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Remembering fallen reporters who covered Cambodia, Vietnam wars

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Chor Sokunthea/Reuters

(Read caption) Journalists observe a moment of silence to honor those killed while covering the Cambodia, Vietnam wars. Starting in the late 1960s, the communist Khmer Rouge waged a Vietnam-backed guerilla campaign that ultimately overthrew Cambodia's pro-West Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Millions died, including journalists covering the unfolding tragedy.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Memories of forays down empty roads from the capital of Phnom Penh flash by as we drive past sunbaked fields to the site where our colleagues were killed 40 years ago. It seems like the old days when correspondents ran those roads looking for war stories – only this time it is a bittersweet reunion, sharing memories of those we knew who went one roadblock too far and never returned.

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A former CBS cameraman, Kurt Volkert, tells how two competing network correspondents died along with their crews covering a war that few understood. First George Syvertsen of CBS and producer Gerald Miller ran into an ambush and were gunned down along with their crew. Then, Welles Hangen of NBC and his crew were stopped and detained overnight before being brutally beaten to death.

Mr. Volkert had gone down a different highway that day but led the search for the bodies, including their excavation more than 20 years later.

He talks about the search as villagers gather around, smiling at their foreign visitors, seemingly oblivious to the memory of the scourge that swept the land a generation ago. “The area has changed completely,” he says, looking over the parched land. “The road has doubled in width. All the buildings are new.”

Construction goes on, forcing traffic into a single lane while a convoy of bullock carts competes for space.

All told, 37 foreign and Cambodian journalists died covering the war in Cambodia, a war that ended when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the US-backed regime in April 1975. No foreigners witnessed the subsequent, much worse, suffering endured under the Khmer Rouge until their fall in January 1979.

Today, foreigners are welcome. “The hospitality of the Cambodian people shines once again,” says a former correspondent, Carl Robinson. “It brings a lot of closure to our feelings after all these years.”

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