Chuck Peruchini courts death in the name of peaceWind whistles through skulls and rattles the bones of the unnamed and unclaimed on the killing fields of Cheong Ek outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. "You can never prepare yourself for the evidence of killing that is everywhere," says Charles "Chuck" Peruchini '91. "There is an undeniable and tangible sense of evil there that is even more overwhelming than visiting the death camp at Auschwitz. No effort has been made to sanitize the scenes of the countless atrocities."
During August and September 1996, Peruchini traveled deep into Khmer Rouge-held territory along the Thai frontier in north-west Cambodia, accompanying a childhood friend who was there as part of a government peace-keeping mission occasioned by an over-ture from the democratically elected leader, Prince Ranariddh, to the Khmer Rouge. That the U.S. State Department strongly discourages Americans from traveling in this part of the country because travel is extremely dangerous and Westerners are often randomly killed by the Khmer Rouge did not dissuade him from making this trip. Peace seemed about to prevail, and the opportunity for adventure was too tempting to pass up.
A political science and economics major at Kenyon, Peruchini's interest in Asia was piqued by a course he took with Professor John M. Elliott and Associate Professor Alex R. McKeown called "America in Vietnam: A Crisis Reconsidered."
The Khmer Rouge are a formidable guerrilla force dedicated to obsessive nationalism and a peculiar form of agro-communism. On their ascendancy to power in 1975, they sought to reform society on a socialist model and evacuated large populations to the countryside to work in vast and inefficient agricultural projects. "The country became a large work camp ruled by terror, as depicted in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields," says Peruchini.
When the Khmer Rouge's rule lapsed into bloody infighting, the Vietnamese capitalized on the chaos and invaded Cambodia, occupying the country from 1980 to 1990. The remaining members of the Khmer Rouge were forced to retreat to their present-day positions along the western and northern border regions of Cambodia, where they wage an ongoing war with the current government.
In 1989, the United Nations entered this exhausted nation in a determined effort to get the country back on its feet. Their task was formidable: the killing fields had eliminated an entire generation of Cambodians, and virtually everyone with any education was dead. The lack of human capital and the uncertain security situation caused the country to teeter on the brink of anarchy.
Following elections administered by the United Nations in 1993, the Vietnamese-appointed prime minister, Hun Sen, refused to relinquish his control over the government. A power-sharing agreement was implemnted between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh. They agreed to accept equal shares of control over each department of government, an arrangement that worked only because they shared a common enemy in the Khmer Rouge.
Against this background, Peruchini arrived at the base camp with his friend, their bodyguards, and an interpreter. They were greeted by men whose brutality and hatred, says Peruchini, emanated from their eyes. "I was beginning to regret the military buzz cut and jungle fatigues I wore for comfort in the steaming monsoon season heat," he says. "I also decided that wearing sunglasses was no longer wise, as it only heightened suspicion.
In Cambodian society, height is a sign of status, and being the tallest person in the group, Peruchini was immediately assumed to be the leader. "They also thought I was with the CIA," he says. "That placed me in immediate danger, as CIA membership was an acceptable pretext for execution.
"Just a few miles away from our base camp," continues Peruchini, "a young former British Army officer named Christopher Howse was held hostage by another group of Khmer Rouge and later executed. I was stunned by the news and thankful for own good fortune. In this situation, where there are no reference points to help you adapt, you're very vulnerable; you must reach in and draw on elements of yourself you may not even know you possess."
Peruchini was flown out of the base camp and taken to the border city of Poi Pet where he spent three days. "There was no hotel in Poi Pet," he says, "and I had to sleep in a hammock in a brothel, which was just a hut over a cesspool. It was a lot closer to raw life than I ever had hoped or expected to come."
Now, one year later, the optimism that Cambodians might make progress in rebuilding their ravaged country has been dashed as the coalition government unravels. Prince Rana-riddh's overtures to Khmer Rouge leaders, to which Peruchini was a witness, helped provoke Hun Sen's assault on Prince Ranariddh's forces in the capital.
"It seems that violence is Cambodia's destiny," says Peruchini. "The outbreak of civil war carries with it a special resonance for me because I have friends on both sides of the infighting. It's easy for me to visualize exactly where the recent battles have occurred. The military base where I was taken upon arriving in Cambodia was the site of the first fight on July 5. I've been in touch with my contacts in Cambodia, and, to my surprise, I wish I were with them in this dark and violent hour."
Instead, Peruchini resides safely in Chicago, Illinois, where he recently took a job as a senior consultant in the financial advisory services group of Ernst and Young. His nonworking hours are spent pursuing a law degree at DePaul University--and thinking of life in war-torn Cambodia.
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