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Wolves On The Tracks

By: Wayne McCallum Posted: October-24-2014 in
Wayne McCallum

Twenty years ago this month, the bodies of three backpackers murdered by the Khmer Rouge were recovered from the hills of Kampot. Wayne McCallum explores their story and how the fatuity of our youth can go tragically wrong.

Guatemala, September 1993:

‘Beep’

‘Bang’

‘Shit! Was that a dog?’

The driver of the bus seemed undeterred as we trundled on in a vain effort to make our destination before nightfall, the light outside fading fast as we sped through the Guatemalan countryside. We were an hour out of Flores, weaving our way south down a dusty pot-holed road. Inside the heat was stifling, with a palpable sense of unease hanging over the passengers pushed in around me. The tourist police had posted a written warning back at the bus station: It was dangerous on the road; left wing guerrillas were stopping buses, robbing passengers. There had been shootings. Travelling at night for foreigners was strictly prohibited.

It was the summer of 1993 and Guatemala was in the dying throngs of a ‘dirty little war’ that had left thousands dead. It was foolhardy for me to be out on the road and on this bus rouletting with my future. But braced by naive bravado, born from a cotton-wool existence back in the West, I had little idea how treacherous it was out here in the ‘real world’: a lamb in the place where wolves hugged the shadows, just out of sight, waiting.

I met my ‘wolves’ ten minutes later as our bus screeched to a sudden halt and the driver quickly killed the engine. It became deadly quiet, save for the clucking of chickens and the squealing of a baby somewhere toward the rear of the bus. I inhaled deeply and held my breath, waiting in trepidation. A camouflaged figure appeared beneath the weak coach light and ordered us off the bus: ‘Fuera del autobús. Ahora!’ We silently complied, filing outside where his colleagues, ten in number, stood in a crooked line with M16s at their sides or slung causally from a shoulder. My heartbeat, already racing, quickened as I was ordered to line up against the side of the bus with the rest of my travelling companions. I shut my eyes for a moment and gave a silent prayer before re-opening them to see what would happen next. Inside I was petrified, asking myself: ‘Why, oh why, had I got on this bus?’

A trip to the coast
A year later three young Westerners had reason to ask themselves a similar question. Jean-Michael Braquet (French), Mark Slater (English) and David Wilson (Australian) had met their own wolves in the hills of Kampot, in southwest Cambodia. Like me they had ignored a travel ban, this one forbidding foreigners from boarding the weekly train that wound its way from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. The ban was well justified, the train having become a popular target for a regiment of the Khmer Rouge who still occupied the region of Phnom Voar, a small range of hills in the borderlands of Kep and Kampot provinces. Already the train had been attacked on six previous occasions, the Khmer Rouge robbing and kidnapping passengers in an increasingly desperate effort to fund their fight against the government.

The popular version of the story is that the three backpackers had befriended each other in Phnom Penh. Somehow, still unexplained, they had managed to purchase tickets to travel to the coast on the fateful date of July 26, 1994. When that day arrived, things had gone well until, 30 minutes outside Kampot, the train reached a gully where Khmer Rouge soldiers, under the command of Colonel Chhunk Rin, lay in wait. After an exchange of gun and rocket fire, in which 13 Cambodian passengers were killed, the soldiers entered the train and stumbled upon the three Westerners. Excited about their value as hostages, they bound the trio and marched them into the nearby hills of Phnom Voar. It was here they were destined to spend the last two months of their lives, secreted away in a secluded village hut. In the outside world, meanwhile, the drama to secure their release was about to begin.

In the weeks that followed it became apparent the three Westerners, quickly dubbed ‘the backpackers’, were far from the cash cow their Khmer Rouge captors had envisaged. The reluctance of the French, UK and Australian governments to bend to demands for a $50,000-a-piece ransom had been the captors’ first disappointment. Matters deteriorated further with the commencement of a concerted shelling campaign in the Phnom Voar region by troops of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). Particularly galling for the Khmer Rouge was the fact this offensive was initiated contrary to a promise by Prince Norodom Sirivudh, then the Kingdom’s foreign minister, that no such actions would take place. Unsurprisingly, the shelling campaign precipitated a hardening of the Khmer Rouge stance toward the negotiations and their three captives. Then finally, on September 25, a chilling radio message was relayed by the Khmer Rouge leadership in the north to the commander of the southern forces, General Sam Bith.

“According to the instructions of #99 [Pol Pot’s radio call sign], the recommendations are that these three have no further use. Suggestion to #37 [Sam Bith, southern commander] is that they must be destroyed… after the execution keep it strictly secret.” – Radio communication reported in the Phnom Penh Post in 1998.

A day or so later, the backpackers were allegedly marched to the rear of a hut, where Braquet and Slater were killed by single shots to the head. Two blows from a heavy instrument ended Wilson’s life. The bodies were hurriedly buried in a single grave that pro-government forces uncovered less than a month later, following the withdrawal and defection of Phnom Voar’s remaining Khmer Rouge troops. Yet the gruesome discovery was far from the end of the story. In the months and then years that followed, recriminations, claims and counterclaims have swirled around what really happened down there in the badlands of Phnom Voar.

For one, the question of who was to blame for the deaths of the three foreigners – not forgetting the 13 Khmers who perished in the ambush – was to shift and deviate, although ultimately Colonel Rin (the ambush leader), General Paet (Rin’s commander) and General Bith (overall southern commander) were to serve prison sentences for their role in the attack and deaths. Yet other vexing questions have remained unanswered. What, for example, became of a $50,000 ransom that was allegedly sent to Cambodia for one of the hostages, only for the money to mysteriously disappear? And why did the RCAF engage in a military assault in the foothills of Phnom Voar during a key point in the negotiations, despite the promise of a ceasefire? And what of the claims of disaffected Australian diplomat Alastair Gaisford about the role of his embassy in the affair? And perhaps, most unexpected of all, why, among the expat community of Phnom Penh in 1994, was there so much antagonism towards the victims and what they had done?

Hard to feel any sympathy
Gemma Palmer was a petite, quietly spoken Brit working as a childcare officer when I met her in 2005. It was wise not to make assumptions based on her appearance, which belied a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense attitude. Gemma had journeyed to the Kingdom in the post-Untac days, shortly after the 1993 election, and stayed on to work on child justice issues. Eleven years after the events, she still retained strong feelings about the incident when we discussed it in 2005.

What wrangled Gemma and a number of her compatriots was the repeated story that the three men – Braquet, Slater and Wilson – had bragged throughout the capital’s guesthouses and bars about their imminent departure on the train, laughing about how they had ‘got one over’ on the local ticket sellers. Such a cocksure attitude was unlikely to find many friends among the long-term Western community that had been through the travails of the past and was well aware of the risks that lay beyond the city’s outskirts.

It would have been so simple, Gemma believed, for a contact to have passed on information about the men’s plans to the Khmer Rouge, who then had ample time to plan their ambush. The subsequent deaths of the 13 Cambodian passengers were, to Gemma and her ilk, the real tragedy of the story, yet one the foreign press glossed over in its focus on the fate of the ‘poor’ Westerners.

Before you leave this piece thinking Gemma was a heartless soul, consider the sympathy she felt over the fates of Dominic Chappell and Kellie Wilkinson, a well-known and liked couple who ran a popular restaurant in Sihanoukville – Café Rendezvous – and their friend, Tina Dominy. Their tale provides an interesting contrast to the way the two sets of deaths were mourned by Phnom Penh expats at the time.

In April 1994, Chappell, Wilkinson and Dominy were kidnapped while travelling by car between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville allegedly, again, by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Dominic and Kellie had been journeying to the capital to stock up on supplies for the Khmer New Year holiday, while Tina had chosen to extend her stay in Cambodia to enjoy the festivities.

Like the backpackers three months later, a ransom was demanded but not paid. It was July, around the time Braquet, Slater and Wilson were boarding their train, that the bodies of the three friends were discovered in shallow graves. Investigations revealed they had likely been murdered almost immediately after their capture and the call for a ransom had meant nothing. For the fallen Sihanoukville friends, Gemma could shed a tear. For the ‘backpacking three’, as she coolly stated, it was “hard to feel any sympathy”.

Political, military and diplomatic
Khmer Rouge kidnappings weren’t a new phenomenon in early 1990s Cambodia, with captures and prompt releases a frequent event before and after the Untac elections of 1993. However, by 1994 things had grown progressively more dangerous as the remaining units were driven to ever more drastic measures to fund their operations and achieve diplomatic points. In early February, an American woman visiting the ruins at Angkor had been kidnapped. Another Westerner was shot and wounded in a botched kidnap attempt near Kampong Speu.

Still Braquet, Slater and Wilson had fair grounds to believe their capture would be no more than an interesting footnote in their lives rather than the final chapter. The US citizen kidnapped in February had been released, while the fate of the three Sihanoukville friends was still unknown. Even their captors gave cause to believe the whole matter would be over quickly:

“They thought they were just tourists and would be released. I told them that I thought it would be done quickly. I didn’t know it was such a political, military and diplomatic thing.” – Colonel Chhouk Rin, reported in the Phnom Penh Post, 1995.

But as Colonel Rin’s statement suggests, things weren’t so straightforward. Politics, individual and factional self-interests, and intrigue ran deep, leaving some tantalising questions and half answers about how and why events unfolded as they did.

For a start, at the senior level of the Khmer Rouge, it remains unclear if there was ever a shared strategy about the use and fate of the three foreigners. For Rin, Paet and Bith in the south, the men’s capture likely represented a quick and easy way to make some much-needed money to fund their operations. However, the ensuing unwillingness of the hostage’s home countries to negotiate a ransom deal saw this anticipated opportunity evaporate quickly. For Pol Pot, squirrelled away in his northern enclave and increasingly delusional, events suggest he saw the hostages offering a much wider geopolitical opportunity, namely a means of leveraging an end to Australian and French military support for the fledgling Cambodian government. However, when neither country appeared willing to negotiate on these grounds, the value of the hostages to the Khmer Rouge leader dwindled. Very quickly, the expected assets became a liability to both commands.

Wider political machinations in the south added further complexity to the affair. Following the 1993 elections, the royalist Funcinpec party had consolidated a powerful support base in the southwest. With Khmer Rouge units progressively defecting to the government, there was ongoing tension between the Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec over which party these units would align with, bringing with them military strength and experience that could alter provincial power balances. It’s plausible the CPP, fearing a Funcinpec-brokered deal for the hostages could precipitate a defection to their rival, could have sought to scupper any deals that threatened their own efforts to court the southern Khmer Rouge factions. This offers one tantalising possibility as to why a ceasefire brokered by a Funcinpec minister (Prince Sirivudh) was subsequently violated by commanders aligned to the CPP.

Among Khmer Rouge commanders in the south, meanwhile, things were far from rosy. Rin and Paet are rumoured to have fallen out over the way spoils from previous raids had been shared. Later, in October, it was Rin who chose to defect with the bulk of the unit’s troops across to the government side, although not, crucially, to the Funcinpec faction. Does this mean either Paet or Rin ordered the killings in order to tarnish the reputation of the other? Or did the two men simply follow the orders of Pol Pot and carry out the executions as instructed?

It may be no more than a sideshow, but the claims of disgruntled Australian diplomat Alastair Gaisford added fuel to the fire over the events of 1994. Gaisford’s story is remarkable in its own right: originally posted to Cambodia in the mid-1990s, shortly after the backpacker affair he released allegations of paedophile activity among his fellow diplomats at the Australian embassy, an act for which he was later suspended. It’s not surprising Gaisford was described as a ‘hostile witness’ in the coronial inquest into David Wilson’s death, which was eventually released in 2012: a full 18 years after his murder. To the coronial hearing, Gaisford testified that the Australian embassy had deliberately played a low-key role in the affair, believing that, should things go wrong, it would be able to absolve itself of direct responsibility. For Gaisford, a self-styled whistle-blower, this was tantamount to the betrayal of David Wilson by his country’s government.

Searching for David
Truth, lies and intrigue: 20 years on, it’s difficult to piece together what really happened out there in the hills of Kampot back in 1994. Despite all that I read and learn, I still can’t get a sense of who Braquet, Slater or Wilson were as individuals. What made them laugh? Cry? What brought them to Cambodia? At the centre of the story, they remain almost invisible as personalities, reduced to tragic figures in photos and rare film footage.

I find one photograph of David Wilson, taken in a guesthouse in Phnom Penh, a few days before his ill-fated trip. He is laughing, smiling, surrounded by Khmer and expat friends. He looks like a man brimming with life, the liberation of travel and a tad too much alcohol. I seek out Peter Wilson, David’s father, calling all the P Wilsons in the Melbourne phone book with the hope of learning more about the man in the photo.

I’m down to the last possibility when I put through the Skype call. Three ring tones and a frail-sounding man answers. I feel awkward about introducing myself and the reason for the call. I keep it simple and ask the man if he is Peter Wilson and whether he had a son who came to Cambodia. The line goes quiet. I can feel the invisible person thinking about their response. A tired voice comes back through the line: “Sorry, I cannot help you.” [click] I sit for a moment, staring at my computer screen. I’m not sure, but I have a feeling this was the Peter I sought. Still I have nothing and David remains as elusive as when I started my quest.

Phnom Voar
If I can’t learn more about the three men, perhaps I can get a sense of Phnom Voar, where the events unfolded. Early October finds me in a jeep travelling down a dusty road where, like much of the Cambodian countryside at the end of wet season, the hills of Kampot look vibrant and lush. We pull over and I step out of the vehicle to join my travelling companion on the road’s verge. “So, which one do you think is Phnom Voar?” She looks around and points off in the middle distance. “That one looks the tallest. I think that must be it.” I look to where she is pointing and consider the possibility. “You could be right, but that one over there looks taller,” I say, pointing. “Maybe! Who knows?” she shrugs. After three hours of looking for Phnom Voar, she’s bored and increasingly mystified as to why this place means so much to me. Conscious of her mood, I decide not to press things and judge it time to end this trip. Phnom Voar will have to wait for another day.

The sun is slowly sinking as we hop back in the jeep. I gun the engine and we are quickly gone, a soft plume of dust and two lone tread marks the only reminder we’ve been there. Like so much about this story, Phnom Voar has proved elusive. I steer towards Kampot, leaving the hills to their memories and the past.

Guatemala, 1993:
A man pats me down, his hand lingering where he might expect to find my wallet. Finding nothing, he moves on to the woman next to me. She’s a young campesino and I can sense her unease at the presence of the rough-looking soldier. He mutters a few words and makes a token effort to look inside her basket. Members of the Guatemalan army have stopped us. Better than guerrillas? Perhaps, but with a history of death squads and village massacres, nothing is certain. Still, I can feel a sense of relief among my fellow passengers. Someone down the line cracks a joke and the soldiers laugh. A few moments later, the commander points to the bus and orders us back on board.

Sitting back in my seat I’m joined by the young woman and her baby, together with five chickens tied together at their feet. The diesel engine fires and we are soon moving, leaving the checkpoint far behind. My neighbour looks up and gives me a gentle smile, while from her lap the baby chuckles softly. In 1993, I survived my encounter with the wolves. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Advisor
The Advisor is Phnom Penh’s leading arts and entertainment newspaper. Published weekly and delivered to almost 600 locations throughout the capital, The Advisor covers and uncovers art, music, theatre, books, food and drink with style, grace and attitude.

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