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.