[Sidebar] July 23 - 30, 1998

[Features]

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 have rebelled.

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 University.

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 personal adventure.

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 just places."

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 friends.

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 her last.

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, 1999.

Jody Ericson can be reached at jericson@phx.com.


On a wing and a prayer


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