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From the Dark to the Light: Andrew Thomson

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: July-08-2009 in
Dr Andrew Thomson - Photo credit - Paul Stewart
Bronwyn Sloan

"A few people have commented, that, 'you know, for a doctor, you seem to have spent a lot of your career dealing with death'," he says.

From his upbringing by missionary parents, Thomson has certainly had his faith tested - from the dizzying euphoria of the successful elections in Cambodia, still under the shadow of the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, in 1993, to the horrors of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia with the United Nations, and the disastrous UN mission in Haiti.

But Thomson has maintained his sanity (although sometimes only just, he jokes) and a deep love of Cambodia, his second overseas posting as a young Red Cross doctor in 1990 after working with Cambodian refugees in the Thai border camps treating tuberculosis.

In fact, in his journeys he found love, and someone who could understand everything he has been through as a UN peacekeeper, and that has brought him full circle back to Cambodia, where he lives in a beautiful home on the Mekong, living his dream - to watch sunsets and drink beer on the river.

There's no need for me to explain anything to Suzanne " he says of his wife. "We met on a mass grave in Rwanda"

Today he is at the swimming pool in Phnom Penh with his young daughter and Suzanne, and the monstrosities he has seen human beings inflict on other human beings during his previous incarnation seem a long way away.

Thomson was probably besotted with Cambodia before he had even set foot inside the country. He helped a young Cambodian refugee medical student and piece by piece found out his story of survival under the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge's Democratic Kampuchea. He traveled to work on the border as soon as he graduated.

The Cold War was ending, the UN was asserting it would end war around the world - Planet Earth was changing, and history was passing him by in New Zealand. He took a posting on the Cambodian border.

"I was in Site 2. We used to watch the Vietnamese troops on the border and I used to think 'wow, I'd love to work inside Cambodia - it seems so much more needy'."

By 1990 he was working in Kampong Speu with desperately poor Cambodians, keeping half an eye out all the time for Khmer Rouge troops to come racing down the mountain sides.

Through the petulance of the "authoritarian arse holes" running the UN in New York, Thomson has become best known as an author for the book he later co-wrote with former UN colleagues Heidi Postlewait and Kenneth Cain called 'Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures' , outlining how they grew, changed and discovered themselves, as well as the realities of bureaucracy, during their young careers with the UN.

It was a book written partly as therapy after the three found themselves back in the "normal" world, a million miles away from war and death and obsessed with accumulating wealth in the heady days of the dot com boom.

To Americans, the horrors of Bosnia or Rwanda could have been another planet - that would not change until after 9/11, Thomson said, when a foreign war visited them, but that is normal, he adds - its Thomson's life that had not been.

The book also helped Thomson reach back out to people like his parents in a way that helped them understand what had changed him so much from his youth as a missionary kid and then an idealistic young doctor in Auckland, New Zealand, hell bent at making his contribution to making the world a better place.

"Mum and Dad read every page of it the night I gave it to them. They sat up all night, catching up on 10 years of me through that book," he says.

But the UN elite saw it as an expose and forced him out of the organization. He, in turn, hired a lawyer and forced his way back in only to resign. It was a matter of principal in a man with a sense of social justice so strong it almost radiates. (can you tone that bit down, it makes me seem like jesus)

"I should be able to leave on my own terms after having risked my life for those arse holes," he says.

But being a whistleblower takes its toll, and on top of all those years wading through death in mass graves in an effort to find the evidence needed to bring some of the world's most evil people to justice, it became too much at one point.

"Two or three years after coming out of the mass graves, I couldn't open my door to treat the next patient, and this wasn't hard work - just general GP stuff. I told a colleague I thought I had a problem," he says of his darkest days, which ironically enough were in New York.

Thomson discovered Prozac and therapy, but not without trial and error.

"I remember someone commenting one day when I was wearing these bright, red jeans - I felt on top of the world. I went to see my doctor and he said 'do you mind if we just reduce your dose a bit?

"It took me a year to dig myself out. I had been down so long I had just stopped seeing it as anything but normal. Even today, Suzanne says 'Merci Prozac'," he laughs.

Perhaps the greatest gift Thomson has in his ability to endure experiences beyond human imagination is his talent for looking to the future, without forgetting the past, but just marking it, like chapters in a book already half read.

Today he works as a relief doctor for International SOS and tries to spend as much time as possible with his family.

And he has strong views on the upcoming joint UN-Cambodian Khmer Rouge tribunal. While others criticize it and some have already written it off as a failure, Thomson is adamant it is already a success, just by its being.

"Just by the fact that these guys are now in jail it has already worked. One, it is the right thing they have been arrested and are now facing trial, and two, it will bring out the history of Cambodia for Cambodians," he says.

"When Milosovic was on trial, he called Bill Clinton, he called everyone under the sun to be witnesses. That f#*cker died in jail, even if it was a UN prison with a nice toilet and CNN. Once you're indicted, you just can't get on a plane and go shopping in Paris any more. No one will take your calls.

"I am not a judge and it is up to the court to decide - they have the right to a fair trial - but the very act of indictment changes the whole relationship."

Of his past, Thomson is philosophical and draws very much on his Christian upbringing.

"I have a religious upbringing, part of which is always the balance of good and evil. S#*t - I really saw evil, but I suppose I came around to thinking, if there is that much evil, maybe there is an equal concentration of good somewhere - maybe that's what we call God," he says.

"I think you see the very best and the very worst - the guy who gives everything to save his neighbor, the husband who kills his wife and kids with a machete."

But the idealistic shine is gone for good, and every now and then an edge glints through Thomson's quiet, smiling manner.

"I don't have a problem with the use of force," he says of UN peacekeeping efforts. "Not after what I have seen."


dr andrew

Andrew-good bloke.


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