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Drawn back to Cambodia by voices of the missing

PKHAR DOUNG, Cambodia — "Let’s rock ‘n’ roll," said Tim Page, once one of the wild and daring young photographers of the Vietnam War, strapping himself into the front seat of a four-wheel-drive van.

"Like Flynn and Stone, three intrepid journalists left Phnom Penh on a hot morning headed for Kampong Cham," he said, narrating his departure recently with two colleagues.

He settled back for the long ride, past the town of Skun, known for its fried spiders, past hypnotic rows of rubber trees, out to this dusty village near the Mekong River where he believed the bones of two missing war photographers, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, were buried.

It was not an unusual journey for Page. Now 66, he has been on this hunt for years, determined to find answers and to come to terms with the war that has dominated his life.

Forty years ago, Flynn and Stone headed down an empty road with their cameras in search of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They were never heard from again.

Their disappearance has become one of the enduring mysteries of the war, two young journalists — like movie adventurers — riding their motorbikes into no man’s land and losing a bet against fate.

Flynn, the dashing and glamorous son of the movie star Errol Flynn, had in fact briefly been an actor, and he brought an aura with him to Vietnam that gave his disappearance at the age of 28 a mythic quality.

"Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had 30 years before as Captain Blood," wrote Michael Herr in his classic book about the war, "Dispatches."

"But sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input!"

Page had shared some of those journeys into darkness, and his visit to Pkhar Doung was the latest of many searches in what he called "a 25-year madness" in pursuit of the bones of the man he calls his brother.

Weeks earlier two bounty hunters made a false claim to have found them, reviving interest in the disappearance and spurring American investigators to step up the search for the missing journalists.

Page said, "I don’t like the idea of his spirit out there tormented," a wandering ghost that could find rest, as many in Asia believe, only after proper funeral rites. "There’s something spooky about being MIA."

Page is also seeking a measure of peace for his own soul, scarred like his body from the traumas of combat, from nearly fatal wounds and from the loss of friends, trying to put together what he calls "an enormous jigsaw puzzle, bits of sky, bits of earth."

"I don’t think anybody who goes through anything like war ever comes out intact," he said. "I suppose the closure of Sean’s fate also has to do with closure of the whole war experience."

Theirs was an intimacy forged by shared danger and by what Page calls the magnetic pull of two only sons searching for a bond.

"We could have been brothers, and felt as though we were," Page wrote in a memoir, "Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden." "We would sit for hours in the same room, hardly speaking yet in total communication, a vibration as intimate as between lovers."

For Page a lonely intimacy has continued, and he hears what seems to be the voice of his friend from time to time, the voice of a tormented spirit.

"We have conversations in strange moments and often enough to remind me of the presence of his spirit," Page said on his recent drive to Pkhar Doung. "It’s there but not there, and you’re aware that there’s something somehow lurking, just out of reach."

As he drives past the rubber trees, whose rapid regular repeated rows create the illusion of some ghostly shifting world in the distance, he said, he often hears his friend’s voice: "What are you doing, man? What are you doing, boy? What are you doing, mate?"

Flynn’s lost bones and wandering soul are not alone in Cambodia, where as much as a quarter of the population died in the late 1970s during the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Many of their remains, like those of Flynn, are still unidentified in killing fields around the country.

Cambodia was a particularly dangerous place for foreign journalists during five years of war before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. At least 37 died or disappeared, including 15, along with Flynn and Stone, in a six-week period in 1970.

After pursuing various theories and false trails, Page said he now believed that Flynn survived for a year after his disappearance and may have been killed by lethal injection at a field hospital here. On a visit last year, Page recovered some medical vials and turned them over for analysis to the U.S. military office in Hawaii that seeks to recover the remains of missing soldiers.

This new visit to Pkhar Doung did little to solve the mystery. Since the bounty hunters ravaged the site with a backhoe, the U.S. military office, known by its acronym, JPAC, has sealed it off. Page was turned away by the local police.

In the future, he said, he planned to talk with nearby villagers who might have some memory of captive foreigners long ago and what became of them.

Even if he never does succeed, Page said his search had helped him honor both Flynn and other journalists who had died or disappeared in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

His pursuit has inspired a documentary, a new memorial to dead and missing journalists in Phnom Penh, journalism courses for local reporters and most significantly a book called "Requiem," which includes the work of 135 photographers from all sides who died covering Indochina’s decades of war.

Page, who grew up in Britain, taught himself photography and covered the war as a freelancer from 1965 to 1969, sending pictures to major American and French publications, including Time and Life, Look and Paris Match.

He became known for his vivid combat pictures and also for the risks he took and the wounds he survived. At the time Flynn disappeared, Page had suffered his most severe injuries, from a mine explosion that sent shrapnel into his brain and body.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital, he said, but surgeons revived him for a long and painful recovery. The thin borderline between life and death still seems to draw him.

"At the end of the day, the mysticism of it — living, not living — becomes a mystery," he said, "and I don’t think we are ever privileged except on death’s doorstep to actually understand it."

He hovers close, though, pouring his energies into his search for the unmarked grave of his friend, then sometimes finding comfort in the quiet of a cemetery.

"It’s always peaceful in a cemetery," he said. "Everyone there has found rest. All the tribulations of life are over, and you return to the peace of nothingness."


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