Interviewed 7 July 2021
A YEAR IN CAMBODIA
In this piece of audio, Brendan Walsh, a native of Dublin reflects a year he spent in Cambodia in the early 1990s, as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). UNTAC was set up to supervise the ceasefire, between Cambodia and Vietnam. The peacekeeping operation involved approximately 15,900 military, 3,400 civilian police, 2,000 civilians and 450 UN Volunteers, as well as locally recruited staff and interpreters.
MR. DREW: So, then you went to Cambodia. How did that come about?
BRENDAN WALSH: Yeah. In 1992 there was a competition and they advertised there was they decided they were going to send 40 Guards to Cambodia. So I said I’d stick my name in it, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the 40 that was picked.
MR. DREW: Why were they going to Cambodia?
MR. WALSH: Um, well, Cambodia had undergone a period of terrible social change. Basically, it all goes back to the Vietnam War where the Americans and the Communists in Vietnam had used, or Cambodia was used as kind of a ground for moving arms and people through, and there was a lot of there was a kind of a revolution there. There was the Khmer Rouge in the mid-’70s took over and they pursued a policy of genocide against their own people, that was quickly followed by a Vietnamese invasion, and the United Nations, it was the first time the five, all the members of the Security Council voted to set up a mission. So basically it was to have free and fair elections in Cambodia, and the United Nations put a massive team, and one of the biggest operations at that time, to try and bring back refugees from neighbouring countries to Cambodia, and to register all the people who have elections, have free and fair elections, and a democratically elected government.
MR. DREW: Okay. Okay. So where were you posted in Cambodia? What was it like, the conditions?
MR. WALSH: Yeah. So, forty of us went to Cambodia. So we Peter Chief Superintendent Peter Fitzgerald was in charge of the civilian, the CIVPOL element of the mission, which was an unusual honour for, both for him and for An Garda Síochána and for the country. He divided the forty of us into ten groups and we ten of us were sent to Siem Reap, which was in the north of the country and, ehm, it took us basically two days to drive up. All the bridges were blown. We had to drive across bridges with just sleepers as supports to drive across bridges. On the way, we encountered many tanks. It was kind of, ehm, it was kind of very eye-opening journey that I’ll never forget going up, and at night-time there was still artillery flashes at night where there was still fighting going on in the country, and we were kind of wondering what we had got ourselves into. But we went to Siem Reap, which was a provincial capital, and no more than being in the Press Office with the Phoenix Park on my door, again I was lucky that at Siem Reap we had Angkor Wat, which is on the UNESCO, was one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, which is a fabulous whole building that was there. So that was at our doorstep, so we were able to visit there and see that.
MR. DREW: Okay. And what was your accommodation like, or where were you staying? How many would actually was there ten of you staying together there for that period? Where were you staying?
MR. WALSH: Well, yeah. So to begin with we stayed there was a hotel. Cambodia had been a French colony, so there was these kind of grand hotels dotted around in the various provincial capitals. So old style kind of French hotels. So we stayed there for a while. But then we actually moved we hired a house from the locals and we stayed with locals. So we divided up into two fives and we both got two houses, and basically we kind of shared accommodation with the local people. Ehm, and again that’s one of the standout things in my mind, the people in Cambodia, they’re the most humble, generous, kind people that I’ve ever met. There was one Cambodia at the time was one of the I think it was in the bottom one of the poorest countries in the world, and everywhere we went the people couldn’t have been more helpful or generous, and they would have shared whatever little food they had with us.
MR. DREW: Okay. And what were the conditions like?
MR. WALSH: The conditions were very bad. It was very very, very basic. Um, we ended up
MR. DREW: Well had you got electricity, running water?
MR. WALSH: No, we had no, we kind of we had electricity on a generator. We didn’t have there was in the houses there was intermittent power. So there was power cuts a lot of the time. So we were kind of dealing with backup generators. Bottled water we operated on. So the UN were there’s a huge mission there, so basically we had a lot of stuff supplied is brought in by helicopter. There was an airport in Siem Reap, so they’d fly in supplies and we’d use that. Ehm, food was a problem. Five of us were then sent later on in the mission we were sent up to the border with Thailand, which basically we had to build our own house, a wooden house, and conditions were really bad, and we all ended up getting, getting sick there.
MR. DREW: When you say you built your own house, so you’re talking about was there what was the conditions like? Was there no electricity there?
MR. WALSH: No, there was no electricity, no.
MR. DREW: Running water?
MR. WALSH: No, just a basic wooden structure with camp beds that we had been supplied with, with our own nets. So we just like just one room where five of us slept in there, in the room. Every day we’d go to the local market, and the meat was all displayed, and the flies, you know, the heat. The heat was one of the like one of my most vivid memories when I arrived in Phnom Penh was just a blanket heat of a tropical Asian country, which is obviously something that we had never experienced before. So we had to get used to that. And we’d had, you know, monsoon weathers as well. Like you’d get torrential rain.
So this place we ended up with, and it was decided there was as more and more police components arrived from different countries, it was decided that unless we, unless we showed that the Irish were sent to the furthest place, no one would go anywhere, so we were kind of we had to go to the furthest and most difficult spots just to so no one could claim favouritism. So we ended up on the border, and ironically
MR. DREW: Yeah. Yeah. So you’re saying about no electricity. What about the roads there? You said the monsoons.
MR. WALSH: Yeah. Roads were dirt tracks basically. And monsoons. So, ehm, like the roads were just dirt track, you know, red dirt. So, you know, if there was heavy rain like the water would you could drive into you’d drive into a hole not knowing how deep it was, you know, the waters would I actually have some great photographs of us trying to navigate our way through these holes. And actually, we were there, when we were there one morning we were having our breakfast and next we heard a massive explosion, we went out and a car had been blown up on a land mine. So there was Cambodia had a huge problem with land mines, and we had several a managerial police colleague was blown up as well on a different, on a different occasion by a land mine. So that was something that was all in the back of our minds as well, that there was everybody over there had an AK 47, so every guy you’d meet on the road would have a motorbike and have an AK 47 strapped to his back. So it was, it was quite the world we were in.
MR. DREW: Okay. Okay. And as I say, you stayed there for how long did you stay there for?
MR. WALSH: Yeah, just under a year. So the last posting, we were up on the border with Thailand, actually the Garda surgeon had come out to visit and when we he came up to see us, he came up by helicopter, and he had one look at our accommodation and he said we had to leave, we had to pull out and come back in the helicopter with him. So he shut down, he shut down us operating there.