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'One of the lucky ones'

'One of the lucky ones'


Foreign correspondent Glenn MacDonald remembers the brave band of journalists who risked life and limb in Southeast Asia.

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Glenn MacDonald returned to Phnom Penh in early March to honour journalist Neil Davis, who was killed in Bangkok in 1985. 

It is two hours before dawn, and the boulevard below my hotel window is finally silent. It's time for the parade of ghosts to begin.

Let me explain. It was 38 years ago when I first came to Cambodia to cover the war. I was back again in 1973 as an ABC Radio News correspondent before the murderous Khmer Rouge laid waste to this beautiful and gentle land.

A sentimental Scot, I have asked for, and been given, the same room in this 1960's-era hotel (then called the Monorom, but now known as The Holiday Villa) that I had back then.

Situated in the heart of the city, this seven-storey structure, along with another famous hotel I lived in - The Hotel Phnom, modernised and reborn as Raffles Le Royale Hotel - was press headquarters for a band of intrepid journalists and tv/radio correspondents we shall never see the likes of again.

As I stand here with my memories, I seem to hear the laughter of old. There's Matt Franjola of The Associated Press (we called him Captain America) waving the exceedingly brave combat photographer Al Rockoff over to his table at poolside.

The madman Pol Pot and his genocidal gangsters were still in the jungle. This then-besieged city, so French in its architecture and cosmopolitan in its tastes, had an atmosphere of barely-controlled fear - the Benzedrine of imminent danger.

A famous wag once wrote: "There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at and still be able to tell about it."

I feel that way myself, as I recall so many friends lost during the bloody days of 1970-72 when Welles Hangen of NBC and two dozen other correspondents went "down the road" in search of a story and never returned.

One night in April 1971, I recall telling my old friend and colleague Robin Mannock of AP that I was going to check out the latest French movie from Paris that was playing at the local cinema.

I caught the first show and was heading back to the hotel on foot when I heard the whoosh of a 120mm rocket and realized I was suddenly ground zero for a Khmer Rouge attack.

The rocket landed with a roar just a few feet from the cinema entrance, right where I'd been standing five minutes before.

I remember the day a Khmer Rouge rocket landed just a few yards from the front lobby of this famed press hotel.

A number of civilians were killed, including a cyclo driver who was found slumped over dead in his mangled conveyance. A woman's body lay in the middle of Monivong Boulevard. And on an open stairwell, the twisted bodies of several members of the same family were discovered, all slain by the same rocket blast.

"Hello, mate." I hear the cheerful voice and see again the smiling face of a beloved colleague appear before my eyes.

"Are you with me, Neil? Are you standing beside me, 24 years after I wrote your obituary when you died covering a failed coup in Thailand?"

Australia's greatest war correspondent and certainly one of the top ten reporters during the Indochina wars, Neil Davis was one of the best and the bravest"of those print and broadcast journalists who went out in the field and covered the news the hardest way - right in the middle of the action.

What's this? Do I hear the faint rumble of tracked vehicles at the other end of the boulevard? That was the way, piled atop armored personnel carriers, sandal-shod Khmer Rouge fighters entered this city after it finally fell into their hands.

They passed here, right under this window, on April 17, 1975. British journalist Jon Swain, Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times and other foreign correspondents fled the Hotel Phnom for the relative safety of the nearby French Embassy.

Oh, how I wished I could have been there with them!

I had been there at the beginning, starting out as a US Army combat correspondent in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969; a freelance correspondent in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1971; and then back again as a Manila-based ABC Radio News correspondent, making occasional forays during 1973 and 1974 into Saigon, Hong Kong and Phnom Penh.

But I was now in the worst possible place for a war correspondent to be. Far from the action and back in the States.

How many years do I have left before I join my dear colleagues in that press camp in the sky? I walk with a cane now, my hair is white and the ravages of time and hard living have taken their toll.

As my eyes fill with tears and I turn away from the window to return to my bed, I know I can call myself  one of the lucky ones. I survived. But how painful it is to realize so many of my friends and fellow correspondents have filed their final dateline and gone on before.

Yet their ghosts comfort me.   I savor their presence like the sweet smell of flowers, their friendship and camaraderie more precious than I can begin to describe to you here.

The war is what we had instead of happy childhoods. Moments of sheer terror, mixed in with high adventure.

It's a lot nearer the end than the start now. But until my last day of life, I will cling to the memories of those bygone times and be grateful that I was here at all.

Glenn MacDonald is a retired major in the U.S Army Reserve and can be reached at [email protected]


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