Gunnar Bergstrom: I Was Crazy

Gunnar
Bergstrom accepted a rare invitation to tour Cambodia in 1978

    “We
thought that the movement, the revolution here, was an example to the third
world,” he says now.

    “They
didn’t take foreign aid, they relied on their own forces, no money,
egalitarian… ‘The atrocity stories cannot be true totally anyway; probably just
slander.’ That maybe was the picture in 1978.”

    So the
Swedish group were happy to accept a rare invitation to tour Cambodia.

    Their
movements were closely controlled, and sightseeing opportunities put forward
only the best face of the revolution.

    Modern
rubber factories, efficient collective farms and smiling workers were all
presented for the delegation’s edification.

    Mr Bergstrom
says that even then he knew that everything could not be as it appeared, that
all the refugee stories about atrocities could not be lies, but he admits to
suppressing his doubts.

    “I was
crazy enough to support the Khmer Rouge when I came home, and I quieted that
voice,” he sighs.

Within
months of his visit, Vietnamese-backed forces ousted the Khmer Rouge, and the
full horror of the Pol Pot era finally became public knowledge.

    Mr
Bergstrom’s support of the revolution came to an abrupt halt.

    Now the
Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which has been gathering evidence for the
Khmer Rouge Tribunal, has arranged for the former Swedish solidarity group
member to return.

    The centre’s
director, Youk Chhang, hopes that Mr Bergstrom’s latest tour will help the
reconciliation process.

    “People
say, ‘We were right – foreigners were here to help the Khmer Rouge and now he’s
apologised, we accept it.’ It’s important for many people to hear such
things.”

    It is
important for Mr Bergstrom to say it as well.

    He has
donated his photos from the 1978 trip to the centre, and they will be displayed
permanently at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum.

    Each snap –
smiling women, deserted bus stations, a riverboat party – has two contrasting
captions, labelled “Thoughts from 1978” and “Thoughts Now”.

    Some have a
third caption: “Forbidden Thought at the Time”.

    The
“quieted voice” is no longer silent.

 

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