Out of Cambodia: A hero in the land God forgot

Click to follow
PHNOM PENH - Bert Hoak radiated good-natured optimism from the moment he stepped out of his jeep. This immediately made him interesting, since everyone else in Cambodia lives somewhere between cynicism and pessimism, and doesn't mind telling you so. After an afternoon and evening talking to Bert, a stocky, 40-year-old Alaskan with a flowing black beard, he emerged as a micro-hero in a small but deeply troubled district in northern Cambodia.

Bert is a 'UNV', a United Nations Volunteer, who is paid a few hundred pounds a month to live in the countryside and preach to the locals the values of human rights, free elections and secret ballots. His district, 20 miles from Siem Reap, is one of the most hotly contested areas in the country, with frequent firefights between the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh troops.

Bert drives to work every day past minefields, and gunshots are as common as birdsong in the English countryside. That afternoon he was putting up sandbags around his house: 'Just so my people don't get hurt accidentally if the shooting starts.' He was almost casual about the danger to himself, as if the violence around him made thoughts of his own safety sound selfish. And he has seen a lot. 'I came here and made friends and then some of these friends have been murdered. This kind of thing has not happened to me before. This was not in my contract,' he said. 'This place has changed my perspective on life, and on myself.'

Perspectives alter fairly rapidly in Cambodia. Not long ago Bert was sitting outside his house, listening to two soldiers getting drunk. After much banging of fists on the table, they decided it would be manly to square off with their pistols. Fortunately, they were both too drunk to stand.

When Bert drives northwards, he passes through an area that has been evacuated because of the recurrent shelling and fighting. Entire villages are deserted, with signs warning potential looters of landmines. There is just one safe path down the middle of the road of these ghost towns.

But Bert persists in commuting under such circumstances, because someone has to preach justice and democracy. Cynics might say he is wasting his time. In terms of bringing democracy to Cambodia as a whole, maybe he is. But when you are with Bert and see the way his enthusiasm gives some hope to the villagers, you realise he is playing a specific role. He is the hero who has come to heal years of fratricide and the villagers look up to him as such. There are hundreds more like him, throughout remote districts: the tragedy is that the United Nations has not coalesced into a nation-sized hero to redeem the entire country.

'On the micro level, it is the small things we do for people, taking them to hospital, doing little favours - maybe that is all we will leave behind.' That and his speeches, improbable as they sound at first. He recently addressed one village about the need for justice as a precondition for peace. But it was not a lecture on political science. 'I told them as long as there is no justice, there will always be a man out in the jungle with a gun looking for revenge. They understood that.'

Bert is strong on justice. He has got himself into trouble with the UN for criticising abuses of UN power, particularly where young local women are involved. The UN would rather not hear his accusations of procuring and pimping by UN personnel but Bert won't be silenced: 'I have been fired from better jobs before.'

He has watched a Cambodian soldier die from a shot in the head, with his mother waiting by his side and the local commander saying it was a waste of time to take him to hospital. The mother wanted him to be treated, but by the time Bert was able to intervene it was too late. 'It reminded me of a Vietnamese poet: 'When you shoot a bullet at someone in war, it passes through their mother's heart first'.'

What got to Bert most was the death in January of a Cambodian woman who worked for the UN and whom he had befriended. She was shot with another UN employee and a little girl, for no apparent reason.

Against this background of danger and suffering, how did he manage to keep even a semblance of optimism and good nature? Bert was embarrassed: 'Maybe if things get really bad, I will leave too - like Graham Greene's idea of courage with a return ticket. I don't know; I like it here.

'I like the people. But God sure is taking a long holiday in Cambodia.' But Bert won't leave. Bert is a micro-hero and Cambodia is desperately short of heroic material.