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Chapter 74: Clean Undies

Veata presented me with a favorite meal—eggplant and pork, rice and sautéed veggies. It was not quite twilight, and the banana leaves outside my window looked more gray than green in the rapidly dimming light. I was enjoying the much-improved cuisine of late when I heard two loud explosions like distant thunder. My walkie-talkie— my constant companion—crackled, and an urgent voice demanded my immediate attention. “Mine explosions, near the soccer field where the Royalist political party is to hold its rally in the morning.”

As the world around me darkened, I slid under my mosquito net for the night. The radio, silent again, lay beside my pillow. I heard several more loud booms. The air in my room vibrated and the noise filled my ears. This time the booms were big-gun volleys from somewhere not too distant. I waited, holding my breath for more explosions. I remembered that gun lobs were like lightning; if you could hear them, the rockets weren’t hitting you.

The radio crackled alive again. “Several casualties, mostly workers preparing for the rally at the soccer field. Khmer Rouge guerillas have engaged the KPAF with fire from several directions.” The bulletin ended with a warning to turn off’ all lights and take immediate shelter. Shelter? Where?

There was no place to hide. I slunk out of bed and slipped into some clothes, in case I had to leave quickly. I could hardly see in the darkness. Slowly I made my way to the door and walked down the steps leading to the bottom half of the house. I wanted to calm my housekeeper and her relatives, who had fled the outlying villages, as well as Mr. Om and some staff who were also staying there that night. Almost everyone was outside, milling around in the courtyard of the tiny compound.

Soom toh, put out any candles, and aut pluen, no lights,” I said. “Mr. Om, tell them to go inside and keep everything dark so we are not a target for rockets. Aut panyaha, we are okay. Go inside,” I repeated.

“Momma, come stay with us,” Mr. Om pleaded, as if reading my mind. “Wooden house not good if rocket hits.”

The vein under my eye pulsed and my upper lip began to twitch. It would be easy to infect the others with my fear and panic, so I climbed back upstairs, knowing they were safer in the stone part of the house. So why was I going upstairs?

Unbidden, my mother’s classic advice spilled into consciousness: “Always be sure to wear clean underwear, in case you are in an accident.” I was lying back in bed with my t-shirt and clean undies on, silencing my mother’s voice, when I felt a rumble followed by a flash that lit up the sky white-yellow. The house shook; then the boom of big guns rippled across my body and my ears started ringing. Someone was banging on the door and shouting, “Momma, Momma.” It was Mr. Om.

Thinking we were under attack, everyone downstairs ran back outside again when the blast swept over them, rattling walls and windows and dishes. The dogs were spooked and barking, but the radio was silent. As I stood at the top of the stairs, the fear rising from the people below was palpable. Terror had frozen us all in place.

Once again, the radio crackled back to life. “This is Poppa 2.The guns firing now are pointing away from the town. The immediate threat has passed. All medical personnel should report to HQ immediately. Collateral casualties, please report immediately on channel 9. Everyone else should remain in place.”

Aut panyaha,” I said weakly to Mr. Om. “Tell everyone to go back inside. We are safe.” Not believing myself, I crept back to my bed. I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster ride, coming down the last hill before making a hairpin turn into the dock. The ride slowed as it entered the exit gate and stopped. I fell into an uneasy sleep.

Untac brass announced that the Khmer Rouge were expected to disrupt the election by attacking polling sites. The party line had changed. Klara, the Unmos and I slept only four hours a night or less, trying to maintain our focus on the task and off of its impediments. Missing Stephan no longer disturbed my sleep or interrupted my days. I had a singular purpose: the election.

The circles under our eyes were darker, but together Klara and I inventoried all of the equipment and materials that were left over from registration. I sent back tons of things to HQ, like cooking equipment and mosquito nets. I would have preferred to give these things away to local staff, but I couldn’t play favorites, and I didn’t have the energy to organize a lottery. Klara pouted. Khmers so loved to gamble, and a lottery with real prizes would have gone a long way towards making amends for everything that our staff had endured. Our office had enough MREs, water, air mattresses and toilet paper to supply a small army.

It poured continuously. Despite the rain, my staff and I went over the electoral laws one last time. I sent my drivers out with some Tunisian soldiers to recheck every polling site. Martin held daily security briefings at the Tunisian Battalion’s camp. The Unmos warned us that the KPAF had placed some high caliber mortars in neighboring provinces; they also reported that several tanks had rolled through Poŭthĭsăt town two nights earlier.

“What does that mean?” Klara asked, shaking her head, not wanting to hear more bad news. Since other DESs had abandoned the mission, Bakane 1 and 2 were virtually our exclusive responsibility, and it was wearing on both of us. Klara looked forlornly to Martin for a response.

“Everyone is putting his pawns in place for the game to start. Unfortunately, we can’t tell the players apart!” Martin said, shrugging his shoulders to acknowledge that it wasn’t much of an answer. “Mines are being laid in the village of Svaydounkeo in Bakane 1,” he added. “But don’t worry. They are the government’s mines, not the Khmer Rouge’s.”

“Hell, I feel safe!” I smiled one of those “you’re a jerk” smiles at Martin across the long briefing table. I pushed away my chair, scraping its metal legs on the cement floor, grabbed Klara by the shoulder and pulled her up. “Come on. We have work to do.”

Mr. Om drove us about five klics north of the Tunisian’s camp to a back-up site in a village that had become a lake after days of rain. The quiet of the dry brown earth had been replaced by the raucous sounds of banded bullfrogs and crickets spawned in the continuous deluge. Klara squinted at the knee-high mud between us and the village center and frowned.

“Your THOR strategy had better work,” she said glumly.

“It will, and we won’t need this or any other back-up site.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Who was being the pessimist? I kept the thought to myself. Klara was at a breaking point, and it would do no good to bait her into a fight. But as Mr. Om drove us to another site, in an abandoned clinic on a lane closer to the main road, I ran over the whole strategy again in my mind. The truth was that I didn’t know if we could pull it off, but I had bet my life on it.

The clinic was small and grimy but structurally sound. It stood on a rise in a clearing, an easy walk from the main road, even if the lane became too wet for vehicular travel. Klara smiled. “Well, this one will do in an emergency. I put it on our list.”

I picked at Veata’s dinner of rice and braised pork, mulling over Martin’s security briefing about new landmines and Klara and my less than stellar success afterwards. By the end of a very long day, we had only three potentially viable sites if we had to move a polling station during the election. THOR had better work.

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