A fter several brushes with death Post photographers Franck Nolot and
Giovanni Diffidenti became the first journalists to reach the town. This
is their diary.
Monday March 21:
Four days of trying and an immense amount of frustration finally ended when
Franck and Giovanni got permission to travel along the trail hacked out by
government forces that circles around to Pailin. The track begins at Phnom Veng,
60 km west of Battambang and near Route 10.
Franck, a Frenchman, along with L'Mekong's Philippe Abdelkafi decided the best
tactics to reach the front line was to stay close to high-ranking officers, who
could expedite their passage.
After waiting around and chatting with a
major general in his office until lunch time, the three found themselves sitting
on the tank heading west in company with 150 troops and a truck.
going was far from smooth with the tank constantly having to stop and pull out
the truck from cloying mud on the trail, the result of unseasonally early
That night at camp a general invited the lensmen to photograph a
130-mm artillery battery providing support fire to an infantry detachment pinned
down by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
Giovanni said: "It made me think about
who was on the receiving end, I didn't want anybody to get hurt, but I guess
that's war." The newsmen got a reasonable night's sleep in their
Tuesday March 22: After breakfast at 6 am, the three
journalists climbed back on the tank for the journey onwards, with the road
getting steadily worse and stops to free bogged down trucks in their convoy more
frequent. During a break at a small camp along the trail, Franck had a couple of
puffs on a ganja water pipe at the exhorting of soldiers. They said it would
help protect him and make him strong. Later in the day Franck came to believe
there may have been something in what they said.
Around 4.30 pm there was
a muffled but powerful explosion when the tank triggered a newly-laid mine,
sending it slewing across the trail and throwing a track. Of the 20 soldiers
sitting on the tank, two died and six were wounded, two seriously.
Franck said: "We were very lucky we were not hurt. I realized straight
away what had happened and checked myself over and thought 'Great no problem.'"
Philippe was perhaps the luckiest. Just minutes before the explosion he
had been sitting on the side of the hull which took the full force of the blast.
He moved to a position beside Franck at the rear of the turret and a rice sack
they were sitting on helped cushion the blow. Giovanni was also fortunate in
earlier being directed away from the tank and onto a truck following.
Giovanni recalls: "I looked up and saw the black smoke coming out
of the tank, then someone yelled 'ambush' and shoved me down.
looked up again everybody was jumping down and taking up defensive positions.
"I got down also and crouching down I moved towards the tank. I just
didn't know what was going on.
"I got down off the truck and asked
Phillipe for a battery for my flash. He said 'yes' but didn't do anything, he
"A soldier kept beckoning me over to take pictures of one of
the dead, who had been blown 20 meters from the tank by the force of the blast.
"I was looking to catch the emotion of what was happening but there was
none apart from the suffering of the wounded. The other soldiers were amazingly
cool and there was no panic."
After around 45 minutes the party split in
two, with the journalists joining soldiers heading further up the trail on foot.
The others remained behind with the wounded and vehicles.
little time for the horror of the explosion to set in as the squad had to move
in single file, with the ever-present danger of more mines or an
Two hours later the men reached camp at Phnom Damrei, passed on
the way by another tank coming down to recover the damaged tank and the dead and
By then the clouds had burst and the journalists and soldiers
were drenched in rain and sweat as well as being hungry and tired. After a meal
with the soldiers around the camp fire, the journalists quickly fell asleep in
their hammocks despite all that had happened.
Wednesday March 23:
Another 6 am start and Philippe decided to return back up the trail due to an
The bodies of the two dead soldiers were cremated
on a makeshift pyre of firewood, with 10 soldiers paying their
Franck and Giovanni continued the journey to Pailin on one of
four crammed trucks in a convoy.
Around 11 am one of the drivers saw two
KR guerrillas crossing the road ahead and realized they were laying mines. The
convoy halted and everyone jumped down and took cover, with Franck landing
knee-deep in mud. At the same instant a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade thudded
into a tree trunk 100 meters ahead.
A firefight ensued for the next 10-15
minutes with the two sides exchanging B-40 and AK-47 fire. No one was wounded on
the government side and no casualties were left behind by the guerrillas.
Satisfied the KR had melted back into the jungle, the party moved forward on
foot for a while before the trucks caught up with them.
Now pits could be
seen dotting either side of the trail as the convoy entered a gem-mining area.
The track was littered with empty mine cases, as much a psychological tactic
against the government side to make them think it was very unsafe.
medicine bottles were left beside streams for a similar reason, with soldiers
aware of KR efforts to poison water supplies.
The convoy pulled into Sala
Krau at 4 pm. The gem-mining village was abandoned by KR guerrillas and their
families ahead of the government offensive.
The mood in the camp was
lifted by the breaking out of a beer ration. One commander was particularly
pleased, saying he hadn't had chance to get a drink for over one
Franck and Giovanni spurned an offer by the commander to sleep in
a relatively comfortable room upstairs in favor of bedding down on the floor
downstairs due to the more solid protection offered by brick walls. Again they
were thanking their lucky stars later.
Thursday March 24: The camp
is rudely awoken by an attack by around 50 guerrillas backed up by a barrage of
B-40 rockets and 62-mm mortars, lobbed over from an overlooking hill two km
The attack is repelled but not before five more soldiers were
injured. Franck and Giovanni kept their heads down inside the house where they
had been sleeping. A mortar landed just outside spraying shrapnel over men
hiding under a metal awning, wounding three. One of the injured had a jagged
hole torn in his shoulder.
The soldiers recovered three bodies of KR
fighters. Among the dead was a man with a leg wound who shot himself through the
Giovanni said: "They told us they thought he was an officer
because he was carrying a pistol and did not want to be captured and
Another exhausting day on the trail began, this time on
mostly foot with the men covering 16 km through increasingly dense jungle, with
mines and ambushes ever-present dangers.
During a hasty lunch someone
yelled to dive for cover seconds before the air was filled with the sounds of
shelling and gunfire and more B-40s. Franck managed to find an old foxhole to
dive into during the 20-minute onslaught, while Giovanni hid in some bamboo
As soon as there was a break in the gunfire the squad commander
ordered everybody back on the trail, almost as if nothing had
Giovanni recalls: "I said 'We're going now?' But in the end you
had to trust their judgment."
Further along the trail they stopped at
another captured KR village where a commander proudly displayed a captured
anti-aircraft gun and a tank.
There the two newsmen climbed on board
another tank for the final leg of their journey. From a distance they caught
sight of the imposing temple at the gateway to the town.
"All the way along I kept telling Franck we had to stay cool and not to get
excited. I felt relieved and we then began planning how we were going to
photograph the town."
At 1.30 pm they became the first Western newsmen in
the town after it had been captured by the government.
Franck said his
first impression was how well the town had been kept with carefully-tended
flower beds dotting the landscape.
Giovanni said: "It seemed like any
other Cambodian town, except that the advertisements were mainly in
In the streets, soldiers were busy searching for the spoils of
war. There was little in the way of valuables to be found though with the KR
evidently conducting an orderly retreat well in advance of the government
offensive. Some soldiers merely contented themselves with finding a mattress to
get a good night's sleep.
Friday March 25: After breakfast and
some final photos in the town, Franck and Giovanni joined a furious scramble to
get on an Mi-8 helicopter which had landed near the town center. Khmers working
for a Japanese film crew did their best to shove everybody else off so their men
could get on board.
Many soldiers, foreign military observers and other
journalists were left behind in the melee but Giovanni dragged Franck
Giovanni said: "There was no way we wanted to go back the same
way we came in."
Franck said: "It looked like a scene from the American
evacuation from the embassy rooftop in Saigon in 1975."
Finally after a
nerve-jangling treetop-level flight the pair were back in the relative safety of