Chapter 76: Days of Reckoning
Dawn was breaking when I arrived at my office. It was the first day of the election, and Untac’s whole gambit in Cambodia had come down to this. There would be three days of voting before a two-day break in the five-day voting cycle. Untac wanted time to adjust if anything went badly during the first three days.
In the words of Meatloaf, I was “glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” I was down to one hundred two pounds, my fighting weight.
I ran an uphill marathon all morning. A PO, short for Polling Officer, had come down with malaria; people forgot to take water to the polling sites, and fluorescent lights broke. Eventually, everyone was stationed and voters stood patiently in long lines. Cambodians would not be denied their election.
Other than the few polling stations set up in pagodas, most of them were located in schools. But the picture was always the same—long lines of people, young and old, waiting eagerly in the hot sun for their turn to cast their ballot. Dozens of rusty bicycles stood against trees or littered the ground. Even a few oxcarts and water buffalo were parked among the many motorcycles. The CivPol and Tunisian soldiers checked the registration cards while our POs inked fingers, despite resistance—some resulting in fist fights—collected identity cards, and settled any disputes or voter irregularity. The IPSOs sat in the shade if they could find any, gulped down bottles of clean water and, when they weren’t gossiping, kept an eye on the party agents.
By the end of the first day, fifty percent of registered Poŭthĭsăt voters, including Bakane, had cast their ballots, as well as thirty percent of Cambodia. The POs returned to the office. “No attacks, no landmines,” they cheered. “But Momma,” one PO reported unhappily, “some of the ballot boxes have broken seals.” The radio crackled at the same time they were giving me their news. The ballot boxes were being delivered to the Tunisian’s compound, where I needed to go to check the seals. Party agents would meet me there to verify that there had been no ballot tampering.
A staffer handed me a clipboard saying, “You’ll have to complete a broken lock report, and the party agents will have to sign it.” I stood in a hot fog of humidity, the big field lights attracting swarms of insects.
I took the clipboard. Ballots in tubs, made of flimsy plastic with thin wire locks, were stacked five deep in a big eight-wheeler truck parked in front of the barracks. In the damp and mud, my neck and shoulders covered with crickets and grasshoppers, I checked all of the locks in full view of the party agents. Flying insects attacked my eyes and midges crawled up my nose. Holding up five fingers, I reported, “Pram locks are broken.” The party agents shook their heads and sneaked peeks at each other, as if to assure themselves that no one opposed my count. In unison they all said ban, confirming the number.
I wrote with one hand and waved the other like a wild woman, trying to protect my face while finishing the report. When I felt something crawling down inside my shirt, I shook with spasms. Several of the Tunisian soldiers clustered around me, vainly trying to pick the bugs from my head and shoulders while I put new seals on the boxes. It was like a scene in a B horror movie.
The agents signed off and left the compound. I headed for home, in the dark, hardly slowing my vehicle through two KPAF barricades. Although my heart was still racing from the attack by an army of flying insects, I somehow managed to stay calm and play along with the soldiers’ usual charade about landmines on the road. After handing out cigarettes at each stop, I searched in my rearview mirror to make sure that no guns were aimed at my departing car. I didn’t want to tempt fate and wind up dead on a bridge. I wanted to go home.
The second day of voting saw a repeat of long lines and ended without incident, except for another broken lock on one of the ballot boxes. By then, Bruno’s assistant PEO, Robin, had devised a system to replace the boxes immediately, so aut panyaha. I checked them off in front of party agents before they were loaded onto a truck and shipped to Phnom Penh for final counting. No swarming insects would ravage me again.
My car crawled back to my house in Poŭthĭsăt. I was tired; my head pounded and whacked, as if an African drummer were stuck inside it. Dinner was on the table. Without stopping, I walked toward the bedroom, telling my housekeeper, “Aut nambye tinai knei. No dinner tonight. I’m not hungry.”
Veata grasped my arm, pointed at the food that she had prepared for me and sat me down at the table. Then she pushed open the shutters. The night air smelled faintly of jasmine, which mixed with the aroma of the dish—noodles with onions, cucumbers, yams and peanuts along with a plate of fresh mango. Surprised at her insistence, I picked at the food until she was satisfied that I had eaten enough.
Usually, Veata grudgingly left me a thermos of hot water in the kitchen so that I could fix instant coffee. One the third day of voting, however, she stood by my bed before dawn with a cup of coffee in one hand, gently shaking me awake with the other.
I picked up the IPSOs at an unholy early hour and delivered them to the Bakane office. From there, CivPol escorts drove them to their polling stations, exactly as Bruno had instructed. Then I sat in the office with the remaining CivPol, discussing whether the relative calm of the past two days would continue. We were convinced that it would not.
“Echo Charley Bravo 1. Come to Metuk polling site; several dead and injured from an explosion.” The horrific scene in Skon flashed before me. By the time that I arrived, voting had come to a standstill and chaos reigned in the street. Victims were crumpled in the road. Someone, likely a Khmer Rouge soldier, had fired a rocket into the market not far from where people were lined up to vote, killing six and injuring three.
My job was to keep the polling stations open, not play the role of a triage nurse like I had done in Skon. The locals would have to comfort victims, transport the injured to a nearby clinic and take on the ghoulish task of removing the bodies and debris. I could only survey the carnage and hope that the explosion wasn’t a portent of events to come.
Calming down the two Tunisian IPSOs at the scene was a challenge in itself. They refused to stay, demanding that I return them to HQ immediately. Luckily, a couple of officers from the Tunisian battalion had arrived to secure the area and search for evidence because the Unmos wanted to know who had caused the havoc. Claiming that I needed a strong man to help me, I flattered one of them into promising to protect the IPSOs when the polls reopened. Satisfied that their Tunisian countrymen would keep them safe, even if I couldn’t, the IPSOs relented and voting resumed.
Before I left Metuk to return to my district office, the lines were longer than before the attack. Cambodians would not be deterred.
I returned to HQ at the end of the day to a buzz of conversation. A Battheay polling station in Kampong Cham had been attacked in the afternoon. Brielle’s district. There were explosions and the station was closed early, but details were sketchy at best. Martin was reminding everyone in the room that, unlike Poŭthĭsăt, Kampong Cham hadn’t moved its polling stations to the province’s main roads. Rather, polling stations were set up throughout the districts, some accessible only by boat because of the early rains.
I didn’t give a flip about his explanation; I only wanted to know that Brielle was safe and unharmed. When I was able to reach Téphanes by phone, her soft voice was reassuring.
“Brielle and Raena were at one of the remote stations, trying to resolve a dispute, when a villager shouted something about approaching Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The rumor sped through the crowd like a rocket. Apparently Raena freaked, which panicked the KPAF soldiers and a couple of CivPol who were providing security. The KPAF soldiers ran into the forest and Raena drove off with the Jeep, leaving Brielle stranded with two CivPol and no guns.”
“Did the guerrillas attack? Brielle . . . was anyone hurt?” My stomach tightened into a knot.
“No, no one was hurt,” Téphanes reassured me. “But the guerillas did lob a few grenades, scattering the villagers who were lined up to vote. Without protection from the KPAF soldiers, the IPSOs insisted that they close the polling station. Brielle is traumatized. She hasn’t stopped trembling, and even Leannán can’t calm her. He wishes you were here.”
“She’ll have nightmares.”
“He knows that. Why do you think he wants you here?”
“That bastard, Bruno. If he had pulled the polling stations back to the main highway . . .”
“But he didn’t,” Téphanes said in her quiet, practical way. “And Raena has radioed to apologize—but I doubt that Brielle will ever forgive her.”
I thanked her for the information and, like an old mother hen, cautioned her to be safe. Relief and fear melded together into a fog that covered me like a lead apron. I had to struggle to breathe. Brielle was okay, but there were still several more days of voting. How safe was she? For that matter, how safe was I?
The sun shone brightly on the final two days of voting in Poŭthĭsăt. Registration cards had been collected with diminishing minor resistance. By the last day, ballots had been cast by ninety-eight percent of its registered voters and pretty close to that rate throughout Cambodia. Other provinces had suffered attacks but, for the most part, Cambodians had risked everything to vote. Untac had lucked out and would claim success. The turnout had exceeded all expectations, but the outcome—who had won—wouldn’t be known for several days, perhaps longer. The ballots that had been shipped to Phnom Penh daily were being tallied by hand, leading to a new question. What would the election mean?
With the election over and polls closed, the local staff would sleep at the polling stations in order to collect and return equipment to the district office the next morning. I met Klara for a beer at a small outdoor restaurant in Poŭthĭsăt. Wired from the overall success of the polling, I wasn’t ready to go home and pack for my imminent departure.
Martin was there, along with a few other Unmos and some Tunisian soldiers. When he waved us over, Klara and I each picked up a metal folding chair and joined them at their table.
They had some serious news to tell us. White UN tanks had patrolled the streets after a pre-dawn rocket attack on the Phnom Penh airport and the villages that straddled the runways and outskirts of the city. There had been civilian casualties. The details were sketchy; not even Martin had any useful intelligence beyond the fact that the airport was still operational.
“It appears to have been a hit-and-run attack,” he said to me. “It has been quiet all day, but I wouldn’t take any chances when you get there. You might want to take the flak jacket with you.”
While he smirked at his joke, alarm bells went off and a wave of unease enveloped me. Dark thoughts circled my head like a murder of crows. Hon lived near the airport. But she would be safe, wouldn’t she? She was a survivor, I thought, trying to quell the panic I was feeling. Nevertheless, I promised myself to check on her as soon as I got to the city.
I was up at the crack of dawn, ready to go. After performing my last official act, which was getting the IPSOs on their bus for a two-day holiday at the beach, I returned to the house to finish packing my few belongings. Marilyn, who had watched me attempt to pack the entire contents of my bedroom a year earlier, would not have believed how little I had left.
Veata had come to help me pack and to clean the house for my landlord. When she wasn’t trying to serve me coffee, she was moping around and aimlessly picking up odds and ends, then putting them down again. I looked around for a gift—a token like the ceramic incense burner I had picked up in Bangkok’s tourist market, but that wouldn’t be right. I dug through my newly packed suitcase, found what I was searching for and presented her with my silk kimono.
Mr. Om showed up, too, although I was driving myself to Phnom Penh. Uncharacteristically for Cambodians, who rarely displayed emotions, Mr. Om gave me bear hugs and a tear or two welled up in Veata’s eyes. I knew that I had helped to empower them and their scarred countrymen. I had helped to create a window of opportunity and a respite from decades of war. The future was up to them.
Then I dropped by HQ to have coffee and a goodbye chat with Bruno. “Election results won’t be official for several days, but I’ve heard that the UN has called the election a tie and that twin governments will run the country,” he confided
The election had not been the end game for Cambodia. It wasn’t even the beginning of the end—merely the end of a first step. A rough ride was in store. But my luck had held in Cambodia. I hoped that the new democracy would be lucky, too.
It’s a shame your contract is up,” Bruno said. We both knew he didn’t mean it, but I was leaving and he could be generous.
Playing my part in our détente, I replied, “I would stay if I could. I spent a year of my life on this election. But not only is my UN contract up, my leave from the university is also up and summer classes begin in less than a month. Staying on as a volunteer won’t pay my bills.”
I never had the option to ask Bruno to extend my contract for another sixty days, like Brielle and Leannán had done. Still, I wanted to be in Cambodia when the new government was installed and, more than anything, I wanted to celebrate Cambodia’s future with Hon.
Bruno clasped my hand in his and shook it hard. “Good fortune, CJ. I’m glad we finished this together.”
Klara was also there at HQ. She kissed me full on the mouth and handed me a pretty blue embossed greeting card. I opened it and read the few words neatly printed inside: You are the best of the best of them. I looked at her, wishing with all my heart that I could believe her.
As I left Poŭthĭsăt and headed toward Phnom Penh to begin my long trip home to the States, I shouted out the window, “I’ve done it.” With my free hand, I pushed the call button on the radio and said to no one in particular, “Echo Charley Bravo 1, I’m out of here. So long, and thanks for all the fish.”