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A future beckons for "one of the best"

A future beckons for "one of the best"

T WENTY years ago they captured images of brutality and deep compassion. Now, all

but one are dead. Only Ou Neakiry (right) survives in Cambodia - and still

photographs.

Kry, as he is commonly known, was part of a brave and often

talented band: more than a score of photographers and reporters who helped cover

the Cambodian War for foreign media organizations till the Khmer Rouge captured

the nation.

He and his comrades went to the frontlines almost daily,

returning with images of severed heads, burning villages and mothers dying to

save their children. They were wounded again and again. They were fiercely loyal

though their pay was pretty low.

In April 1975 the US-backed government

collapsed and a terror unleashed by the victorious Khmer Rouge engulfed the

country. Years later, stories emerged of how Kry's colleagues were executed. A

few fled, while the fate of others remains unknown.

My memories remain

strong - Meang Leang, who was never very conscientious at his job of censoring

our copy, quit that task and helped us write stories near the end; the gentle

Saing Hel, whose real loves were fishing and writing romantic novels; Sun Heang,

whose famous voice dubbed actors' lines in countless Cambodian movies; Yuthi,

barely out of his teens and besieged by girlfriends; Tea Kim Heang, wounded

eight times...

They were about the bravest - and may I say the best - men

I'll ever hope to meet.

Despite my efforts, of all these men, Kry is the

only friend and colleague I have found.

Mean Leang was the last to

communicate before the fall of Phnom Penh. He, like others, broke the rules. He

didn't melt into the crowd, stick with his family, play dumb. The roly-poly man,

sweat no doubt dribbling from his chin, rushed around with his typewriter

between the office and the French colonial building from where we wired our

stories.

April 17, 1975, and the Khmer Rouge penetrated Phnom Penh. It

was a big story.

Mean Leang didn't know much about the news business or

the organization, and God knows there wasn't any money in it. But he wrote about

the final clashes and the white flags of surrender, and the initial relief of

the crowds that the five-year war was over.

He sat down at the office and

wrote: "I alone in office, losing contact with our guys... I feel rather

trembling. Do not know how to file our stories now... Maybe last cable today,

and forever."

Kry has come full circle. He again works for Associated

Press and says he has rediscovered the thrill of capturing scenes of his

homeland for the world.

Relearning his craft last year, he won a

nationwide photo contest sponsored by US media foundation Freedom

Forum.

"After the Khmer Rouge I didn't want anything but rice and salt

because we had become used to living like animals," says the 42-year-old Kry.

"Now we must think about the future."

Kry's future is now his wife, his

job and house, which is also home to his sister, the only surviving member of

his four-strong family. Three brothers died under Pol Pot.

It was one of

them who got Kry a messenger's job at AP. Fascinated, he picked up photography

tips and battlefield survival skills and soon became part of the band.

A

month before the KR victory, as he ran toward a government gunner for a closer,

better photo angle, rocket shrapnel tore into his stomach. Offered evacuation to

Thailand, he elected local treatment - a decision which consigned him to four

years in hell.

Tears well up in his eyes when he talks about the gun

point evacuation of Phnom Penh, the crushing slave labor in rural communes, the

killings, certain that one day it would be his turn.

And it came.

Almost.

Hands bound, he and others were led away to an execution ground.

Incredibly, he remembers, an official appeared and argued that Kry - relatively

young and strong - was essential to the commune's meager workforce. He alone was

spared.

After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Kry eked out a living as a

low-ranking civil servant, asked from time to time to take snap photos of

official functions.

When I met Kry again during these years after 1979 he

had a hunted look, speaking in whispers and peering warily at strangers. I

didn't think I would ever see the old, free-wheeling Kry again.

Now,

like him, Cambodia is a composition of shadow and light.

Electoral

freedom has not yet meant freedom from violence and poverty, and the diehard

Khmer Rouge continue their depredations. There is little joy in the ten

photographs Kry submitted when winning his national contest.

But Kry is

fast catching up on two decades of technology; his photographer's eye has

returned, and from time to time a smile brightens his face. "I am not sure, but

I think there is some future for Cambodia," he says.

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