Norwegian Lars Olsen is the outgoing spokesperson for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), where he has spent more than seven years. Ahead of the Case 002/01 appeal verdict this week, he sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about the places that have defined his time in the capital.
Phnom Penh Thmey
From when we [his wife, daughter and himself] moved in [to the neighbourhood] – when it was basically just empty land and rice paddies – there has been an explosion of development. It reflects the overall development in Phnom Penh. We’ve lived in one of these borei developments, a Khmer neighbourhood. My wife is Cambodian, and it’s been easier for me to live in a Khmer neighbourhood. I think it’s a part of the city most foreigners have very little knowledge of. If you want to live somewhere relatively peaceful, there are plenty of opportunities in Phnom Penh Thmey. Obviously, if nightlife and international restaurants are what you are looking for, then you’re better off in another part of the city.
The ECCC (Khmer Rouge tribunal)
Obviously, the ECCC is where I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time over the past seven and a half years. Its location is not very conducive [to] boosting staff morale . . . When I first arrived, the average commute from town was 45 or 50 minutes. I think these days you are lucky if it’s less than an hour and a half. I’ve worked with many dedicated Cambodians and internationals. I’m impressed with how people still continue to do their job, regardless of public scrutiny. Some of the criticism is basically related to the [legal] foundation and we can’t change that. There have definitely been tough times in the office, but as long as you believe in the basic mission you are supporting, it makes it worth going on.
The Salmon House
Being a Norwegian, it may come as no surprise that Salmon House is a place I regularly visit. I think it’s one of the few places in Phnom Penh where you can get fresh salmon from Norway, and it’s the only place I’ve seen in Phnom Penh where they have Norwegian cod on the menu. Although I’m not typically a big fish fan, I do tend to stop by Salmon House regularly to have my fix of Norwegian fish products. It’s very traditional, typical Norwegian food, fish – the country has very long coastlines. You would be hard-pressed to find Norwegians that don’t like fish. Unfortunately, they don’t have Norwegian beer.
I like the old Zeppelin [on Street 51] better than the New Zeppelin [on Street 278]. Zeppelin was the first bar I went out to when I arrived in Cambodia. I was browsing through the tourist guides . . . When I saw the description of a bar that had old records and ’70s and ’80s rock music, I decided that this was the place where I would feel comfortable. The new location is obviously much nicer than the old one, but for some reason it seems to have become a little more of a mainstream, busy place. Before, it was kind of an oasis where if you went with a group of friends, you would pretty much have the place by yourself. The music is still good, though.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
S-21 is the brutal reminder of how bad things can get when you have a system or a regime that decides to go after enemies within or class enemies. You read things in books and it becomes rather academic, but you go to S-21 and it’s very in your face: these rooms where you still have these metal beds with these very graphic images of the corpses on the wall, which is apparently how they were found by the Vietnamese when they arrived in 1979. Whether this is representative of the rest of the country, there’s no dispute that S-21 was there and was a terrible place. Obviously, I am aware of controversies such as [questioning if it] is a propaganda display or not. But the fact remains, regardless of the motivations of those who established this museum, that there are things that have been established as fact by the ECCC that are brutal beyond imagination.