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Cambodian War correspondents to retrace their steps

Two former Reuters correspondents who covered the 1970-1975 Cambodian War are preparing to retrace their steps at a reunion in Phnom Penh 40 years on.

James Pringle and Peter Sharrock will be among a dozen or so former war correspondents at what is billed as a first and last reunion of a unique band of brothers and sisters.

It is organised by Chhang Song, last information minister in the Lon Nol government. As a military spokesman at the beginning of the war, then-Captain Chhang Song worked closely with foreign correspondents.

“The sudden presence of a large number of foreign journalists in Cambodia in the early 1970s was an important historical development in Cambodia’s fight for survival,” he said. “I knew them as friends. Many were killed or disappeared. For the past 40 years, I have never forgotten those days and have dreamed constantly of bringing them back. Now, it is finally happening.” 

For the first time since the war, a few foreign correspondents are returning to Phnom Penh for a reunion from 20 to 23 April.

For those who covered the war the memories have always been particularly painful. They witnessed first-hand as a peaceful Cambodia was dragged into the Vietnam War. Then, over the next five years, the horrors multiplied as war engulfed the entire country. A total of 36 foreign and Cambodian journalists were killed or disappeared, more than in the war in neighbouring Vietnam. When the war ended with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975 Cambodia's nightmare continued - and many of those who covered the war could not bear to look back at the entire tragedy. At least 30 Cambodian journalists were executed after the Khmer Rouge take-over.

Assisting Chhang Song is former Associated Press correspondent Carl Robinson who covered the war from Saigon, today's Ho Chi Minh City, and now lives in Brisbane, Australia.

"Covering the war was so painful that many, even now, are unable to look back on that period," said Robinson. "It's even harder to look at what happened afterwards. For their own peace of mind, this return is an important event in their lives. I'm sure there will be quite a few tears. But I'm sure joy too as they witness Cambodia's amazing resilience and recovery."

Activities over the three-day reunion include informal gatherings and exhibitions in the downtown quarter, and a visit to the Killing Fields of post-war Cambodia.

Peter Sharrock, now a professor of archaeology at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and an expert on Khmer antiquities [Peter Sharrock, ‘Indiana Jones’, finds historic relic in Cambodia], will conduct a guided tour of Cambodia's national museum.

James Pringle, whose assignments took him to Buenos Aires, Saigon, Havana, Nairobi, Peking and Biafra, later worked for Newsweek and The Times. He covered Vietnam and Cambodia during the war and now lives in Phnom Penh with his Cambodian wife, Milly. 

Hugh Lunn, in his 1985 book Vietnam: A Reporter’s War, recalls that when Reuters sent him to Saigon to help cover the war “the person in the office I had been most looking forward to meeting was a legendary correspondent called Jim Pringle who was widely regarded in Reuters as their top man. He was certainly the one they sent to all the worst danger spots in the world – Northern Ireland, the Dominican Republic, New York, Cuba, Haiti, Vietnam. They used to say in London that they wouldn't bring Pringle back to head office or war would break out in Fleet Street - he had such a knack of attracting violent news. His reputation was that of a fearless Scot, and during my previous eighteen months in London I had carried an image of him as a slightly larger version of Sean Connery.

“When I first entered the Saigon office there was a shortish, slightly round-shouldered man of about twenty-eight sitting at a phone. He looked unfit for his age, and his blue eyes were disconcertingly large, distorted by very thick pebble glasses. When he hung up he was introduced as Jim Pringle.” ■