The Mekong Network is an online archive of articles, photographs, and documents, primarily about Cambodia.


Cambodia Cambodia Photos About Other Work

A Blast from the Past

by Dan O'Donnell

Pochentong departure lounge, after the coup He lined his semi automatic Makarov K59 to blast the ignition lock off. Madness. The keys to the fuel tanker were only 10 yards away, and 9 tonnes of high-octane fuel was situated directly behind him. We were about 15 yards away from the cab when spotted us. Holding his gaze we slowly raised our arms in recognition. He quickly holstered his weapon and plucked a grenade from his shoulder webbing.

Jumping out of the cab. He seemed a little manic as he turned and strode towards us. The middle finger of his right hand whipped out the ring-pin of the Soviet F1 fragmentation grenade. His left hand instinctively held down the lever. Not for the first time that weekend, like sacks of rice, we dropped to the floor.

His big, mad, jungle eyes rolled around under a neat pressed beret. He bristled with clean, well-oiled side arms, extra magazines, grenades, a field aerial, short wave radio and a very shiny bayonet; the absence of an AK47 was noted, suggesting he was the commander of the soldiers that were going berserk around us. Smiley Ang and I lay splayed on the dirt in front of him, we tried to remain calm whilst thinking fast.

I worked with Smiley Ang at Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport. The small British company we worked for supplied fuel to the civil and military aircraft in Cambodia. Smiley was the depot manager. He was a Cambodian national of Vietnamese blood. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and ended the hideous nightmare that was life under the Khmer Rouge. Smiley's family were part of the civil administration that followed the Vietnamese invasion.

Smiley worked very hard and was always upbeat. He must be on the take I thought. But then everyone is in Cambodia, the whole country is bent, that's how it works. As a young Englishman managing a small import/export business, I had quickly learnt that almost everything in this kooky country was warped.

Smiley was always laughing at his own crap jokes, I did too; we were mates. He was our Vietnamese laughing boy, his thin ruddy face instantly creasing up as he cackled away. His whole body would shake with mirth. Not today though. Today he was deadly serious.

Today was Monday 7th July 1997. Hun Sen, formerly a Khmer Rouge commander, now a communist politician, defected to Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam in 1977. In 1979, he returned to Cambodia as part of the Vietnamese backed, anti-Khmer Rouge, Communist government. Yesterday, that is Sunday 6th July, Hun Sen finalised his rise to complete power by violently ejected Prince Norodom Ranharidh's forces in a military coup d'etat.

The fighting lasted throughout Saturday and Sunday. His Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) fought hard. The battle within the city was surreal. The noise of the small arms fire and artillery would converge into an almost melodic pop and crackle 48-hour soundtrack.

Burned-out tank on Pochentong Road To be amongst it was incredibly exciting. My girlfriend at the time was a news camerawoman. As we chased the fighting through the streets on a motorbike, she shot pictures riding pillion. It was exhilarating: an adrenaline-driven junket. Much more fun than being holed up in a 4 star hotel full of alarmed diplomats and frustrated journalists. Both desperately trying to file reports over jammed phone lines, hampered with sketchy information and patchy electric supply.

But today, Monday, the story was over, the fight was won and looting had begun. We were still separated from the rest of the world; no flights, no phone. As Madeleine Allbright condemned the events from afar, the troops on the ground were intent on backdating their unpaid wages by any means necessary. At the start of the fighting on Saturday morning, our walled depot, storing 600 tonnes of Jet A1 aviation fuel (nb: the fuel was stored above ground, exposing the fuel to the immediate environment; as opposed to being buried safely underground), was the front line. Maybe for this reason it was the first looting target.

Eight kilometres away, overlooking the confluence of the Tonle Sap & Mekong River, sat the beautiful, open-sided French colonial veranda that was the Foreign Correspondents Club. As the fighting had almost stopped by Sunday afternoon, the English manager decided to open up for post war, pre-curfew beers. This gave the ex-pat community a precious few hours to meet and take stock of everyone and everything after 2 days of worry and confusion.

Dozens of geckos dotted on the ochre walls looked down onto a group of veteran South East Asian journalists. Whilst quaffing Angkor beer under slowly revolving fans, they gabbled away excitedly. The thrill of the weekend's events brought back to life the good old days of the Vietnam War.

Amoungst the different groups, there was also curious rabble of teachers and bar owners. They had only been in the country for about 6 months and nobody really knew them that well. A few turned out to be SAS trained mercenaries. They too were imparting their professional take on the weekend's events. Listening to what they had to say, coupled with being close to some of the fighting myself, I realized they must have been actually directly involved in the coup.

Moreover, both parties had seen it all before, and both warned that today would be dangerous.

I was at home when dawn broke on Monday morning. I lived in a traditional Khmer teak house near the river, very close to the FCC. The phone rang for the first time that weekend. Somehow the city's phone lines were working again. The call was from our security guards at the airport fuel depot. The father & two sons were absolutely terrified. With almost no Khmer, even I could work out that they were in deep trouble. It seems 25 - 30 CPP soldiers had overrun the depot. They were hell bent on stealing everything and were not taking kindly to their witnesses. As soon as curfew broke, I rode straight round to Smiley's apartment located near the central market. I suggested we go and try and help the guards, he didn't agree. Despite his protestations, I knew he would follow.

On our motorcycles, we raced up the back route running three roadblocks before we reached the Airport. The first two dispensed the obligatory warning rounds; as you ride away from their position, they fire rounds into the tarmac behind you. As the rounds strike the ground, they deform and ricochet upwards, causing a lot of loud zipping and whistling around you. We were sort of used to this sort of form as we regularly moved fuel around dodgy areas of the country; the last roadblock was not quite the same deal, the gunfire seemed more hostile. Nevertheless, we made it to the depot in one piece.

We arrived to find absolute havoc at the depot. Our guards were getting a pasting with boots and rifle butts. Rounds were being fired into the air willy-nilly. Every single fuel truck had a soldier in the cab trying to mobilize the vehicle. The 'STRICTLY NO SMOKING' signs plastered throughout the depot seemed ridiculous and banal in their distant normality. There was so much activity, that nobody seemed to notice Smiley and I enter the compound. We had to find out who was in charge immediately.

Of course, he found us first, and with grenade in hand; he was very much in charge. Whilst we knelt prostrate on the floor in front of him, as if praying to Allah for help, Smiley sensibly pointed out in his quiet Khmer: 'Sir, if you let the grenade go, everything around us for 100 metres will be gone. I beg you sir, please do not. It is very dangerous here'.

Quite nonchalantly, the Commander told Smiley that we must have mistaken him from someone who actually gave a shit. He said everything here now belonged to him, and that we were the problem, not him. Oh dear.

48 hours ago on Saturday morning, I heard whispers that there was going to be trouble. As a precaution, I cleaned out the company's safe and stashed the petty cash in my boots. With 40 $100 bills, $20 dollars in each boot, we had either a bargaining chip, or a red rag to a bull. Either way, we had to give it a go.

Lying next to Smiley I hissed: 'Smiley, tell him I've got dollars! And more dollars somewhere else!' Smiley translated this as quickly and clearly as he could. I heard the commander's boots grind the dirt in front of us. He must have been spinning round to check the positions of his troops. Looking up, through the corner of my eye, after a seemingly endless pause, I saw him replace the pin into the grenade. 'Well that's an encouraging sign' I thought.

We stayed put; nose in the dirt, sweat stinging our eyes, red latherite dirt embedded into our elbows. He suddenly fired in the air, shouting at his troops to cease whatever they were doing. He then shouted at us; we looked up slowly. He was now pointing his 9mm at us in turn. He motioned us towards the office. We picked ourselves up, arms aloft, and he walked us over to the office.

Inside, where I normally sit and discuss stock levels, nightclubs or new brands of whiskey with Smiley Ang, we were now discussing our safe passage with a very real soldier. After a bout of the typically military style of barking monologue, he ran out of stuff to yell at us.

Calmly, Smiley began to initiate a gentle dialogue. A little later, I started to reason through Smiley. The commander would have perceived me as the European boss-man. As such, I had to take the lead. Smiley would never verbally offer a solution. He knew this would aggravate the situation.

Arguing like this, I said: he could easily take everything and sell it to his commander, after all, he was the boss. But one day there would be order again. When that time came, there would be reprisals from the UN aimed at anyone responsible for violence and damage that was not related to direct military action. Why not take the $2000 I am holding now, and $2000 will be delivered later. This way, he would profit without fear of future recrimination. Besides, after passing everything up to his commander, $4000 was probably more than he'd make anyway. Moreover, if he protected life and property right now, situated on the most important strategic target in the country, he may be up for future commendation.

After about 20 minutes of gentle repositioning of this message in various forms, he started to emit a gentle humming nod of approval, and to our massive relief, he stood bolt upright, and saluted me. The tension broke and I emptied my lungs. Suddenly feeling dizzy and slightly sick. Thank God it was dawn, thank God he wasn't drunk and thank god was able to think clearly. I then emptied just one boot... the first down payment. Hoping against hope he didn't look in my other boot.

We got the nod to leave, he ordered two machine gun posts to be set up on either gate of the depot, and slowly, we slinked away by bike down the main airport road. He held the father and sons captive until we made good the other half of the deal. I asked someone else to organise this; I was not keen to make a return visit that day.

The Commander and his mob then carried on down the same airport road heading for town, with their original intention firmly in mind. They stole what they could, and destroyed what they could not.

The airport was completely ransacked; they even took the passenger steps. Rival fuel companies: Shell, Caltex and Total, all suffered massive losses. Other businesses were destroyed, but worst of all, civilians were killed protecting their livelihoods or simply getting in the way. It was very, very sad.

A few days later, on the first available flight in from Saigon, my boss came over to assess the damage. I met him in his apartment at 8am. Without a word, his burly frame procured two ice-cold cans of Tiger beer. He passed one to me and toasted my efforts on Monday. He added: 'It doesn't half concentrate the mind somewhat, wouldn't you agree?'. After a healthy pay rise, he told me of a situation he'd been in in with the Mau-Mau in Kenya that made my skin crawl. I do miss being an ex-pat sometimes.

© Daniel O'Donnell 2004. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the copyright owner.