In The Killing Field
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
hot," the reporter said, wiping ineffectually at the sweat streaming down her
Her guide, hired because he could speak English, grinned.
"It is always hot here, ma’am."
"I know, but I wish it wasn’t quite so damned hot."
The reporter wished she hadn’t come. The rice paddies on
both sides of the path shimmered in the heat, and the smell of wet mud and
stagnant water made her want to retch. Ever since they had left the bus back in
the dirty little market town, her doubts had been growing. But it was too late
to turn back now.
"Forty years after the Khmer Rouge takeover," the editor had
told her over the phone. "Do a feature on how the country’s recovered and how
it’s coping. We’ll pay well."
"Everyone will be doing one," she’d protested. "Time,
Newsweek, you name it, every international magazine will be doing one."
"You’ll find your own way of describing things," the editor
had said, the familiar cajoling note in his voice. She’d waited for the ego
massage, knowing it would come. "You’re the best, you know that. Nobody else
has touched the features you did on Afghanistan and the Congo thing."
The damnable thing was that the editor hadn’t really been
wrong. She was among the best, and she knew it. And it was that
professional pride, not the money – though god knew she needed the money, with
the lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to – that had driven her to take up the
assignment. And now she was regretting it.
She wished once again that she’d never had the bright idea of
going out into the villages to interview the former Khmer Rouge soldiers now
making a living as farmers and labourers. At the time it had seemed a brilliant
idea, worthy of the woman who had gone into Afghan villages and talked to
Taliban commanders and foot soldiers. The former Khmer Rouge in the villages
would be the voice of the other side, the oppressors, and how they were coping.
She was sure none of her competitors would have thought of that. They might
talk to one or two of the former brethren of the black uniform who now lived in
the cities, but they’d only get a watered down, politically-cleansed version.
Only the real Rouge, living in the real Cambodia, would give her the truth.
Now, after seven different interviews, and on her way to the
eighth, she’d given up hope of learning anything new. The stories were always
similar; the former Rouge wanted to get on with life, and didn’t much
appreciate having their past pulled open again. She’d have got as much from
reading a book or two on the four-year rule of the Angkar.
From both sides of the narrow path, the paddy fields
stretched as far as she could see. Far away to the west rose the blue
mountains, but on the other side, the land was so flat that the sky met the
ground in a haze of heat and distance. The sun beat down on her, and she knew
her broad face, never pretty at the best of times, was red and the sweat was
making her make-up run. Ineffectually, she tried to tuck her straggling hair
back under her white cloth hat. The straps of her camera and recorder were
chafing her neck, and her right foot had blistered at the heel. She bit back a
"How much further?"
"Not much. He lives there." The guide pointed to a clump of
trees, in the shade of which the woman noticed a couple of thatched houses. A
water buffalo stood tethered to a post, methodically chewing the cud.
"Will he be home at this time?"
"We will see." The guide’s round face seemed to be set in a
perpetual smile, and the reporter began to wonder if he was taking a secret
delight in her suffering. "He said he would be home."
The water buffalo lowed at them as they passed. Its horns
were swept back so sharply they almost touched its dark grey flanks. The
reporter had seen plenty of buffalos in Asia, but had never quite lost her fear
of them. She gave it a wide berth.
Close to the huts looked better constructed than they had
from a distance, cooled by the shade of the trees. An ibis was pecking at the
mud by the side of the path, and waited until they had almost reached it before
taking to the air in a flurry of white feathers. The reporter reached
instinctively for her camera, but the bird was already far away.
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