Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Leah Melnick, Photographer and UN worker 1967 - 1997



Leah Melnick, Photographer and UN worker 1967 - 1997

Leah Melnick, Photographer and UN worker 1967 - 1997

LEAH MELNICK was a gifted photographer and a champion of social justice both in Cambodia

and in Bosnia. Through her photography in Cambodia and Thailand in 1989-93 and later,

through her human rights work in Cambodia and Bosnia, she reached out to suffering

people and tried to make others care about them as well.

Most recently, Leah was a human rights official with the Office of the High Representative

in Sarajevo, working tirelessly to implement the Dayton accord. She died Sept 17

when a UN helicopter carrying her and 11 other human rights and police officials

slammed into a Bosnian mountain in heavy fog. She was 30-years-old.

Leah and I had been the closest of friends for eight years. Her warmth and wit made

her a joy to be with. I first met Leah in Phnom Penh, wearing shorts and a pony-tail,

and doing long walkabouts with her camera on the streets. She had a strong sense

of adventure, and a wickedly sharp sense of humor. But from the beginning, she also

struck me as being wise beyond her years, and strongly committed to helping the disadvantaged

and the oppressed. She used her photography as a way of giving such people a voice.

When Leah was still at university, Life magazine named her one of the United States'

top nine students most committed to public service. Soon after, she began a photographic

project to document the lives of Cambodian refugees in Amherst, Massachusetts, and

in the Bronx. Not content to just take pictures, she learned Khmer, and helped newly

arrived refugees fill out forms and learn to cope with their new lives. By the time

I met Leah in Cambodia, she was fluent in Khmer, and had a deep understanding of

what Cambodians had lived through and were still living through. On the many trips

we did together in the Cambodian countryside, Leah could unfailingly put Cambodian

villagers at ease, joking with them, listening to them, reaching out to comfort a

woman whose husband had just been killed by the Khmer Rouge, or a child in a hospital

bed, whose legs had been blown off by a landmine.

Her almost spiritual connection with Cambodia and its people showed in her photo

exhibition, "Distant Relations", a glimpse into the lives of Cambodians

in the US, in camps on the Thai border and inside Cambodia. It was displayed at such

sites as the Smithsonian and Oxford University, and it won her a National Press Photographer's

Foundation Award in 1990.

Leah also covered the May 1992 pro-democracy demonstrations in Bangkok, and was on

the frontlines when troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. One of her photos,

released by AFP, showed anguished Thais carrying a dead friend on a stretcher covered

with the Thai flag. It remains one of the more shocking images of a nation's nightmare.

Soon after, Leah decided she wanted to be more directly involved in helping bring

democracy to Cambodia. She joined UNTAC's electoral unit and, in '92-93, edited a

newsletter on how the campaign was going. When the elections were over, she moved

to the UN Center for Human Rights and, eventually, decided to expand her horizons

by moving to the former Yugoslavia in 1994. Even after her move to Bosnia, Leah continued

to care deeply about Cambodia. The last time I talked with her was in late July,

just after I'd gotten back from covering the coup in Cambodia. She called me from

Bosnia, wanting to know as much as I could tell her about what had happened to her

Cambodian friends, especially those who'd been involved in working for human rights

and democracy. She said how frustrating it was to be in Bosnia when she knew she

could be doing even more good, at that moment, in Cambodia.

Leah's commitment to helping others was evident whenever I talked with her. She came

to visit me in Beijing last May, and I was struck by how an already exceptional human

being was growing in depth and maturity. She seemed to have a new clarity about her

direction, a conviction that she had found her life's work. We spent much of the

week laughing, joking, trading tales and, on one brilliantly clear afternoon, climbed

the Great Wall with friend and fellow journalist Bertil Lintner. From the height

of one of the centuries-old look-out towers, we talked about how one copes with seeing

so many tragedies, as Leah had in Bosnia and Cambodia, without becoming cynical.

She worried about losing her sense of idealism.

But I don't think there was ever any danger of that. Leah did have a clear-eyed ability

to size up the truth of a situation, and an often cynical sense of humor that helped

her cope. But beneath it was a vulnerability that came from her compassion, and a

need not just to observe the world, but to try to make it better.

Leah's death is a staggering loss not only for those of us who knew and loved her,

but also for the many, many people whose lives she touched through her work.

MOST VIEWED

  • Would you like fries with that? US burger chain makes Phnom Penh debut

    California-based The Habit Burger Grill restaurant chain is all set to serve up a delicious array of charbroiled burgers and sides at its newest international location in the centre of Phnom Penh. The Habit is “renowned for its award-winning Charburgers grilled over an open flame,

  • Phnom Penh underpass opens to ease traffic

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced a temporary opening of the 488m underpass at the Chaom Chao roundabout in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district, which was recently completed to connect traffic from National Road 4 to Russian Federation Blvd. The move is to reduce

  • Banteay Meanchey flood victims receive aid

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday provided aid to more than 10,000 families affected by flooding in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borei district and offered his condolences to the 18 victims who drowned in the province over the past week. He said flooding had occured in

  • PM urges caution as Polish man tests positive for Covid

    The Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported that a 47-year-old Polish man tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Cambodia on Monday. There are a total of six Covid-19 patients currently in the country, all of whom are being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

  • Show evidence of Chinese military base, critics told

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said he had had enough of certain countries and opposition groups claiming Cambodia had allowed China to base its military in Cambodia and dared critics to show clear evidence. Hun Sen made the remarks while presiding over a groudbreaking

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from