Forty years ago, National Road 3 was a highway to a war. The reporters and photographers who covered the Cambodian conflict in the 1970s would drive down the road, report, and return to the capital to file.
Last week, nearly four decades later, some of those journalists returned. They had come to honor their fallen comrades and remember the years they spent reporting the fall of Cambodia.
Nearly 30 reporters, as well as other well-wishers, drove down National Road 3, to Wat Bo pagoda, in Kampong Speu province’s Borset district, where nine of their number were killed. There, they paid their respects and planted a Bodhi tree.
“We came from all corners of the earth, because it is very important for us to remember and honor our colleagues who died,” Elizabeth Becker, who covered the conflict for the Washington Post and Newsweek, told VOA Khmer after a brief Buddhist ceremony.
The ceremony was the main event in a week of reunion activities, giving the aging war correspondents a chance to remember themselves, and Cambodia, at a younger time, when the American war in Vietnam was at full tilt, and when US bombings and Khmer Rouge fighting in Cambodia began to capture the public’s attention.
Thirty-seven Cambodian and foreign journalists were killed covering Cambodia’s civil war, which started when then-prince Sihanouk was ousted in a coup and ended only when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Of those, 21 died in the first chaotic months of a war that rapidly engulfed the country.
Four died in the ambush on National Road 3 on May 31, 1970, and five more were executed as prisoners in a ditch behind the pagoda.
“They were arrested at Pangkak Sey and detained for two nights in the school of the pagoda,” Sok Sambath, 71, who witnessed the captives, said after the ceremony. “And the second night they were killed.”
Sylvana Foa, who covered the war from 1970 to 1973, said killings were committed by the Khmer Rouge and by government troops alike.
“Both sides committed a lot of atrocities,” she said. “But of course once the Khmer Rouge were in power, their atrocities outnumbered everybody else’s.”
Following the trip to Wat Po, the journalists held a public memorial in Phnom Penh. Some of them visited the killing fields of Choeung Ek on the outskirts of town, or the museum at Tuol Sleng, the former torture center. Some said this would be their last trip to Cambodia.
“That we have come back is not a shock, but a sadness of course, and the sadness for our colleagues,” said Becker, who is now retired from the New York Times. “The Cambodians suffered so much, and I think the biggest sadness is [that] it is taking so long to be covered.”