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Photographer Finishes ‘Hell’ Tour of Country

[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 Democratic Kampuchea. 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 new ideas.