Flying Into A War Zone

The airport was broken when i arrived, but then, so was the country. Three days of fighting had torn through Phnom Penh, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction and it’s long suffering people exhausted and uncertain. A ceasefire had been called the previous day but my pilot was taking no chances and the plane circled the airport several times before coming in to land.

Apart from myself, my plane carried a Taiwanese film crew wearing body armour and shouldering TV cameras and an American Buddhist monk with shaven head and orange robes. No one spoke as the plane taxied to a stop but everyone looked out the windows. The plume of grey smoke still billowing from the airport building ahead did nothing to calm my fears. Looking around at the solemn and worried expressions on my companions faces, it was obvious that they shared my anxiety. The “ping” of the seatbelt sign made me jump in my seat and I rose from my seat with a feeling of foreboding. I couldn’t help wandering if I had made the right decision.

I stepped off the plane and looked around for my luggage. I eventually found it, dumped in a heap on the tarmac. Shouldering my bag, I weaved my way around piles of debris and oily puddles of gasoline towards the arrivals terminal. I noticed several spent bullet casings littering the ground. The building was gutted, every inch had been looted and burnt. Garbage and office paperwork was strewn across the floor. The walls were streaked with soot and embroidered with bullet holes and every window was shattered. Glass crunched under my feet. Above the doorway the “arrivals” sign hung by one twisted bracket and creaked its welcome in the breeze. It was 8.00am but it was hot and humid and my clothes were already soaked. Sweat was running down my face as I made my way through the building.

The smell of burnt plastic and smouldering rubble hung in the air. Every piece of furniture and every single fitting had been ripped out and stolen. Electrical wiring hung from gaps in the ceiling and the luggage carousel was a naked skeleton with its panels and internal mechanism dismantled and anything of value ripped out and stolen, naked wiring sprawled from its guts onto the floor.. Even the electrical fittings and lightbulbs had been carefully unscrewed and stolen. In this airport, even that which was screwed down was unscrewed and stolen. I later learned that they found a set of roll-up airplane steps in field where it was being used by farmers to collect mangoes.

The fighting was over but foreign aid organisations, NGOs, had ordered their staff to leave in protest at what they were calling a coup-de-tat. Long queues of foreigners snaked across the runway. Middle aged professionals stood in the sun with their wives and children, fanning themselves with newspapers, their shirts soaked in sweat.

Ahead of them, a dozen or so fat bellied C130 cargo planes squatted in the blazing sun, their huge engines roaring and propellers turning. The Australian military had flown in to evacuate their nationals and foreigners of all nationalities were taking the opportunity of getting out. A couple of journalists had positioned themselves melodramatically in front of the planes and were talking to camera of the “evacuation of Phnom Penh.” People were leaving but almost no one was flying in.

I wandered around the airport aimlessly, passport in hand, looking for someone to issue an entry stamp. I walked around the terminal, stepping around snapped timber frames and over torn plastic sheeting . I saw no-one, Officials it seemed, had deserted the place. I soon found myself in the parking lot facing the main road. No stamp, no visa, nothing. There was nothing to stop me simply jumping on a motorbike taxi and heading into Phnom Penh. Thinking better of it, I turned and walked back into the terminal. I spotted a solitary guard sitting at a table on the runway stamping exit visas in the shade of an old passenger bus. It too had been looted and was missing its wheels and furnishings. Taking my passport he lifted his stamp. “No”, I said, waving my hands. He looked up and squinted at me in amusement and disbelief as I explained, “I’ve just arrived.”

I walked out of the airport and stood at the empty road stretching into town. Nothing. It was deserted. Not a single vehicle in any direction. Gritting my teeth, I swung by bag over my shoulder and headed for the main road. I walked for perhaps 15 minutes and was soon soaked with sweat and exhausted. It was 7 kilometres to town and walking there in this growing heat was going to be impossible. It occurred to me too that it was also possibly dangerous. I had no idea what was waiting nearer to town and didn’t want to find out on foot. There was nothing for it. I would have to wait for a vehicle.

Looking around, I spotted a scant bit of shade under a ragged sugar palm tree. Throwing down my bag, I sat in the dirt, and waited for something to happen. Occasionally I looked up and scanned the empty road for any sign of traffic. It was eerily quiet. The blinding glare of the sun bleached the streets white and the highway shimmered in the heat and the dust. Nothing moved. Even the wind was absent. The branches of my palm tree sagged miserably above me, bleeding sweat and dust. They matched my mood.

I waited over three hours under that tree as the morning faded to afternoon. The sun increased its beat with every passing hour. My spot of shadow retreated around me and I shuffled along with it, hugging the vanishing shade of the sugar palm tree and peering through the glare of the sun at the empty highway ahead, sipping my now warm water and mentally willing a vehicle to appear on the horizon.

For three hours, not a single vehicle drove past in either direction, not one. Then I heard something. The faint sound of a motorbike engine. I jumped to my feet and looked down the highway towards the sound. Squinting through the dust, I could just make out a shape, a dot on the horizon heading my way. As it approached it became clear it was a motorbike. Excited and hopeful, I waved my arms frantically to catch his attention and, seeing me he hit his breaks in surprise, swung his bike around and pulled up alongside me. After brief negotiations we agreed a price and I jumped on the back. Finally I was heading into town.

As we approached the suburbs of Phom Penh, the streets remained quiet and empty. The shop front houses on each side of the road were shuttered and locked. The normally busy pavement cafes and kerbside market stalls were closed. The clusters of people chatting and children playing were gone. Phnom Penh street life had completely vanished and the city’s residents remained locked indoors. The fighting may have finished but Phnom Penh’s residents had learned to be wary. They had seen this before and were taking no chances.

My driver began to slow down and looking ahead I could make out a military checkpoint in the distance. A couple of armoured vehicles were parked on the kerb and a makeshift wooden barrier had been placed across the road, balanced on a couple of old oil drums. A blue tarpaulin, strung between two trees, served as a shade and a bored group of soldiers were sitting under it smoking, sleeping and playing cards. A crate of ammunition served as a table and half a dozen rocket propelled grenades and a few automatic rifles lay stacked against a tree.

One or two of the soldiers looked up at the sound of our engine then turned back to their game and ignored us. A young soldier, barely 18, adjusted his rifle and waved us to a stop. He spoke a few words to my driver then raised the flimsy wooden barrier and waved us through. As we drove on, my driver pushed a few notes into his hand. Seeing me watching, the young soldier grinned sheepishly and said, “for cigarette.”


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