Chapter 37: Evil is as Evil Does
“Our efforts have borne fruit,” the burly Croatian crowed, his barrel chest puffed up more than usual as he stood on my porch, holding open the door. He had appeared out of nowhere, with no warning whatsoever. “The guerrillas have signaled a willingness to meet and negotiate a parley with the provisional government troops, the KPAF,” he continued. “We have to try to get them to reach some sort of peace accord before this whole election goes to hell.”
“Peace accord,” I snorted. “Two UN volunteers and an electoral worker in a neighboring district were killed by those bastards this week—the electoral worker blown apart by one of their landmines. It’s probably a friggin’ con.”
Some of the air went out of Radush’s chest. “CJ, it’s a chance we have to take, no?”
“CJ, just hear me out.”
Sunlight was beating down on the porch, and I could see beads of sweat tricking down Radush’s neck from under his blue beret. I didn’t want to have this conversation and certainly not in this stifling heat, which drained you even of your ability to think. I waved him inside. “Will you meet with them soon?”
“Well,” he began hesitantly. “The guerrillas want to know what the UN is offering before making any decisions. His expression changed, and he looked at me conspiratorially. “They want someone to explain the election process to them.” It took me only a second to understand. “Me?”
Radush nodded, his smile a touch too wide. “And you have to buy one hundred kilos of rice and two packets of cigarettes to take when you go.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. This was the king of bad ideas . . . and it was terrifying. Whatever adventure, excitement or heroics that I might have imagined when deciding to leave the US, I was absolutely certain that I’d never imagined it would lead me to this: a meeting with the genocidal Khmer Rouge to try to convince them to vote. Even in the unbearable heat, I shivered from the adrenalin rush at the pure absurdity of the prospect. Oh my g-d, I wanted to do this. I really did.
“Okay." I said.
“Sure?” Radush eyed me suspiciously.
I pulled on my rubber cowboy boots that I’d bought on a whim only days before I left the States —a ‘just in case’ purchase, in case I needed boots and not black patent leather heels. Although I had needed neither, only flip-flops and sneakers, I was wearing them for the first time since arriving in Cambodia four months earlier. This absurd adventure would be worthy of Xena, princess warrior. Maybe dressing the part would help me to channel some extra courage from my personal pantheon of heroines.
Radush arrived to pick me up flanked by Kyrill and Nhean, my interpreter for the day. To my surprise, Russ, the British naval chief, had also come along.
“Why are you here? I asked him.
“Cheers to you, too,” Russ chided, “I volunteered to make sure this lot didn’t cock things up and get you killed. You can bet that these wankers’ weapons of choice will be hand-held grenade launchers and semi-automatics, not those nifty little pyramids of junk guns and rifles that the UN collected at their cantonment camps.”
“Sure it’s not because you’re jealous that I’m meeting with the Khmer Rouge?” I hated his cocky bravado, but secretly I was glad to have another gladiator with me.
“Let’s go, time to rock and roll,” Russ sang out, dismissing my interpretation of his motivation with a wave of his hand. Climbing into the Jeep with Kyrill at the wheel, we followed Radush and Nhean toward our rendezvous with the Khmer Rouge commander on the outskirts of my electoral district.
“Mind the landmines,” Russ barked as we drove on the soft sandy road connecting the many villages along our way. Landmines, one of the most lasting legacies of three decades of war, littered the countryside and continued to claim new victims daily. The closer we got to Khmer Rouge territory, the more likely we were to trip one. I tried to rein in the fear that was starting to grip me, but I didn’t want to end up like the electoral worker—nothing more than bits and pieces of body parts.
As we traveled north, my eyes darted everywhere until we reached a vaguely familiar rocky outcrop, where we turned onto another dirt track. Nhean had once told me that the trail led to the Khmer Rouge, but I hadn’t believed him. Up until that point, the Khmer Rouge existed only in soldiers’ war stories, and I had chosen to “un-see” them in my district. Now I was going to meet them.
We continued driving alongside rice paddies and graying ochre fields, past long strings of villages. Finally, at the end of a long narrow lane, we arrived at a heavily shaded village at the edge of the forest. Dark, cool green air seeped menacingly out from the woods onto the sun-heated road. I imagined a machete-wielding guerrilla hiding behind each tree, body taut and alert for the command to attack. I sat in the Jeep, shallow breaths all I could muster, waiting for something to happen while the Unmos and Nhean leapt from the jeeps and walked towards the village.
A thin dark man—bare-chested and dressed in a faded, cotton-checkered sarong typical of a peasant farmer—stood expectantly. He hesitated for a moment before coming forward and, unsmiling, nodded his greeting to Radush.
“We’re here for a meeting with the soldiers,” Radush told him through Nhean.
“My children are sick. I cannot leave them to take you into the forest,” he replied, averting Radush’s eyes.
“They are expecting us,” Radush persisted.
“I can’t leave,” the farmer growled. This time he spat when he spoke.
I had warned Radush that the Khmer Rouge were unreliable, but he had sneered at my concern, and now the big oaf acted as if this situation were a big surprise. His body stiffened and his hands clenched. What was going on? A game? A cancellation? One could be deadly; the other, a huge setback for the UN.
Russ and Kyrill paced around, Russ licking his lips and squinting into the forest. Long minutes passed. I itched like something was biting me all over my body as I watched them and Radush become more agitated. The second hand on my watch stopped.
A shout and a cough were our only warnings as another farmer appeared and came toward us, signaling to Nhean that he would announce our arrival to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
“CJ, you stay here. He could be setting up an ambush,” Radush ordered.
Russ nodded. “We can’t trust these dodgy bastards. Listen to Radush. Be a good girl and sit tight.” I bristled at being left behind. “Yeah, and if you get shot, what am I supposed to do?”
One corner of Kyrill’s mouth turned up. “Then you will have to come rescue us. Da? Should be no problem for an agent of the US Pentagon.”
Glaring at me, Radush spun around and, with Nhean, Russ and Kyrill close behind him, left me to sit on the ground, chatting and smoking a cigarette among a circle of women and children who had come out of their huts to inspect me.
“Buttheads,” I muttered under my breath.
Still fuming, I entertained the children with my usual dog-and-pony show. Trapped in the limbo between passion and terror, my chance to be the hero seemed pretty remote.
Radush re-emerged out of the forest, his face tight. “Get up, it’s time for you to teach them.”
My chest emptied of air but I stood, forced my shoulders back and walked to Radush. My heart was pounding, and I didn’t give two cents who heard it. We arrived at the rendezvous spot, where we saw no one. The air was still; nothing stirred, and no sounds alerted us. As my breathing evened out, the high-pitched whine of enraged mosquitoes began to fill my ears, and the hot air pressed against me. Otherwise there was nothing, and the nothingness was overwhelming.
The three Unmos fondled their gun handles, looking grim and tense. A bird shrieked from high above the forest, and we turned our faces skyward toward the sound. Nhean turned to me, his face pale.
“Momma, the soldiers are coming,” he said.
“How do you know that?
“The bird told me. It cries when the people are moving through the forest.”
I held my breath, listened. The bird, as unseen as the Khmer Rouge, screeched out its foreboding, and I felt their presence like faint whispers or dark specters. But I saw nothing. At the bird’s last call, several young soldiers—teenagers, really, with AK-47s and two lethal rocket launchers—materialized out of the forest. An older man with dark hollow eyes, the leader, walked closely behind them into the clearing. The expression ‘boys and their toys’ took on an ominous new meaning.
Although they wore a threadbare mix of Khmer Rouge and KPAF uniforms, their AKs were new and highly polished. Both groups of soldiers were plundering villages while wearing the other’s uniforms, trying to damage each other’s political currency among the locals; they only wore their own when the objective was naked intimidation. In this case, it was a toss-up whether they wanted to negotiate with the Unmos or intimidate them. We could have been going to a showdown at the OK Corral.
Radush, a toothy smile pasted on his face, walked towards the soldiers. The broad-shouldered Brit, who looked like a descendant of the Roman Legion, followed—his fingers tapping nervously against the hard leather of the holster at his side. For a brief moment, I remained stock still, not wanting to stay behind but afraid to move forward. Kyrill nudged me and together we moved further towards the forest, away from the safety of the Jeeps and the road—our only viable avenue of escape.
I watched Nhean, head bobbing and swiveling, as he interpreted the exchanges between Radush and the guerrillas’ leader. Voices rose and fell; the younger guerrillas snarled, their body language cocky; the commander’s face remained impassive, in sharp contrast to the color rising deep and hot up Radush’s neck.
Crack! Startled, I jumped back as a gunshot rang out, somewhere behind me by the Jeeps. It was so loud that I flinched. There was no place to duck for cover—not for the Unmos, not for me and not for the guerrillas, either. Government troops might be staging an ambush. Other Khmer Rouge could have seen this meeting as a form of treason. Or we were simply caught like rats in a trap. If only I could shrink into a smaller target; if only I had said ‘no’ to this back-ass plan; if only . . .
“Ty che, blyad?” Kyrill whispered from behind me. Right, I thought, what the blyad!
“Mu'dak, assholes, murdering assholes,” Kyrill continued as he placed one hand on my shoulder while pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up his long nose with the other. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to calm me or to steady himself. A survivor of Russia’s failed war with Afghanistan, he was still plagued by memories of a surprise Taliban rocket attack. I exhaled and inhaled—afraid to look at the scene in front of me and afraid to see what might be coming up behind me.
Suddenly Nhean raised his hands. Was he surrendering? Russ’s right hand went to the butt of his gun as Kyrill stepped in front of me, a human shield—the pungent smell of his sweat filling my nostrils and making me feel light-headed. ‘No guts, no glory’ seemed a really stupid idea as I conjured up images of news headlines: UN Electoral Worker Kidnapped; US Woman Murdered by Khmer Rouge. Cursing myself for agreeing to this meeting, I searched wildly for an escape route, but the Jeeps were a good fifteen meters from where we stood.
But no one moved, and no other shots were fired. The commander turned his dark eyes towards me; Radush, his face unreadable, signaled; and Kyrill nudged me forward again. The little nerve that runs under my left eye began to twitch, and I momentarily feared that I might let out a nervous giggle. Could Kyrill hear the pulse throbbing in my neck? I rubbed my hands to conceal the sweat and tried to gain some semblance of control. With each step toward the circle of guerrillas, I rehearsed my stock civic education speech as if I were giving it for the first time. I stopped by Nhean’s side and stared into the disapproving faces of the five men. They watched me with hatred in their eyes.