“Just kill them both,” said the Cambodian military police officer.
(Above, Olesia, right, and Bopha, center, are questioned by officials at the scene of the shootings in this photo from a local newspaper.)
As they pull ed into the site Wutty told them to conduct their interviews quickly. “Let’s make it fast,” he told them.
But tension quickly escalated when three military police showed up on two motorbikes, AK47 assault rifles strapped across their backs. A short while later, Wutty lay slumped in his late-model four-wheel drive, dead. A military officer lay dead on the ground nearby.
Neither journalist saw who shot whom. Olesia was at the front of the vehicle helping jump start the car, which had faltered in an odd twist of fate with severe consequences. Bopha, too, was out of the line of sight and did not see who fired the shots that killed both men.
The official report: military police officer In Ratana shot and killed Wutty then turned his AK47 on himself, shooting not once but twice, and dying instantly.
The implausibility of the murder/suicide is echoing around Cambodia amid successful cries for an independent investigation into the shootings. Investigators have since detained and questioned a number of other witnesses, according to published reports, but no findings have been issued.
What happened to Olesia and Bopha that day ripped from them what was left of their innocence and robbed them of their rights and protections as journalists – they were detained at the sight of the shootings for an hour and a half while the military police debated their next move.
They may never know what caused the officers to decide not to kill them. That they were journalists, one of them a foreigner (Olesia is Canadian)? The fact that they were women? That cooler heads prevailed?
Eventually freed, they were released into their respective hells of fear, confusion and endless advice, adding the taste of uncertainty to an already acidic recipe for danger and disaster.
We offered refuge in our home to Olesia out of our friendship and concern. And over the next three days we saw her will, integrity and intelligence tested and reaffirmed again and again by countless organizations and individuals, most well-intended but all with separate and clear agendas of their own.
Go. Stay. Talk. Be silent.
Talk to the media. You may not talk to the media.
You have no duty to anyone but yourself and should flee the country to protect yourself. You have a duty to stay here, finish the story, stay strong.
Imagine being a traumatized young reporter whose life has been threatened by men with guns, and you alone have to choose your course of action.
Imagine the effects of fatigue, stress, memories of two men lying dead – one of them whom you have come to know well, admire and care about – and somehow finding a clear head to weigh our options.
Imagine believing deep within that something very evil and bad could well happen to you, and at any moment.
Do not go out at night. Do not be alone. Ever. Do not ride a motorbike, as that’s where many “accidents” occur. Tuktuks are only marginally better; cars the most secure.
She chose our home as a safe haven, and I am forever grateful that she did.
Imagine the feeling of vulnerability.
You and your friends are being monitored. All of it. Emails, phone calls, texts. Only Skype, Skype document transfer and faxes are reasonably safe for confidential communication, we are informed.
Now imagine a young woman who faces all these bits of advice, the “wisdom”, the counsel, the suggestions and even the instructions – and somehow finds the courage, intelligence and strength to make informed, smart decisions.
I will always be in awe of how strong Olesia was throughout her ordeal. How she saw the facts of the situation while feeling the emotions of it all, yet somehow found a way to keep solid barriers between fact and speculation, emotion and analysis. Even now she is concerned about being judged negatively for leaving, as if her demonstration of courage in the last week could in any way be diminished.
In the end, she made the smart choice – one that I recommended strongly and helped her follow.
But don’t leave the issues that caused you to face danger and death. Don’t leave the story of the man who accepted risk as an occupational hazard and was well aware that death was a possibility every day. Don’t leave the crazy, contrasted world of Cambodia – “A country where heroes die,” as one friend who knows posted on Facebook – not in your heart and mind, and not forever.
But get out. Now.
So I picked her up after a late-afternoon appointment, told her I’d booked her flight and she was leaving in 45 minutes. We took her back to our place, where she packed a small bag with some belongings, sorted out her passport and money and bravely stepped into the tuktuk for the 30-minute ride to the airport.
We sat in a small restaurant across the street from the airport, sipping beer with Tony and waiting for the code message that would let us know she had made it through security and was on the plane to Bangkok.
My phone beeped. Incoming message.
And with that, she was safe, and gone.
In the end, two things combined to tip the scale towards leaving: the potential of an ongoing investigation which would keep the issue boiling and make her a person very much of interest in the slayings, along with the escalating possibility that at some point someone in power could decide to not let her leave the country and here she would stay.
I believe that the strength, courage and commitment that served Olesia so well on her trip with Wutty, attended her as she waited in the searing heat to learn her fate at the hands of military police who had apparently killed her friend, and stood by her as she navigated the confusion and chaos of the ensuing three days will create something good and meaningful for her as a product of this experience.
I believe that this matter is very much an open book and an unfinished story for a talented young journalist whose spirit was never dimmed, never swayed and never quelled by those four haunting words:
“Just kill them both.”