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Chapter 9: The Age of Un-Enlightenment

As classes had been cancelled for the afternoon, I slouched on the hard metal folding chairs in the UNV HQ meeting room listening to the briefers’ attempts to orient us to our over-heated nether world of malaria, landmines and armed rogue militias. The more they talked, the more I wanted them to shut up.

The landmine briefer, muscles bulging in a t-shirt printed with images of landmines, taunted us. “Forget going out at night, never stray from well-traveled roads and . . .” he snickered, “best to follow directly behind the person in front of you.” There were an estimated ten million mines in Cambodia and only seven million people.

The military attaché didn’t try for wit in his grim briefing. “Armed soldiers and Khmer Rouge are digging in along the main roads in several of the northern provinces. All electoral workers are urged to take an armed escort into those districts.”

The UN’s chief medical officer casually informed us that we would likely get malaria in the provinces. He also said that sixty-five hundred flak jackets and three hundred thousand more condoms had been requested. The jackets were to protect us from bullets, but the condoms were needed to protect the red-blooded boys against casualties from nocturnal trysts—a far more common peril than wounds inflicted by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Sweat trickled down the back of my shirt, and a stain bloomed under my arms. I couldn’t control wild imaginings like losing my leg to a hidden landmine, being shot by a soldier from a hidden bunker on the side of the road or dying from a mosquito’s bite.

The guy from the human rights component told us we would need to create a sophisticated electorate within eleven months in a country that had been under autocratic rule since the Angkor Empire in the Ninth Century, when Cambodians ruled most of Southeast Asia from the great temples of Angkor Wat. He neglected to mention how this task might be accomplished.

Finally, carrying a battered leather briefcase, a portly middle-aged man, his hair combed over to conceal a receding hairline, took the podium. It was Professor Austin, the guy in charge of the election, giving us his glorious vision of the UN’s role in pacifying long-suffering, devastated Cambodia and bringing it back into the global community as a functioning country imbued with Western ideals of capitalism, democracy and commerce. I watched as my fellow UNVs filed out at the close of Austin’s remarks. I wasn’t ready to buy his Eurocentric vision for Cambodia, and I doubted whether many of my colleagues were, either.

Shielding my eyes as Brielle and I walked out of HQ, I couldn’t hide the truth from her in the bright glare of the sun. “I didn’t come here to save Cambodia,” I blurted. “I came here to save myself.”

Brielle sniffed. “You couldn’t come up with a better plan?” She turned and joined some other UNVs, leaving me to contemplate whether coming to Cambodia was the best or the worst idea that I’d ever had.

That evening it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one annoyed by the morning’s briefing. Grumbling had been going on for days about the lack of details regarding schedules and deployment assignments—much less our actual work. Complaints were rife about minimal information from the Electoral Unit. Grievances were aired about members of the UNV support staff, who were either absent, arrogant or full of excuses. Frustrated and a little bored, I watched a dozen or so colleagues in our guest house common room who were standing in a large cluster, talking all at once, their different languages reverberating off the undecorated plaster walls to create a Tower of Babel. Turning to Brielle, I asked, “Do you want to stay for the international bitch session or go to our room?”

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