In late January 1970, I set out from a Cambodian border post, rucksack on my back, to walk across a barren stretch of dirt, several hundred metres wide, towards the Thai border—No Man’s Land. I recall the earth beneath my feet, the sensation of time slowly passing. With each step, it seemed, the Thai border was receding.
I was exposed, a sitting target, caught within the sights of guns, pointing from both directions. The silence accentuated my sense of fragility. This stretch of land seemed like a place in which birds had stopped singing. In a sudden rush of madness, I was tempted to stop, mid-walk, lay down my pack, and set up camp within sight of the two borders.
I was relieved once I reached Thailand and negotiated the customs procedures. No one, however, could have foreseen the horrors about to unfold in the country receding behind me, the chain of events that would culminate in the Killing Fields. I had the luxury of moving on. There would be no such luxury for the citizens of the country I was leaving.
To understand how I felt back then, we need context: At that time war was raging in Vietnam, alongside a ‘secret war’ in the north, in Laos. For the past month, I had travelled through both countries. In Vietnam: I witnessed the chaos of war, the scarred landscape, the frenetic streets of Saigon, the pavement shantytowns, refugees congregated in vacant lots and sidewalks, bands of amputees, gangs of street children, allied soldiers on leave and the brothels and bars that serviced them. Young men sent to war—the fear in their eyes, their lethal bravado. The madness.
There were ten thousand Australian troops in Vietnam back then. Upwards of half a million US troops. Twenty-year-old Australians were being conscripted. My name did not come up in the birthday lottery. Instead I travelled on a journalist’s visa, issued in the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok.
I had hitch-hiked north-east through Thailand, overnighting in towns that serviced US bases from which B-52s set out on their bombing sorties. I crossed the Mekong to Laos, where that secret war was being waged. Vientiane was a city of refugees fleeing the bombing. I flew to the southern city of Pakse, and to Saigon, in a rattling DC3, flying low over a scarred landscape, borderlands subjected to carpet bombing. Carpets: evoking images of beauty and softness—a euphemism for carnage.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, weeks later, from war-torn Saigon was a relief. Back then, it seemed, Cambodia was an enclave of peace, bar the not-so-secret US bombings on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, ostensibly to destroy Viet Cong hideouts. Sihanouk appeared to be the undisputed leader—jazz saxophonist, film director, actor, script-writer, composer—founding father of the republic—a dilettante for all seasons. Playing off all sides to remain neutral. Presiding over a low-rise city, graced with French style boulevards, stuccoed buildings and villas, built in the image of its former colonial masters.
But the peace was deceptive. Forces were building. Foreign powers and their proxies were vying for ascendancy. The US and China were jousting in the shadows. A military coup was imminent. Sihanouk was about to be overthrown, and the CIA backed Lon Nol about to be installed as leader. A civil war was brewing.
This context puts the walk over No Man’s land in perspective: That barren stretch of land was, paradoxically, an enclave of sanity. There, at least, all was reduced to the human— stripped of tribe, nationality, disparities in wealth, and class distinctions. Stripped back to a kind of essence. It was also, however, very dangerous. Just one trigger nervous guard, just one incident, one misunderstanding, and shots could be fired.
In recent times my thoughts have returned to that stretch of dirt. There are many No Man’s Lands today—some literally a physical space between countries. This physical ‘no man’s land’, can also include those tiny patches of pavement, occupied by homeless people in the streets of our own cities.
The state of living in No Man’s Land can be a matter of legal status. There are 10 million people currently defined by the UNHCR as ’stateless’ — people denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. Closer to home there are the 2000 men, women and children, now marooned for upwards of four years on Nauru and Manus Island, and upwards of 30,000 still living in limbo on mainland Australia, on various forms of bridging visas, their future undecided.
Many more languish for years in refugee camps—displaced people’s in search of new lives, asylum. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. According to recent UNHCR figures, 65.3 million people worldwide have been forced from home. These include 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
I return to that moment, back in late January 1970, that mad impulse to set up camp as an act of defiance. At a time when an increasing number of leaders proclaim we are going to make our nation great again—pointing the finger at outsiders, ‘the other’, at refugees and immigrants as the source of their nation’s problems—that barren stretch of land, can be seen, paradoxically, and symbolically, as a place of pure being, where all is reduced to the sound of one’s own heartbeat. There is nowhere to hide in No Man’s Land: all is so achingly and transparently human.
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