May 1970, 15 of our colleagues went MIA on Route

1 in the eastern zone. Those lucky enough to be ambushed by Vietnamese troops often

lived to write a frightening piece, those taken by the Khmer Rouge were usually executed

on the spot. This fate befell a number of the great prizewinners of those times,

the 1967 Pulitzer winner Kyochi Sawada among them.

Roland Neveu first flew into this mess in 1973, got hooked on that Indochinese drug

for a few months before ironically having to return to complete his military service.

He returned in time to cover the liberation of Phnom Penh, the final death throes

of democracy as the KR took the country by storm.

Initially the victors were only apprehensive toward the remaining foreign press as

they decanted the populace out of the city. Soon it turned ugly, with all Round-Eyes

and some hundreds of elite Khmers being banged up in the French Embassy. The Khmers

were then forced out of the embassy compound to the killing fields; days later the

foreigners were crammed into trucks and convoyed to the Thai border.

Roland managed to hide his exposed film of these "liberation" moments and

the squalor of the embassy. They are rare and powerful images, precursors to the

feral terror that was now the state of Democratic Kampuchea.

No live news people got to witness the madness that ruled for three and a half years.

No one wanted to know what the truth was, few cared. Only stories recounted by refugees

arriving in their thousands on the Thai border could tell of the reality inside the

isolated state. Their plight was an ongoing story till the Vietnamese liberation

forces withdrew in 1989.

To venture across the border was a daring act; forays and raids conducted by one

of the resistance groups: royalist, centrist, Buddhist or KR. It was back in this

époque that I first met Roland, fresh from another hair-raising escapade with

the KPNLF - or was it the Rouge.

We went to a Thai bar down in Klong Toey with a couple of other French snappers,

trading border vignettes over the din of ambiguous R&R cheap beer and herbal


Everyone had just been up to Aranyaprathet for the latest round of floods in the

border camps. More refugees were still coming in for free UN food handouts through

the endless minefields. Photographically it was rich pickings.

I was unaware that Roland was shooting it in black and white as well as color.

Cambodia, The Years of Turmoil, his self-published book, skillfully reduces the frames

spanning nearly three decades to the powerful patina of monochrome grain.

Even the small trannies in the réconte historique at the front are reproduced

in black and white. The effect is full on, the power of each picture punching continuously.

It is with relief that you journey back to liberated Cambodia under Vietnamese patronage,

disturbing to view the first testimonies of the killing fields, the bleakness of

a city now coming back to life after being deserted for years.

These frames bring back those bizarre contradictions while along the border guerrilla

units still take on the Vietnamese and each other.

With the Viet withdrawal a certain leitmotif creeps into the frames, an odd chuckle

is evinced, a measure of peace and normalcy returns, though still in a landscape

littered with the detritus of war, especially the human.

A hope comes with marginal prosperity by the time the various factions return in

1991 sponsored by the UN, followed in 1993 by the UNTAC elections.

I think we all had fun then, our frames bestow a certain light upon the reinstatement

of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Sihanouk's return and the gradual demise of the KR. It

was still a dangerous, alluring place to be, subject to roadblocks and ambushes on

any of the highways.

Travel, except when the UN flew us about endlessly, was and is the equivalent of

a camel 4x4 raid.

With these pictures you feel the bone-shaking slow progress of a nation slowly rebuilding

itself, trying to find a line to the future untrammeled by war.

The modern history of Cambodia makes for glum reading, an illogical course of events

thrown together upon a people that once inhabited a benevolent land that smiled and

was fertilely blessed.

Roland Neveu to me traces this same catastrophic history illuminating the sadness

and the joy, the trauma and the recovery. He adds a depth and meaning to the search

for peace and the universal damning of violence and war. The book is both shocking

and revelatory.

As a footnote I should add that to self-publish is in its own right an incredible

feat and readers should check out Roland's other fine self-published guidebooks on

the region.

Well done my friend. Peace.

Tim Page is one of the most well known and respected photographers of Vietnam era.

He lives in England between assignments. His most recent project has been the production

of Requiem - a book and exhibition of pictures by photographers from both sides of

the Vietnam War who were killed in action.


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