Cambodia peacekeeper fights to be recognised as prisoner of war

Cambodia peacekeeper fights to be recognised as prisoner of war

Cambodia peacekeeper fights to be recognised as prisoner of war

Updated 14 September 2017, 10:30 AEST

Mick Quinn has learned to live with the memories of skulls and skeletons in Cambodia's killing fields, but the Australian former peacekeeper is now fighting to be recognised as a prisoner of war after being held for three months by the murderous Khmer Rouge.

"If I think of Cambodia I think of skulls."

Mick Quinn has learned to live with the skulls of Cambodia's killing fields.

They fill his mind and have become part of his body — he now has them tattooed on his arm.

He was among the first of 65 Australians to arrive as peacekeepers in Cambodia in 1991, after the Khmer Rouge had slaughtered 1.5 million people.

"The killing fields, when they did the clean-up, there was just mass stacks of parts of skeletons," he said.

"But the thing that really sticks in my head were the mountains of skulls."

The visual horror of the killing fields was just the beginning of his trauma.

For three months the murderous Khmer Rouge held the-then 27-year-old, and six other peacekeepers, under house arrest as the UN tried to negotiate a fragile peace agreement.

"You're looking into a face you can see whether there's intent or not to carry something out and for me looking into their faces and looking down the barrel of the rifle — their intent was to kill us … it just left me like jelly," he said.

Mr Quinn thought he was about to die when an Australian officer stepped into a "no-go zone" outside the compound.

"I've had two rifles raised up at me from the Khmer Rouge, and all I can remember is that absolute sinking feeling," he said.

"I was waiting for the bullets to rip through my guts."

Mr Quinn was not shot, but he was badly injured.

Like nearly a third of UN peacekeepers he developed a chronic mental health disorder.

Twenty-five years later, Mr Quinn still suffers post-traumatic stress.

Now he is fighting for himself and others to be officially recognised as a prisoner of war (POW).

"There's a lot that have been taken prisoner when they were doing the inspection teams in Iraq," he said.

"We've had people in Somalia who were taken prisoner, we've had people in Rwanda taken prisoner and there's basically been no recognition towards them and no extra help provided to them."

Professor David Forbes, a psychologist specialising in trauma, believes Mr Quinn's claim for recognition as a prisoner of war needs to be seriously considered.

"These events can take terrible psychological tolls," he said.

"Kidnapping is one of the highest on the list in terms of risks for developing significant emotional consequences.

"It's very important for any peacekeeping person who has been through events like that for them to be recognised."

Recognition as a prisoner of war entitles service personnel to fully funded health care.

Fellow Cambodia peacekeeper Paul Copeland was discharged from the Army after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He served in Cambodia in 1993 and was badly injured when the United Nations vehicle he was travelling in crashed into another vehicle.

Mr Copeland said no Australian has been recognised as a POW since the 1950s.

"I don't understand why there seems to be a line in the sand drawn at Korea," he said.

Mr Copeland believes the POW claims of Mr Quinn and others are valid.

"The system hasn't allowed for these potential confinements in modern military operations," he said.

Mr Copeland said while Australia has largely ignored Mr Quinn's imprisonment, New Zealand has honoured one of its soldiers held under house arrest alongside him in Cambodia.

"He received the British Empire Medal from his country in recognition of his service in arduous conditions," he said.

Both Mr Quinn and Mr Copeland will attend the unveiling of a memorial to Australian Peacekeepers in Canberra on Thursday.

"I'm rapt we are finally getting to the stage where the memorial is going to open," said Mr Quinn.

"The 14th of September is a very significant day for peacekeeping in Australia."

Australia's first peacekeepers were deployed to Indochina on this day in 1947.

Mr Copeland is optimistic the memorial will be a catalyst for greater recognition for Australian peacekeepers.

"We hope that this actually places peacekeepers on the landscape within the veteran community as proper returned veterans," he said.