A place for Leah
When photojournalist Leah Melnick left for Cambodia in 1989, she took on a
battle that raged within -- a battle that would end with her life
by Jody Ericson
The world is full of dangerous places -- Indonesia, Somalia, the Middle East,
Bosnia, and Southeast Asia. And every day in human disaster areas like these,
soldiers, relief workers, journalists, diplomats, and others put their lives on
the line and try to settle someone else's war. What draws them to what some
consider this futile mission? As soon as one war burns out, another flares in
some other part of the world. And many of the same people seem to drift from
one conflict to the next.
In some ways, they are driven by ambitions and demons more intense than most.
No matter where they come from -- a small town in Rhode Island, New York City
-- these expatriates need to experience life in its extremes. And war brings
out the extreme good and evil that exist in all of us. They are people
searching for their place in the world -- "international refugees who get
washed up in the water in a country that doesn't want them," says Chris
Gunness, a former United Nations worker now with the BBC in London.
This is a story about Leah Melnick, a photojournalist I became close friends
with at my first job out of college, as a reporter for a small, community
newspaper in Western Massachusetts. Both just 22, we recognized in each other a
common ambition to do something extraordinary with our lives. And when Leah
left for Cambodia the first time in 1989, I knew she was on her way.
Years later, we would come to realize just how naive our notions of the world
were when we first met. But while I continued in journalism, Leah decided to
become more directly involved -- she dropped all pretense of objectivity and
went to work for the UN. With long brown hair and wide, childlike eyes, she was
not a saint, but someone driven to make a difference for reasons she herself
did not completely comprehend. And Leah didn't stop trying until the day she
died, on September 17, 1997, in a helicopter crash just outside Sarajevo.
Even as a teenager growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Leah had been
someone who could not be contained -- by other people's love and expectations
or even by her own fear. After graduating from Brookline High, she came up with
the first of many schemes to test her limits -- crewing on a boat in the
Caribbean. When the plan ended in humiliation (the captain was more interested
in sex than her nautical skills), Leah traveled to such exotic places as Bali
and Australia, searching, says her father, Barry, for a mission.
All her life, Leah wanted to find that "something" she could excel in, Barry
Melnick explains. Wondering if music were the answer, she once asked her
father, in exasperation, why he'd never made her play an instrument. But Barry
Melnick had known better than to "make" his daughter do anything. The thought
of her alone on a boat in the Caribbean with a strange man concerned him
greatly, he says. But even then, he dared not try to stop her, as Leah, in a
flash of what one friend describes as a "passionate temperament," only would
An only child whose parents divorced when she was still in grade school, Leah
had "this dune buggy of a soul" that hurled her into things, says her friend,
Joy Nolan. And Barry Melnick, a clinical psychologist from Newton,
Massachusetts, says he could only "wait for that to be over," for the day when
an adult Leah would return home for good and "we could settle into life."
But Leah was too young then to see the beauty in settling into anything, in
surrendering to the ordinary as a way of finding out who she really was. For
Leah, meaning came from the world around her. And in the mid-1980s, her world
became the growing community of Cambodian refugees in Amherst, Massachusetts,
where she attended Hampshire College and pursued photography, and in the Bronx
and Providence. Here were people who had endured great tragedy and embraced,
rather than hid, their suffering and anger and love.
As she photographed them, Leah immersed herself in the Cambodian culture,
chauffeuring refugees to the doctor's or welfare office, teaching herself how
to speak Khmer, and living with her Cambodian boyfriend in an apartment that I
remember as always being filled with the smell of simmering rice.
It was strange to see this white Jewish woman so completely accepted by people
who had experienced such horrific abuse and betrayal in their lives. But Nolan,
a writer from Brooklyn, New York, says Leah shared a bond with the Cambodians.
"Leah had her eyes wide open from the moment she was born, and it did not
surprise her that there was pain in the world," says Nolan. "She just knew
there were more important things than to be subsumed by it."
It is a theme that occurs throughout Leah's three-year project, Distant
Relations, a series of photographs capturing not just the anguish of Cambodian
refugees but their determination to overcome the horror of the killing fields
they'd fled. Leah won a National Press Photographers' Foundation award for her
work and worldwide recognition, with shows at the Smithsonian and Oxford
But it was her show closest to home, at Boston City Hall in 1989, that made
Leah the most proud. Dressed in cut-off shorts and a second-hand blouse, she
seemed so mature to me then as she sipped her wine and chatted with a reporter
from the Boston Globe. "Sometimes I'd love to grab people by the hair
and smash their faces into the picture and say, `Here's a force-fed message for
you,' " Leah told the reporter.
Later, after the article came out with the quote intact, she regretted the
whole interview and asked the Globe for a retraction. The paper,
however, politely declined. And Melnick, traveling to Phnom Penh that same
year, was in for many more rude awakenings.
Over the next few years, Cambodia would undergo a dramatic
transformation as the UN began the forced transition to "peace" here in 1991.
Sheri Prasso, a friend of Leah's and now Asia editor for Business Week,
recalls how an every-man-for-himself, "frontier-like atmosphere" developed as
journalists, peacekeeping soldiers, and others streamed in for the action,
packing the brothels and bars and turning a nation's tragedy into their own
Some people get addicted to places like Cambodia, the rush from the inherent
danger like a drug that soothes them, says David Rohde, a New York Times
reporter who met Leah while she was working for the UN in the Balkans. Then
there are others like Leah, who struggle to remember why they came.
When she first arrived in Cambodia, Leah used to take long walks with her
camera through the streets of Phnom Penh. And in her long shorts and running
shoes, she looked more like a tourist as she squatted down beside people and
asked to hear their stories. As time went on, however, Leah had fewer
opportunities to pursue what she termed her "advocacy photography."
She did have some success as a freelancer those first few years, shooting for
Newsweek and the Times, among other publications. Still, Leah had
trouble surviving among what her friend, Mary Kay Magistad, describes as the
"fast and fearless" and "adrenaline-driven" news and disasters photographers
she competed with. As a result, Leah had watched in frustration as a former
classmate and rival of hers from Hampshire College got a staff job with Agence
France-Presse. She "felt humbled," says Magistad, now National Public Radio's
China correspondent, when other photographers got better shots than she did.
In some ways, Leah was still the rebellious, idealistic teen who'd set out to
conquer the world -- and she didn't want to return home again humiliated.
Adamant about proving herself as a hard-core freelance photographer, Leah
finally got her chance in May 1992.
At the time, she was staying with Magistad in Thailand, and thousands of
protesters had taken to the streets of Bangkok to demonstrate for democracy.
Three weeks into the protest, troops opened fire on the crowd. And at one
point, a soldier pointed his revolver at Leah's head and ordered her to leave
immediately, or he'd shoot.
In the most terrifying incident, Leah saw a soldier shoot an unarmed student
in the head, spattering his brains to one side. As she captured their anguish
on film, the dead man's friends lifted him onto a stretcher, covering his body
with the Thai flag, and carried him for five miles.
Magistad says the photo of the slain student was "one of the more shocking
images" of the entire event. But Leah had so many problems distributing her
work from the demonstration that she "blamed herself, on an idealistic level,
for not getting her photos out to make a difference," says Magistad. Leah also
had come close to getting shot -- an event that can crush whatever romantic
notions a person still might have about war.
In places like Cambodia and Bosnia, "the stakes are so much higher as a
writer; the canvas, so much broader," says Rohde, whose 1997 book,
Endgame, chronicles the capture of the UN safe area of Srebrenica by
Bosnian Serbs in 1995. "But once you get there, it's not romantic at all. Once
you realize the emperor has no clothes, these far-off, exotic places become
A few days after the demonstration, Leah began talking about working for
the UN, and made her first contact with the UN Transitional Authority in
Cambodia (UNTAC) via Magistad's fax machine. Eventually, she took a job with
UNTAC's electoral division, a move that surprised more than a few of her
At one time, Leah had been deeply skeptical about what the UN could accomplish
in Cambodia, her one-liners about the organization's latest blunders always
hilariously on the mark. But as the shine of her idealism wore off, Leah began
to realize the importance of compromise, how she could embrace conflict, rather
than choose one side of it, to get at a deeper truth.
It was a gradual thing, this maturing of Leah's. Even after she left Cambodia
to work with Chris Gunness as a spokesperson for the peacekeeping mission in
the Balkans in 1994, she was still quite critical of her employer. But Rohde
says that, over time, that side of Leah faded as she settled in for the long
haul and her patience began to pay off.
In December 1995, the Dayton peace accord put an end to the war in the
Balkans, and as part of the agreement, the Office of the High Representative
was set up as the center of building peace in the region. Leah joined the OHR's
human-rights division the following year, meaning that, for the first time
ever, she was working on the issues she cared about most.
Meeting in Sarajevo for some chevapi, a Bosnian specialty of spicy
beef, in the summer of 1996, Leah and Rohde shared a moment of satisfaction.
"It was neat. We were both about the same age, and there was this sense of
having our way," says Rohde, who was still working on Endgame then and
reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. "We had moved forward
professionally and had more power now to make an impact."
As if acting out the final chapter of the perfect story, Leah also had met
someone -- an ex-soldier who worked as a furniture maker in his family's
business -- and maybe even had fallen in love. "People who covered the
elections in September [1997 in Bosnia] said she looked beautiful," says Stacy
Sullivan, a former reporter for Newsweek International.
Still, even with all she'd accomplished, Leah didn't stop pushing. That's why
she insisted on accompanying German diplomat Gerd Wagner on a peacekeeping
mission to the town of Bugojno on September 17, 1997 -- the day that would be
As she flew above Sarajevo that morning, perhaps Leah surveyed all that she'd
fought so hard to save -- or maybe she gazed at Wagner and the 10 other
international representatives on board the helicopter with her, pleased she'd
finally earned her place among them.
But the war in the Balkans was not finished claiming victims. The helicopter,
after hitting a patch of fog, crashed into a remote hillside 50 kilometers
north of Sarajevo. All 12 passengers were killed.
I did not hear about what happened to Leah until six months later. There
are times when relationships burn too brightly, and Leah and I stopped writing
to each other after she left Cambodia in 1994. Still, where our friendship
ended many more began for her -- more than 100 people from around the world
attended her memorial service in the Stanetsky Memorial Chapels in Brookline.
And as sunlight strained to enter the chapel's stained-glass window tops,
Barry Melnick heard stories about his daughter that surprised and delighted
him. Once so hesitant to interfere in her life, he was learning so much about
his daughter in death. More important, when the condolence letters arrived from
the likes of President Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Kofee Anan,
Barry Melnick realized that, in the end, she had indeed found her mission.
Dying one month shy of her 31st birthday, Leah Melnick was buried in a
cemetery not far from her father's house in Newton. She had finally come home.
In dedication to her memory, Leah Melnick's friends have put together an
exhibit of her work. Called "A Continuing Struggle: the Legacy of War in
Cambodia," the photographs will be shown at the Asian-American Arts Centre at
26 Bowery Street in New York City from September 1 to 15 and in the "Boston
Room" of the Boston Public Library at 1 City Hall Square from January 5 to 27,
Jody Ericson can be reached at email@example.com.
On a wing and a prayer