issue 242 - April 1993
A menace to civilization
Land mines are thickly sewn in the new killing fields of Cambodia.
John Pilger meets some old Cambodian friends and
US-Vietnam War veterans who are repairing the damage.
I went to Ron Podlaski’s wedding the other night. After the monks had left and everyone had been garlanded in jasmine, Ron and Bo Pha, his Khmer bride, stood in the narrow street most of the day and night, clasping hands with hundreds of people. Many were guests; many were street people. All were invited. I shall not easily forget them.
On a table of honour were six young men, none of them more than 21 years old, who had lost one or both legs in Cambodia’s minefields. Recognizing each other, we raised our beers in a boisterous toast; I had met them a few days earlier at Kien Khlang, on the banks of the Mekong, where Ron runs the Vietnam Project’s Limb Centre. One of them, a cherubic boy of 18, had strapped on to his uneven stumps two new legs, made from beaten tin and rubber, and heaved himself on to the parallel bars. He walked for the first time since an ‘antipersonnel’ land mine had left him a bleeding ruin.
He walked at his first try, with the other amputees encouraging him in the soft, tonal lilt of Khmer. The next day he set off without the aid of bars. ‘Didn’t you fall at all?’ I asked him at the wedding. ‘No, not once,’ he said. And when I asked him why he and his friends had not worn their new legs, he said: ‘Tonight we intend to drink a lot of beer. Legs aren’t necessary for that, they get in the way!’ The interpreter could barely tell me this over their laughter. They had come from Kien Khlang on a fleet of motorcycles, riding pillion, each with bouquets and gifts for Ron and Bo Pha.
Cambodia is menaced now perhaps more than ever by land mines, which are almost everywhere. According to a study by Asia Watch, the American human-rights organization, up to 700 amputations are performed every month. No other country has a higher percentage of disabled people and amputees. Almost all of this is due to mines, which all sides use and describe as ‘eternal sentinels, never sleeping, always ready to attack’.
In its report, The Coward’s War, Asia Watch named two foreign powers that ‘are or have been involved in the use of mines and explosives against civilian as well as military targets’. They are China and Britain. Asia Watch confirmed that the British SAS (an elite military squad) had trained Cambodian guerillas allied to the Khmer Rouge, and the mines and booby traps in the SAS training programme were standardized among the guerilla groups, including the Khmer Rouge. In January 1992, Amnesty International published a report, Repression Trade UK Limited: how the UK makes torture and death its business, which highlights the mines training by the SAS.
Today, British soldiers are ensconced with the Khmer Rouge, this time as a United Nations force, training them to clear mines in their headquarters in Pailin. Here you enter and leave only with permission of the Khmer Rouge who, not surprisingly, asked for the British. The Thatcher/Hurd denials of Britain's training of the Khmer Rouge are a mockery now. British servicemen with the UN speak openly about the SAS’s legacy. In his current Cambodian Chronicles, Raoul Jennar reports that a British UN officer told him, ‘they (the British) know very well the Khmer Rouge military tactics because they have been teaching them during the 80s’.
The carnage left by mines, which the UN has described as ‘one of the worst modern man-made disasters of the century’, is a ubiquitous presence. If tourism has any use in Cambodia today, it is to remind those other than journalists and aid workers of this shocking fact. Just to walk through Phnom Penh is to run a gauntlet of limbless phantoms, some of them in threadbare uniforms, many of them children. A teenager without hands comes at you from a doorway. He has touched a mine.
The trauma reaches deep into Khmer society. A woman without a limb has little hope of marrying; a limbless man is unlikely to work. Both will fall back on a social fabric already torn by years of bombing and genocide and a decade-long blockade led by the US and China and imposed by the ‘international community’.
It is this that makes the work of Ron Podlaski and the other American Vietnam veterans who run the limb centre such an important counterweight, however small, to the foreign forces that still beleaguer this nation. At the very least they provide a glimpse of the human resources, both Khmer and foreign, that could begin to restore Cambodia.
Ron is a big, rumbustious man in his forties who was hauled before a judge in New York in 1968 and told he was a ‘menace to civilization’. ‘I had hit a cop on the head,’ he said. ‘This was normal behaviour where I grew up. The judge said, “I’ll give you a choice: Vietnam or jail”. I said, “Where’s Vietnam?” He said, “Across the George Washington Bridge”.’
photo: DAVID MUNRO
Ron joined the Special Forces, running secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. ‘We were told to use amphetamines to keep from falling asleep,’ he said, ‘because we couldn’t trust the local people not to kill us in our beds. These were the people we were meant to be fighting for. They hated us. I learned quickly.’
Like many veterans, Ron came home an addict and angry, believing that he had been conned. I didn’t meet him at the Lincoln Memorial in 1971 when he and other veterans threw back their medals; but I think I remember his larger-than-life presence. I certainly remember Bobby Muller at the Republican Party’s convention in Miami the following year. I remember his booming eloquence reaching the candidate, Richard Nixon, over the catcalls of the faithful. He shouted to Nixon that he was lying when he promised ‘peace with honour’ to Indochina. For that, he was thrown out in his wheelchair.
Bobby was a marine who had been shot in the spine, losing the use of his legs. In 1978 he and Ron and Ed Miles and others formed the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and have since devoted themselves to preventing a repeat of such an adventure. They have funded a curriculum for schools and colleges on the Vietnam War, seeking to end the ‘historical amnesia’ that has allowed the same people in Washington to pursue ‘other Vietnams’. They have initiated projects in Vietnam for children orphaned by the War. Here in Cambodia they have produced their most remarkable achievement.
Encouraged by a documentary film I made with David Munro in 1989, they set up the prosthetics centre at Kien Khlang using the ‘Jaipur limb’. Developed by Dr PK Sethi in Jaipur, this is a simple aluminium leg with a latex foot that requires no high-tech components, making it ideal for Third World conditions. The foot moves almost naturally from side to side and using the limb requires minimal training, because of the confidence it gives.
The prosthetist is Dave Evans, who lost both his legs in Vietnam before his 19th birthday. Back home, he retrained as a nurse and went to El Salvador where he became the director of a prosthetics programme helping the FMLN guerillas. He walks and runs, almost like an athlete. The centre employs three Indian trainers from Jaipur and soon Khmer trainers, most of them amputees, will begin to take over. They fit some 150 limbs a month.
The United Nations has deployed seven military units to train Khmers to clear mines. In one area of Kompong Thom province, less than 52 out of 4,000 mines have been cleared in six months. In Battambang province not a single mine has been cleared. Instead, the people are clearing the mines: farmers with spades, children with sling shots; and by stepping on them. ‘We have done virtually nothing,’ a UN Dutch army mine clearer told me. ‘What are we here for?’
At Ron Podlaski’s wedding, the Khmer band played rock’n’roll; the Indian trainers from the limb centre – Roddy, Than and Abdul – danced to the sitar; and Bo Pha wore several magnificent dresses of incandescent brightness. Like most Khmers who knew the Pol Pot era, her eyes have a wistfulness, a distance and a deep sadness. Bo Pha’s father, two brothers and brother-in-law were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge. ‘I have a boat and weapons ready,’ said Ron. ‘If they look like coming back, we’ll get everybody out that we have to...’
The day after the wedding Ron, Dave, Bobby and Ed were at Phnom Penh airport on their way to Vietnam, where they plan another limb centre. It is one of their many current projects, including a worldwide campaign to ban the use and production of land mines. Watching the four of them cross the tarmac to their aircraft – only one of them, Ron, has the use of his legs – I recalled Martha Gellhorn’s tribute to that ‘lifesaving minority of Americans who judge their government in moral terms, who are the people with a wakeful conscience and can be counted upon... they are always there.’
For a briefing on groups working with amputees and others see ‘Action’. Contributions to the work of the limb centre can be sent via War on Want, marked ‘Cambodia Limbs Project’, to 37-39 Great Guildford Street, London SE1 0ES.
The good monk of
It has, as my neighbour says, been a religious day. She has at last held the ceremony for her husband, killed in the years when there was no time to mourn. As she sits on the wooden steps of her house in the crimson sunset she sighs with the satisfaction of an important task completed. She recalls the details of the day. Normally loquacious and loud, tonight she is pensive.
The past few hours have made all the weeks of preparation, the years of longing, worthwhile. Neighbours packed the house this morning, they honoured the pictures of the husband and burned incense. They sat in tight circles on the straw mat and ate the food she had been preparing for days. But not until the monks had finished their chanting and their eating of course. The head monk stayed until last and did the washing ceremony with the family. Two buckets of water and flower petals were poured over the mourners, right here as they sat on these steps. Saturated, they cupped the water running down their bodies and held it to their faces, wet clothes clinging, laughing as if the troubles were now finished. Washing away the blood with the water, as it is said.
The head monk was a good man; we both agree about that. I sense a new ease, a new peace in my neighbour and resolve to visit the wat and talk more to that monk.
There are hundreds of steps up the Turtle Mountain to reach Wat Andek, so the morning is already bright with sun before we reach the top. The man with the reputation for goodness sits cross-legged on a wooden bench, strikingly still, looking to the far horizons in each direction. It is as though he could see inside the villages stretched out below, and right to the hazy mountains where the fighting continues.
We talk about life, about truth, integrity and love. He says he feels close in heart to those of any religion who would have pity on all of this suffering that he sees. Meditate, love your neighbour as yourself. ‘But how do we do it?’ he asks. ‘How twer lahore (do good) in these terrible times?’ Great love is needed and pity and listening with the mind and the heart. Sometimes he himself loses hope. I watch his creased and kindly 73-year-old face. Though 40 years a monk he wonders now if he has ever done anything good. But even as he speaks of his inner struggle he gives strength to others. He tells honestly of his desolation and I and the white-clad nun at my side are moved to hope.
The Turtle Mountain is riddled with caves, places of meditation. Shafts of light enter from the tangled green growth above. The sense of prayer down there is tangible. He tells me of the prophecy which has been among the people for hundreds of years. There would come a time when people stopped believing. The moon would turn to blood and terrible deeds would happen. After that a time when men and women would be totally confused about who the enemy was or where the attack would come from. Danger would be from any of the eight directions: N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW. In these years another short time of the Killing Field before the peace. I shudder. The cave feels cold and desolate.
Wash away the blood.