Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fear and Laughter on Route 10

In Memory of my friend and colleague Sambath Reach

I was in Sicily on a vacation and happened upon a computer in bar where I discovered the tragic news of Sambath's stroke and death. A young reporter called Julia Wallace from the Cambodia Daily had left me a message on Facebook asking me if I had any recollections of my time with Sambath. Needless to say I had many. The message had been there for a day so the deadline may have passed. But I couldn't not respond to a request to jot down something about Sambath. Especially since he showered me with generosity when I returned to Phnom Penh. I think he thought the scholarship to the States, for which I had spent quite some time writing him a sterling reference, was partly responsible for putting him on the road to other scholarships and further success.

Sambath had applied for the same scholarship under my predecessor Sheri Prasso and got nowhere. But she had written him a pretty mundane reference. She said she didn't think Sambath was up to it. I said that I wasn't sure either but why not give him the chance and let him sink or swim. At least let him see the world.

Perhaps Sheri also had a clearer idea of what I was to find out; it was very hard to find a replacement who would be half as good as Sambath.

Anyhow Ms Wallace never got back to me and I forgot about what I had hurriedly written in a bar on a sad balmy evening in Sicily as fighter planes took off in the background to bomb Libya, I wrote this about a survivor who had lost his parents to the Khmer Rouge and then through luck acumen and hard work had made a bigger figure of himself on the world stage than I could ever hope to be. That is until his luck ran out.

I just recently spotted it on my computer and, since it is written, thought I might share it with Sambath's friends and family.

When I took over as Cambodia Correspondent at AFP, I encouraged Sambath to get more involved in reporting and saw that giving him his first byline had a dramatic effect. Equally dramatic and difficult for me was his three month absence when he managed to get a Freedom Forum Foundation scholarship to the States.

The only time I ever got annoyed with Sambath was when I asked him to tell a Gov tank commander that if the tank waited 20 mins I would give him 100 bucks for a lift to Pailin.

Sambath duly translated. All fine, so I ran back to our jeep that was stuck about a mile back in a jungle military traffic jam to grab water, food, hammock and mossy net. When I got back the tank was gone. And Sambath was looking sheepishly at me - a look I had never seen before. I said where's the tank. "It's gone."
"I know that! Why is it gone?"
"I didn't think it was a good idea," he replied.
Under pressure as we had been trying to get to Pailin for three days, which the Gov. had now 'taken' some four days previously, I started shouting at him:
"That's not your fucking call, man. I need to get there."
A few hours later the first reports that a tank had hit an anti-tank mine, with a few soldiers dead and the fate of some freelance photographers unknown, came in. The survivors then faced a ground attack at dawn and a mortar attack at lunchtime.
I had to go back to Sambath and half apologise.
"OK you were fucking right...but we make these decisions together in future."
The KR retook Pailin shortly afterwards and chased the Gov. forces back to within 30kms of Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city.
Within days the Gov. in PP said everything was fine, back to the status quo ante-bellum. But nothing ever in Cambodia happened that fast. We were being spun a yarn.
Sambath complained I was making his "head hot" with screams to call various generals in the northwest to try and find out what was really going on. The odd comment we got didn't conform to the line being spun in PP. So I told Sambath we were heading up. We got to BTG late the next day so we only got some 25kms down route 10, the road to the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin. The Gov. said they had retaken Treng - the last governement outpost before the jungle leading to Pailin - but there were still some dead KR on the road and a smoking tank a few kilometers on the Battambang side of Sdau, a good 30 km before Treng.

We also noticed that the soldiers we had given a lift to, dropped into firing position when they got out of the pick-up.

It was getting late so we returned so we returned to the city to file that the government line was dubious to say the least. .
The next morning we retook route 10 in a beat up old taxi. AFP didn’t fork out for 4-Wheel Drives. Near the previous day's smoldering tank, we met a gang of top generals and Sambath engaged them. They too were parroting the PP line that the KR has been pushed back - although they were saying 20km to the capital's 40/50.
I said Sambath "I don't believe them, do you?"
He was skeptical. So I said we’d drive down the road a few clicks and see what’s happening.
But we both agreed that if the Gov. was saying 40 -50 and the generals on the road 20, we could probably safely believe 4-5 kms.
After 500 meters, there were no more Gov. soldiers to be seen. Just empty villages where returnees had recently set up in some of the swathes of land that had been cleared of the copious quantities of landmines.

The emptiness was eerie. No people, no ducks, no hens, nothing. The only sound came from two houses that were on fire.
"Kevin, I don't like this." Sambath said.
"Tell the driver just to go to the top of the hill – about a kilometer away - and we will look down into Sdau."
We continued for max a minute when I thought, "Sambath is right. This is all wrong. This is way too quiet."
Just as I was about to say 'let's turn' I heard the first bang and dived to the floor of the car. The second bang clarified we weren't being shot at. We were being shelled. It whizzed over the roof and hit an adjoining house that burst into flames. I later wondered what would have happened had we been in the high SUV that I was so longing for.

The third shell landed in a mere couple of feet to the side of the passenger seat where Sambath sat. But as the road was on a mound, it blew away from us.
According to Sambath my head appeared back up over the seat amidst a maniacal mantra of “Fuck, fuck, fuck, we gotta get the fuck out of here...tell the driver to reverse.” Sambath pushed shoved and shouted at the driver who had frozen with shock until he came round. But reverse on the then Route 10 allowed a max of 10kph. And the KR gunner meanwhile was doing a good job tracking. I suddenly understood the phrase “walking the shells.”

But it was the sort of comprehension you don't need in life

I screamed to Sambath: “Forget mines, we have to turn around, tell the driver turn in the field."
So we reversed into the field. And like a bad B movie instantly got stuck. This was where a SUV would have been handy.

Automatically Sambath and I jumped out of the car then dived to the ground as a shell landed nearby. As the debris settled, the two of us, pumped with adrenalin, leapt up and pushed the car free. A macho feat that neither of us would have been cast for. Free! The driver then took off ...without us.

Sambath and I ran after the car, hearts banging as loud as the sound of the shells falling in our footsteps. An eternal 200 meters later, the driver slowed down. I managed to jump into the front and turned to see Sambath dive headlong through the open door onto the back seat. Within seconds we were out of range and in hysterics of nervous laughter.

I roared: "Sambath I could fucking live without this!"

And then we cracked up laughing at the inadvertent wisdom of my words.

As the adrenalin receded, I realized I had lost my camera. A minor issue we both decided. As was forgetting my flak jacket in the taxi trunk when we paid the driver three month's wages. He had finally slowed down after all. And no one deserves to die for someone else's ambition. I moaned about the flak jacket though. Sambath rightly asked what would need it for? And pointed out that when I did need it, it was in the boot.

It was our last trip together before I left for LA. And it was 10 years before I was back in Phnom Penh.
Sambath was settled and prospering. On our first night together, he told me that he had been back to Palin within months of our trip when Ieng Sary did his deal with Hun Sen and the Pailin and Phnom Malai Khmer Rouge went over to the government side.

Sambath told me he was in Pailin after the changing of the guard ceremony and went into a restaurant - always fond of his food. Anyhow he starts talking to some local Khmer Rouge guys - as was his capacity both to engage with and animate anyone. Turns out the two guys are tank crew. They ask Sambath what he does and he tells them he's a journalist.
The KR guys tell him that they almost got a camera a short while ago but didn't stop the tank in time and crushed it. Sambath says: "That's funny, my Irish boss lost his camera on Route 10 a few months back." Sambath recalls a moment of silence and then the KR tank gunners said: "You weren't the guys in the blue Toyota Corolla."
Sambath - "Eh yes were in a blue Toyota."
"Achoi Marai! (Motherfuck!) We fired 16 shells at you. We couldn't believe you got away. Especially when your car got stuck in the field. We were sure we had you."
True to form, Sambath burst out laughing and then proceeded to buy a bottle of whiskey and head off to a house of ill repute with the two former guerrrillas.
 "We could have been killed by the same guys I was getting drunk a few months stupid," he said as he clinked my glass and two of us bent over in hysterics.

Sambath...he could not only talk his way out of hell but he could get the devil to buy you drink and leave him thinking he was privileged to meet you.

It was marvelous to see him go on to do so well in life.

Cos he didn't have it easy. He was a gent and a hustler, a bon viveur and a hard worker.

It breaks my heart to think he will no longer be there to see me and -I must selfishly confess - invariably lavish hospitality on me when I revisit Cambodia.

Kevin Barrington.

Sicily, 2011.


  1. Very nice--both the memory and the writing, Kevin Barrington

    1. Thanks Nate.
      I recall you narrowly avoided the same fate on the same day.