Enduring memories of his brother may bring Michael Nolan before the ECCC
MICHAEL Nolan’s next-door neighbour is a young Cambodian-American man who runs a Chinese restaurant. Nolan says they get along well, but when they meet outside their homes in Austin, Texas, they rarely talk about Cambodia’s tumultuous history or the country’s present-day war crimes tribunal.
Nolan says his neighbour has “shown a little interest”, but is for the most part consumed with making his living and his life in America.
“This is the way the world is shaped,” Nolan said this week. “We forget where we come from and the struggle we had to go through to get where we’re at.”
Nolan is better placed than most to empathise with older members of the Cambodian diaspora who left family behind decades ago in fleeing the trauma of their homeland. Now a pallet salesman approaching retirement age, Nolan has spent four decades searching for clues about his older brother, McKinley, who is now believed to have been murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Nolan says he still has “that 2 percent in me that he may still be alive”, but in light of evidence uncovered during two trips to Cambodia in the past few years, he has applied to participate as a civil party in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s second case.
Accounts of McKinley Nolan’s ordeal in Southeast Asia read like the stuff of grim, Vietnam War dramas, and, in fact, a documentary has been made about him and his brother’s search for answers about his fate. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, by American director Henry Corra, is scheduled to premiere this June in Washington.
The film draws on the research of journalist and author Richard Linnett, who has been investigating the story of McKinley Nolan for over a decade.
Striking out on an expedition to search for McKinley in 2008, Linnett’s research took him, Michael and the film crew to Vietnam, Phnom Penh and ultimately to Memot district in Kampong Cham province, where McKinley may be buried.
According to interviews and government documents obtained by Linnett and the crew, Private McKinley Nolan deserted his US army unit in Vietnam in 1967. Although initially enthusiastic about joining the military, later correspondence with family members reveals that he grew disillusioned with the war and life in Vietnam.
“He was so sick of fish,” McKinley’s wife, Mary Nolan, tells the filmmakers.
Having apparently been implicated in the theft and sale of American goods on the black market in Vietnam, McKinley eventually deserted the US military to live with his girlfriend, an ethnic Khmer woman living in Vietnam. He came in contact with the Viet Cong shortly thereafter, and helped them create propaganda from a base in Southern Vietnam.
“It is not us Colored people that the freedom fighters dislike it is those who push us to the front,” Nolan allegedly wrote in a November 1967 communiqué, directed at his fellow African-American soldiers, that was perhaps drafted by a Vietnamese officer.
“We are the first on line but the last one to receive the bread. They are fighting for Liberty. Why not we colored race stick together and help them because we want the same thing ourselves,” the document reads.
After enduring years of American bombardment, however, McKinley and his partner grew weary of life in Vietnam. They crossed into Cambodia in 1973 – Linnett says they were hoping to reunite with her relatives in Battambang – and were picked up immediately by Khmer Rouge forces in Memot, Kampong Cham.
Initially, the pair and their son were permitted to live in town with local residents. When Michael and the film crew travelled to Memot themselves, they found villagers who had fond memories of McKinley after living alongside him more than three decades ago.
“They had so much love for him everywhere he went,” Michael says in the film, having returned to rural Texas to tell family members about his trip.
Linnett says villagers spoke of how McKinley would help them with their farm work and keep their spirits up with songs and jokes.
“They thought, ‘This guy is hardworking, he’s honest, he’s big, he’s a big guy, and he’s friendly, and he’s kind of like us,’” Linnett said. “There’s a rice field out there that he planted. He built it, he cleared it all by himself, and it’s there to this day.”
As the Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid, however, McKinley’s freedom of movement became more restricted. He was confined to a security centre in 1975, and in late 1977, residents say, he was marched a few kilometres down the dirt road out of town and clubbed to death, his family murdered shortly thereafter.
A mission continues
While McKinley was away in Vietnam, Michael was stationed at an army base in Germany, as the US sought to prevent multiple family members from serving in the same theatre of war at once.
Information from the military about his brother’s disappearance was initially scant, despite letters Michael and his family wrote to congressmen and other officials after he returned home. Between the documents gathered by Linnett and interviews conducted with Cambodian residents in recent years, however, Michael now believes he has enough information to make a meaningful contribution to the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“I’d like the court to note what I did during the visit there, [as well as] the hardship that [McKinley] and the Cambodians went through,” Michael said.
Though the court has told Michael that his civil party application has been “placed on the Case File”, he has not yet been notified about whether he has been accepted. This decision is expected within the next few months.
Lyma Nguyen, one of Michael’s lawyers, said the voluminous evidentiary submission that she and co-lawyer Ny Chandy made on Michael’s behalf included witness statements, US government documents and a copy of The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan. Helen Jarvis, head of the court’s Victims Support Section, said that she could not comment directly on the chances of particular civil party applicants, but she noted that Michael’s submission was “particularly extensive in terms of the prior research that has been done”.
Linnett, who has assisted Michael in the application process, believes McKinley’s murder fits neatly into the court’s scope of investigation.
“His death falls right in, historically, with the Eastern Zone purges,” Linnett said.
Michael’s submission, Jarvis said, is one of 280 complaints or civil party applications that the court has received from abroad, most of which have come from Cambodian-Americans. Although no complaint is more significant than any other, Jarvis said the international interest “gives a depth or a breadth to the case”.
As with all other victims, Nguyen said, Michael “is playing a part in rebuilding remnants of history that may have been easily lost or forgotten”.
“Michael’s quest to discover the fate of his brother is a demonstration of the need for victims to ‘find out’, to ‘know’ before any closure can be obtained, if it can be obtained at all,” she said.
Michael, who battled drugs and alcohol during the years of grief that followed McKinley’s disappearance, says he doubts that he will ever obtain true closure. All these decades later, however, he said this week that he remains committed to carrying out his “mission” on behalf of his brother.
“I still feel in some ways helpless,” he said. “I still feel in some ways good, as well, that we’re still trying to shed some light on what happened.”