Grave Secrets

AUSTmagLOGOThe white Peugeot sat abandoned by the side of the road in the baking Cambodian heat. The car doors gaped open. The keys were still in the ignition, and there was camera gear on the back seat. It was ominously quiet. The few village houses nearby were blank-faced, doors and windows shut up tight; no children running around, no chickens to be seen. This unnatural stillness meant one thing: Khmer Rouge. Phil Brady, then a reporter with the American television network NBC, was with his driver, his interpreter and his film crew, crushed into their Mercedes sedan and on the hunt for a war story in the Cambodian countryside south of Phnom Penh. When Brady’s driver saw the Peugeot, he slammed on the brakes and stopped several hundred metres shy of the empty car. Everyone was living on their nerves in the madness of the Cambodian civil war; no-one wanted to tangle with the brutal communist guerrillas who had slaughtered as many as 30 foreign journalists over the past few years.

“We listened and watched for a while,” Brady remembers.  “I noticed a bad sign.  Not only were there no cows in the fields, but the few houses lining the road were shuttered.  It told us all that somewhere nearby the Viet Cong, or the Khmer Rouge, or both, were either positioned or had passed through.  Either way, not good.  But we waited maybe twenty minutes and heard nothing and saw nothing. So we drove very slowly ahead until we reached the car.” Brady didn’t like the look of the keys in the ignition or the cameras on the back seat. “No blood. No sign of a struggle. It was ghostly.”

The Peugeot belonged to the United Press International news service. It had been driven by Cambodian Chhim Sarath, who was taking a UPI reporter, Terry Reynolds, and a young Australian freelance photographer, Alan Hirons, down Route 1 from Phnom Penh in search of news. The Cambodian civil war was the staple for the correspondents camped in Phnom Penh. The government’s increasingly desperate battle against the black-clad communist Khmer Rouge and their Viet Cong allies was salted by frequent US bombing raids – it was all fodder for war correspondents.

It was late April, 1972. Hirons had only been in Cambodia for a week or so. The 24-year-old from Melbourne’s Box Hill wanted to make his name as diehard combat photographer. The Vietnam war was winding down – a ceasefire would begin the following January – but tales of death and glory war correspondents still resonated; stories of chopper rides to hot landing zones, of dodging bullets, and getting a photo that would make front pages round the world.

In neighbouring Cambodia, rather than winding down, an already fierce war was accelerating. The month before Hirons arrived, Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong artillery and rockets hit Phnom Penh and surrounds, killing 100 civilians. The barrage was followed by the invasion of Takh Mau, ten kilometres south-east of the city – another 25 people were killed. Phnom Penh was besieged and the Cambodian countyside was riddled with insurgents ready to kill almost anyone. Earlier that year Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot had toured the regions controlled by the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong. He saw the Khmer Rouge army of 35,000 troops and about 100,000 irregulars cohering and taking shape. China was supplying an estimated US$5 million a year in arms. Victory was in sight.

Hirons had never been to war. The closest he got was photographing the anti-apartheid protests in Melbourne. Still, he was up for it. He told his mother he would send her a postcard every week so she would know he was okay. One postcard arrived in Box Hill, and then Pauline Hirons never heard from her son again.

He was the first Australian killed by the brutal Khmer Rouge, the zealots who within a few years had occupied Phnom Penh and launched their killing fields reign of terror. In 1978 two Australian yachtsmen, Ronald Dean and David Scott, were captured off the coast of then Kampuchea, immured in the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture prison and finally executed. In 1994, a band of remnant Khmer Rouge kidnapped Melbourne backpacker David Wilson and murdered him.

Early that April morning, NBC’s Phil Brady, who now works for Democrat Senator Jim Webb on Capitol Hill, had swung by the daily government briefing held under a massive banyan tree in Phnom Penh. It wasn’t much of a briefing – the Lon Nol government refused to concede the Khmer Rouge even existed. All battles, they said, were with the invading Viet Cong – and always victories for the gallant Cambodian government troops. Journalists usually gathered to hear what the government had to say, and then set off on road journeys down one highway or another, living on their nerves, mulling over stories of Khmer Rouge brutality. Brady’s car had “cassette”, or press, written on the doors in the hope that it might ward off hostilities.

The briefing that morning was nothing special.  “I remember noting that UPI (United Press International) crowd wasn’t there,” Brady says. “Someone said they had taken off early for some reason. I never held much stock in government briefings but found them important opportunities to swap info with other journos on the road and check the military situation, which was very fluid.” Brady took off with the “Y boys”, Japanese camera and sound men, Yashiro and Yasuda, down notorious Route 1, in search of mayhem.

Sylvana Foa, the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh at the time, remembers the daily round of eating croque monsieurs under the banyan tree, listening to the government spokesmen spin a line, and mulling on the Alice in Wonderland fracture between the government fabrications and the reality of the grindingly hard and terrifyingly dangerous life in Cambodia. In Vietnam, reporters hitched rides on US helicopters, they were usually surrounded by heavily armed American or Australian troops, and medical evacuation had become an artform.

In Cambodia these same reporters, or their slightly more desperate colleagues, set off in cars down quiet highways. If the car broke down, too bad. The Cambodian military offered no assistance. The Khmer Rouge had a habit of killing everyone they regarded as opposition. At least 25 foreign journalists, including Errol Flynn’s son Sean – a combat photographer, had been lost or killed in Cambodia since the beginning of 1970. “It was a really dangerous place, I’m talking seriously dangerous,” says Foa, who now lives in Israel. “Vietnam was much safer.”

Foa was desperately worried about the three men taken that day; the reputation of the Khmer Rouge was fearsome – they never showed mercy, especially not to hated imperialist westerners. Terry Reynolds was a UPI stringer, a casual reporter, Foa says, down from Saigon to renew his visa. The Cambodian driver Chhim Sarath was petrified of the Khmer Rouge; he had already survived one kidnapping, by the Viet Cong the year before, when he was taken along with the Australian reporter Kate Webb. Hirons, for his part, had been commissioned to take photos for a book on Cambodia, and he had started to frequent the UPI office, something of a hub for journalists, in the hopes of gathering information. But he was brand new, an unknown quantity, and Foa was concerned about his desire to wear camouflage pants (too military-looking for a journalist, she thought), and his expressed desire to buy a pistol.

Reports of their capture began to trickle back to Phnom Penh, followed by news of intermittent sightings as they were marched through various villages. “We tracked them for a while; people would come and say they had seen them,” Foa says. “They were between highway 1 and highway 4. It was something people would talk about, and we were always asking. Chhim was with them for at least a couple of weeks.” Some believe Chhim was also killed by the Khmer Rouge, others believe he survived, with an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome, and went over to guerillas’ side.

A world away from the shimmering heat of the Mekong flatlands, Pauline Hirons was waiting in the cool springtime of suburban Box Hill. William McMahon was the prime minister of Australia, but Gough Whitlam was snapping at his heels, and would oust him later that year. It was the dying days of a long haul of conservative rule in Australia.

Now 85, Mrs Hirons had been widowed in 1961 when Alan was 13 years old – her husband was electrocuted in work accident. Alan had been very close to his father, and soon lost interest in school, leaving when he was just 15. After a couple of boring jobs he chanced on newspaper photography and started taking on freelance assignments for the Melbourne Observer.

The wider world beckoned. The slight young man had been to Cambodia once before, a quick stopover on the way back from India, and he had met the then UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh Kate Webb and heard all about the fascinating and action-packed life of journalists in Indochina. A small publisher agreed to pay his fare to return, and to buy the resulting photos for a book. It’s likely he also wanted to sell photos to newspapers and agencies.

Mrs Hirons is sure her son understood exactly how dangerous Cambodia was, but he was determined to go anyway. “He wanted to go, that was what he wanted to do,” she says. “When they make up their minds … he was 24.”

For her part, Mrs Hirons has never left Australia, and never wants to. The last of nine brothers and sisters, she is comfortable in her small redbrick house in Melbourne’s south-east, but she still finds in incredible that no-one has ever been, nor ever will be, brought to justice for her son’s murder. “I’ve been to many types, to different people in the government here. They’ve all come back with the same story. That they couldn’t find anything, or do much about it, apparently. I’ve been to lots of them,” she pauses, and her tone hardens. “Gough Whitlam had been up to China and North Vietnam; it’s all very well for him going up there and not considering what’s happening to other people.”

The loss of her son was felt all the more deeply because Alan married as a very young man, and although he soon separated from his teenaged wife, he left a very young son behind.

Word of the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia, which finally got underway trying a defendant in March this year, raised Mrs Hirons’ hopes for a while. But it soon became clear to her that the scope of the UN-backed hybrid tribunal was strictly limited: it would only try five defendants, and only probe crimes committed during Khmer Rouge rule – from 1975 to very early 1979. There was no political will in Cambodia to expand its remit. Indeed many in the Cambodian government, including prime minister Hun Sen, are former Khmer Rouge zealots – something Mrs Hirons finds particularly hard to fathom. These are the people who managed to kill, either deliberately or by neglect, as many as two million Cambodians in less than five years.

“I met two Cambodian people one day, we were at a little market in Box Hill,” she muses. “They asked me if I knew anything about Cambodia. I said, ‘yes, my son was murdered by the Khmer Rouge’. He said, ‘our people were murdered too, for no reason’,” she pauses, and shakes her head. “It’s unbelievable.”

For many years, no-one really knew what had happened to Alan Hirons; Mrs Hirons didn’t even know for sure that he was dead. Then, in 2002, officials in Canberra sent her an official report from the US. Because Terry Reynolds was American, the US “Joint Task Force – Full Accounting” operation investigated his capture and presumed death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The 12-page report is as close as she will ever get to learning how her son lived his last days.

Seven Americans, led by an anonymous US major, and two senior Cambodian police officials comprised the investigating team. Villagers in Svay Ta Mek village, on the Basaac river in Kandal province south of Phnom Penh, confirmed an Australian and an American – both prisoners of the Khmer Rouge, had been kept there for some time in 1972. These foreigners were for a time imprisoned in a two-storey building that had been commandeered by the local Khmer Rouge security chief.

Lee Chrek, a local fishermen, was considered an evasive witness by the investigators, and another witness said he was more closely implicated in the disappearance of Hirons and Reynolds than he admitted.

Chrek told the team that one night he had spoken to the foreigner kept “under the house”. Chrek said he asked the prisoner if he was French, and the prisoner replied: “No, I am Australian, and I work for UPI. The guy upstairs is American.” Chrek then claimed he later heard both prisoners were taken away in a boat, and thought one of the Khmer Rouge cadre who had taken them was Pien, a government soldier who had switched sides. In 1976, Chrek said, he was fishing from uninhabited Kaat island in the river, and he hauled up a skull, rib bones and two large leg bones in the net. Khmer Rouge follower Pien, now dead, was apparently on the fishing expedition, and Chrek said Pien claimed to have killed the foreigners. Chrek said he then threw the bones into the grass on the island.

Hak Chieng, another villager, told the investigators he had met the foreigners, and later saw them, blindfolded, led to a boat on the Basaac river. Shown various photographs, he picked out Hirons. He didn’t know if anyone had been buried on Kaat island, but he assumed it had happened, because he had seen numerous mounds on the island.

Also from Svay Ta Mek, Mes Kumli was 14 or 15 when the foreigners were brought to the village, and he identified both Hirons and Reynolds from photographs. He said he had seen them almost every day, and thought they had been kept in the village for as long as two months (other witnesses thought the foreigners had only been in the village for a few weeks). He said they only wore shorts; no watches or jewellery.

Penh Savann described himself as a local commander, and told the investigators his cousin, Thu Mong, was one of the group told to bury the foreigners (a group he said had included the fisherman Lee Chrek). Thu Mong told him the foreigners had been clubbed on the back of their heads and killed.

A number of the witnesses said the island of Kaat had been largely eroded in the decades after 1972, and it was often underwater in the wet season. Sou Thong Tang, also known as Allan, was regarded as a particularly credible witness by the investigators. He lived in Svay Ta Mek as a child, and vividly remembered Hirons and Reynolds in the village. He said locals believed the foreigners had been killed and buried on Kaat island, and Tang remembered seeing human bones on the island in 1976, bones that had surfaced when the island’s banks were washed away.

Although there were no direct witnesses to her son’s death, and some of the testimony was either confused or evasive, Mrs Hirons accepts the gist of the report as largely true. It enrages her that although the details were dug up by the Americans, nothing will ever happen to those men who marched her son on a terrifying trek through the Mekong flatlands and finally and brutally executed him.

She is appalled that all bar a handful of the Khmer Rouge zealots will get away with their orgy of carnage, and disgusted by the willingness of western governments, such as Australia’s, to continue to deal with one-time Khmer Rouge cadre who have morphed into current day Cambodian politicians and officials. Even the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, was once in the Khmer Rouge.

Pauline Hirons   looks down at her clasped hands, and sighs. “I just can’t believe it, can you?”