[Editor’s note: As part
of the Swedish Cambodian Friendship Association, Gunnar Bergstrom spent 14 days
in Cambodia in 1978 and was given a public relations tour by top leaders of the
regime. Only later did he learn of the nearly 2 million who died under
Bergstrom returned to Cambodia
for the first time in 30 years for a two-week tour of the country, displaying
photographs he took in 1978, in an exhibition called “Gunnar
in the Living Hell,” and hoping to find
his own reconciliation. He spoke to VOA Khmer in Phnom Penh at the end of his travels.]
Q. First of all, how did you feel after having met and
talked with the Cambodian people in some provinces over the past two weeks?
A. I feel relieved because I thought I was doing a good
thing now and a bad thing 30 years ago, so things change to the better.
Q: You went to the provinces of Kampong Cham, Battambang,
Siem Reap, and others. How did people react to you, as well as your photos?
A: People [have] asked me before if I think people would be
very angry at me, but they were very forgiving. There were some reactions in
Battambang about the photo exhibition. They thought it was too nice. I told
them that we have texts with them to explain but some of them thought that it
was a little too nice, still looks like a Pol Pot propaganda. I think they want
an explanation that doesn’t exist. I think they want more.
They cannot understand Maoist thinking, and I tried to
explain how I think and they want more explanation, but I don’t have any more.
And at the end, I told them these are explanations, they are not excuses. These
explanations, I think I can understand them myself, but I still have the responsibility
to think, you know, and that’s why I have the guilt and have to say I am sorry.
Maybe they find it hard to understand. Someone said, “You
traveled for 14 days [in 1978], you must have seen something.” I said, “You can
very well see what I saw, but that’s what the pictures show; that’s what the
Khmer Rouge showed us.”
Q. You said you learned about some cruel things committed by
the Khmer Rouge before coming to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And during your 14-day
tour then, you were also suspicious of what was shown to you, but why did you
still think the Khmer Rouge was good?
A. Because at that time, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, we saw
them as liberating fighters. They were winning the war, and they were building
a new Cambodia,
and we could never have imagined they
were building a new terror. And the rumor came that we could not believe, and
we have a vision of a country that was against the Soviet
Union too. We loved that. They would be not only against the
Americans but they would be against the Soviet Union
too. We were pro-Chinese, and now China had a friend.
And when they evacuated the city, that was rather
complicated. We tried to understand it with Khieu Samphon’s theory. There were
rumors that all the leaders, Ing Sary and Pol Pot were in the fields a few
hours now and then, [that] everything was equal. We believed that they were
doing something that they showed the third world, that you can grow your own
food, you don’t need aid, aid will corrupt you, and that was very inspiring,
that they could manage on their own. That’s what we believed first.
Q. You met and had dinner with Pol Pot and Ing Sary. What did
you talk about?
A. We gave Pol Pot the questions beforehand. We had to do
that. Many communist leaders do it like that. And he read his answers. One
question was about genocide, killing people, and of course he said no. We asked
about the war with Vietnam,
about what [are] the next steps in the Cambodian revolution. And the things he
said in our interview were nothing new really. I think it was talks about the international
campaign against Cambodia,
as he called it; talks about relying on your own forces; there was no aid. But,
I don’t recall any long conversation; lots of translations.
Q. What made you change from pro-Pol Pot to anti-Pol Pot?
A. The first change came reading the refugees’ stories
again. I had read them before. But reading them again and thinking critically,
I could see that can be true and my pictures can be true too. They took away
people at night and they did not openly kill them in the fields. The refugees’
stories, most of them, were so many, and not only rich people, but I had to
rethink the whole thing in the beginning of 1979. But, the whole rethinking, I
close it by saying I was wrong and than I started to work with other things. I
think you have to go through it better and that took some more years.
When I got the question, “How could you believe Pol Pot?”
and then I had to rethink, Well how could I? And then I understood the old Mao’s
thinking, that we wanted what we wanted, and we used blind eyes, and that was
the third stage the third phase of understanding and changing. That was some
years ago, when a book came out in Sweden about this trip and then
suddenly I hear myself saying this trip should have been made. That was the
final step in evaluating it. It took 30 years, but that was because I did other
things in between.
Q: Upon realizing the Khmer Rouge were not as good as you
had always believed, what did you do with it?
A: The first phase, I wrote an article in a big Swedish
paper [saying] that we had been wrong but nothing was done for 10 to 15 years,
except when I met people, I said, “I am sorry that I was wrong.”
Q: Did you think that’s enough?
A: When I wrote that article, I thought that was enough for
many years, but when a journalist asked me, “How could you support the Khmer
Rouge?” and I reacted very strongly. Then, I realized, that’s not finished,
there is more to do.
Q: What else did you do?
A: Keep on talking about and discuss it, realizing how wrong
I’d been. But I didn’t do so much publicly because I honestly didn’t think that
people would be very interested in what we were thinking 10, 15, 20 years ago.
But, I met a journalist, talked to them. When the book came out two years ago
about this trip, I wrote an article in the paper again. And this time, we did
not only say that we were wrong, I said we should have understood much earlier,
we have a responsibility. I got them published and people invited me to do a
few talks in Sweden.
Now many years [later], I wanted to give all my information to someone here,
and I gave it to DC-Cam and the next step was the question to go here.
Q: Some people I talked to say they are angry at you for
having taken fake photos. But they hoped that you would do something for them,
to compensate for their suffering from the regime you used to support. How
would you respond to that?
A: If there is something I can do and if there is a good
idea, I will think and listen. The only thing I know right now is that I have
to go back to Sweden.
I have to do my normal job. If I can contribute some more, I will do that. If
that’s testifying in the trial, I’ll do if they want me to. I’ll do what I can
do. If there is any money from this trip, I will not keep it. I will give it to
some good things here. If someone else has some more good ideas, I’m open for