Phnom Penh looked a lot different 20 years ago.
Cambodia was in turmoil, amid a conflict between government forces and the Khmer Rouge. The only real foreigners in the country were soldiers and other civilian employees working with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which arrived on a year-and-a-half mission in May 1992 to oversee the Kingdom’s elections.
Images of that time were captured by Dr. Margitta Oschilewski, a physician serving with UNTAC under the German army medical corps, and Frank Meinold, a German freelance photographer. Their photos will be on display in October at the FCC Phnom Penh.
“They were both in Phnom Penh before all the tourists came,” says Michael Scholten, a Phnom Penh-based photo-journalist who’s organizing a series of monthly photo exhibitions from German photographers at the FCC.
Oschilewski came to Cambodia as a civilian doctor with the Germany army. According to German law in 1992, the German Army was not permitted to take part in any missions that would involve armed German soldiers. However, then German Chancelor Helmut Kohl opted to send army medics and 350 tons of equipment to Phnom Penh for the purpose of running a field hospital.
Oschilewski arrived in Phnom Penh in July 1993 on what was suppose to be a two-month unpaid holiday from the hospital where she had worked in Germany. She began working in an improvised 60-bed hospital on the outskirts of Phnom Penh with two operating rooms and an intensive care unit, Scholten said. She worked for the gynecological department and primarily treated female soldiers of various nationalities, as well as the wives of high ranking UN generals.
Oschilewski mainly took photos of the hospital where she worked, although she did take shots of the Killing Fields and S-21 (an infamous prison during the Khmer Rouge regime where many people, mostly Cambodians, were tortured before being executed at the Killing Fields) as well as what she saw while sightseeing.
“She told me that it was still a dangerous place, and the German government didn’t want them outside of the city,” Scholten says.
Phnom Penh also had its dangerous moments as Khmer Rouge snipers were known to take shots at people as part of an agenda to disrupt the elections. In fact, one of their victims was a German army medic who became the first German soldier to be killed on a UN mission, he says.
It was the tense environment in Cambodia at the time that prompted Meinold to buy a one-way ticket to Phnom Penh.
“In the late 80s and early 90s, it wasn’t a place you wanted to go,” Scholten says. “But since (Meinold) was an adventurer, he decided to go there.”
Meinold actually arrived in in Phnom Penh in 1992 just before UNTAC was established. He took photos of people on the streets of Phnom Penh during both the day and at night, he says.
“He didn’t even know there was a curfew,” Scholten says.
While walking the streets at night, soldiers (who were positioned across the capital) didn’t know what to do about the foreigner who had not yet figured out that there was a curfew and opted to leave him alone, he says.
Meinold’s trip to Phnom Penh was cut short when he had to be evacuated to Thailand when he faced death after coming down with cholera, a situation that has since kept him away from Cambodia.
“That’s the reason why, for 20 years, he didn’t come back.”