Sunday, July 6, 2008

Swain's archives

This report from today's Times Online archives recounts reporter Jon Swain's final diary before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Swain (pictured) was one of the captives in the French Embassy - as seen in the film The Killing Fields - before being allowed safe passage to Thailand and later wrote his excellent memoir of those times, titled River of Time.

From the archive: Pol Pot victory Fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975
Jon Swain was on the last civilian flight into the city before it was captured by communist Khmer Rouge forces under Pol Pot. An estimated 1.7m people would die in Cambodia’s “killing fields” over the next three years. Swain sent The Sunday Times a diary recounting the last hours before the city fell.

Monivong Bridge

Already Takhmau, the industrial suburb three miles south of the Monivong Bridge, has been lost and now the fighting centres on the bridge itself. Once it has fallen, the city will be open to attack by insurgents from the east as well as from the south. Nearby is the scene of last night’s terrible fire. The conglomeration of wooden houses standing on stilts just upstream from the bridge was caught in Khmer Rouge shelling. Hundreds of inhabitants were trapped and burnt to death. Many more tried to escape by leaping into the river. Naval gunboats, searchlights blazing, manoeuvred among the bobbing bodies, attempting to fish out survivors.

University Building

From the roof of the university I have a grandstand view of the war. The rattle of machineguns is now very close and a string of ambulances suddenly scream past, carrying wounded from the front. In the university grounds, half-tracks churn up the grass, positioning themselves for clearer fields of fire. Students have barricaded the stairs with desks and watch the battle from classroom balconies. In the sunshine outside, two young lovers sit on the grass holding hands, wrapped up in their own private world.

Preah Ket Mealea hospital

This is one of the city’s 11 hospitals. The inflow of casualties has grown too great for the doctors to be able to cope with them all. A Scottish medical team has been operating from dawn to dusk with total unconcern for their own safety. The anaesthetist, Murray Carmichael, 33, has been going out to buy blood in return for a bowl of rice and a bit of fish. He says the monks are the most reliable donors.

Hotel Phnom grounds

A bungalow attached to the Phnom hotel has been taken over by the Scottish medical team and converted into an operating theatre. Surgeon Mike Daly, 33, throws open a cupboard and says he has enough instruments to operate on 12 patients without having to pause to wash up. He and his nurses, Helen Fraser and Pat Ash, say their day at the Preah Ket Mealea hospital has been the blackest of the war. In two hours Daly did 10 operations: “I didn’t have time to put on gloves or a gown. I simply splashed alcohol over my hands and didn’t even have time to change the instruments between operations.”

Early evening, city centre

Suddenly the war declares itself in the centre of the city. The attempts to keep the refugees to the outskirts have ceased and refugees converge from all sides, pushing, shoving, jostling, desperate to escape the fighting breathing down their necks. The trim walkways and flower-scented parks are submerged under the heaving mass of homeless families, weeping lost children, pigs, ducks, chickens, all hungry and increasingly afraid.

Casualty Receiving Centre

Over the years in Indochina I have become a reluctant expert on human misery, but the carnage here shakes me to the core. A converted volleyball court serves as the main receiving centre for the wounded and with today’s fighting it has become overwhelmed. A dozen doctors and nurses have today had to deal with more than 700 soldiers and civilians. The chief medic is in despair. Wounded people lie two or three to a bed. The floor is streaked with blood. The bins overflow with gory bandages and field dressings. A recently amputated leg pokes out of a cardboard box where the surgeon has tossed it in a hurry. Its owner lies staring blankly on a stretcher.

Evening, Hotel Phnom

The prospect of the hotel – this exclusive hangout of foreigners and rich Cambodians – being converted into a high class refugee camp has brought out the worst in some of the journalists and French businessmen. They are rudely assailing the Red Cross officials for letting some of the refugees into our sanctuary. Refugees are being admitted, family by family, after the officials have thoroughly searched their bodies and belongings to confiscate weapons. The disarmed refugees tramp through the lobby, into the garden, spread down little rush mats and fall into exhausted sleep. A green plastic cord separates them from the handful of westerners dining in elegance on the other side of the pool. “That’s what we call apartheid,” says a French journalist formerly in Johannesburg.

Hours later the city centre was in Khmer Rouge hands.

A life in the world’s war zones

Jon Swain was captured by the Khmer Rouge and was about to be executed when his life was saved by the New York Times interpreter Dith Pran, a story told in the film The Killing Fields. His 10,000-word report on a country in the grip of terror earned him his job on The Sunday Times. He has reported on nearly every major conflict since, winning numerous awards. In 1976 Swain was kidnapped in Ethiopia and held prisoner for three months. In 1999 he trekked across the mountains into Kosovo to witness its ethnic cleansing. Now 60, he undertakes arduous assignments with undiminished passion. He once wrote that “powerful writing and powerful pictures will not curtail wars, but they are valuable because they make it more difficult for the world to close its eyes to human suffering”.


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