Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bribery and Assault Rifles, Cambodia

The AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated 7.62mm assault rifle, first developed in the Soviet Union... Even after six decades, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, the model and its variants remain the most widely used and popular assault rifles in the world. It has been manufactured in many countries and has seen service with regular armed forces as well as irregular, revolutionary and terrorist organizations worldwide.

I pulled back the bolt on the charging handle and stared into the chamber for the third or fourth time, moving it out of the shadow cast by my shoulders so I could get a better look. The inside of the barrel was black, even in the sun - the first round was perched, ready, at the top of the magazine. My palms were beginning to sweat against the stock. A loaded AK-47 wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. I shifted it amateurishly in my hands before releasing the slide. A Kalashnikov is meant to function properly for decades with minimal upkeep. Its construction is rugged and simple. It has only 4 moving parts – about as many as a fancy wine opener.

I looked back at Adam who was staring at me in rapt attention. He'd been neglecting the cigarette between his lips - the dangling column of ash had burned almost to the filter. He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head at me expectantly. I looked at the owner of the gun, a diminutive Cambodian police officer who we’d befriended. He didn't speak English, so he just shrugged and gave a thumbs up.

As far as I could tell, all you have to do is insert the ammunition into the bottom of the gun, look down the sights and pull the trigger. Then anything on the other side of the barrel would be obliterated spectacularly. So easy a child could do it.

I turned back to the firing range and brought the rifle up to my shoulder, shifting its center of gravity to different positions relative to my line of sight. Staring down the sights of the most infamous assault rifle in the world was an odd sensation. I felt like I should be yelling at someone in Russian. My eyes locked their focus onto the silhouette a few dozen yards away... then closer, to the iron sights as the bobbed unapologetically over the chest and head of the paper man.

"Bang bang bang!" Yelled the Cambodian policeman. Fuck, I swore, and almost fumbled the gun. The little brown man started laughing so hard he cried.

I rolled my eyes and smiled as I readied the gun again. My mind was a little bit frantic: how many millimeters, how much pressure, how long until the bullets started flying? So I squeezed slowly, continually, purposefully. Thunder. My eyes snapped shut instinctually. There was a tremendous string of staccato explosions as the stock drummed itself into my shoulder. It ended the moment I released the trigger - no more than a second after I had compressed it. I opened my eyes again.

"Fucking awesome," Adam said behind me. The policeman said something excitedly in Khmer.

I stared downfield at the tiny holes I'd left in the paper. For all the noise and force, I sort of expected the paper to have been vaporized. But it just sort of fluttered pitifully. Two of the little bullets had fallen harmlessly onto the white over my imaginary foe's shoulder. The third had landed below the neck, about where the collarbone would be. I couldn’t tell if there were more.

Our assault rifle guide piped up again, saying a lot of things very quickly in Khmer. He was smiling and waving his hands around, apparently gesticulating a detailed explanation of something. At one point he lined up his two index fingers in a trajectory away from his eye which I took to mean “aim better”.

Adam and I had been introduced to our police friend a day earlier by a local restaurateur named Bruce. Bruce spoke good English, so we engaged him when we could - asking about his work, his family, his country. Bruce, like every other Cambodian we'd had the opportunity to speak with, was a cheerful and outwardly goodhearted person. He'd told us about his brother the police officer and assured us, almost pleadingly, that the broad understanding tourists held about the Cambodian Police (that they were corrupt and malicious to the man) was overblown. His brother, he said, never took money from foreigners - he couldn't even afford to buy his wife a present for her birthday. Bruce had never asked us for anything besides our bar tabs, and even then he had flatly rejected every gratuity we offered - so we asked if there was anything we could do to help.

"No, no," Bruce said. "But he is back in the kitchen with the dishes - you should meet him when he is finished."

Some hours and half a dozen beers later, Bruce's brother emerged from the kitchen and took off the apron that covered his police uniform. He put it back into a closet behind the bar, took out the AK-47 he had left there and slung it over his shoulder. When he sat down to talk to us, the presence of the rifle was a small elephant. Adam and I, both drunk, found it difficult to reconcile the competing horror and curiosity that it evoked - just dangling from his shoulder, occasionally bouncing against his chair as he spoke.

Learning to use it must have come up at some point in the conversation - and the idea must not have been new to Bruce's brother. His face lit up immediately. In fact, stories are rife in backpacker circles about the Cambodian police and military renting out their firearms to tourists. There are whole businesses dedicated to it. One British backpacker had sworn to me that he had been offered a live cow and an RPG to shoot at it for $200. Bruce did a bit more rough translating (which couldn't have made much sense by the time we slurred out the English and he translated it into Khmer) and we all agreed to meet the next day at noon.

The rifle was still slung over the little policeman's shoulder when we arrived. He and Bruce both smiled their bright white Cambodian smiles and waved to us as we approached. Adam and I both gave Bruce's brother the equivalent of $9*, and I threw in a postcard I'd brought from New Zealand. He seemed to be more excited about the postcard than he was about the money; holding in outstretched arms like he were hanging it on a wall. He clapped my shoulder appreciatively and started talking to us in Khmer as we walked to his truck.

None of this ever registered as a bad idea. Writing it in my journal the next day – “got in unmarked vehicle destined for undisclosed location with heavily armed Cambodian” – struck me for a moment as reckless.

We’d spent the first 10 minutes at the firing range (the land behind some guy’s house) listening to Bruce’s brother explaining things to us. We understood nothing. But the gesticulations helped. Somewhat surprisingly (and perhaps a little disconcerting) his arm waving, combined with what I had seen in movies, actually proved to be all the formal instruction that was required in loading, readying and firing the weapon.

I was pleased with my first salvo of rounds. If some foe of mine took a bullet in the chest, I felt confident that they would be fucked. Maybe even dead. I smiled and took aim again. In video games, you never aim at someone’s head with an automatic weapon right away. You aim somewhere on the torso (or “center mass” in gamer/military speak). It’s a bigger target and the recoil from the initial few rounds will usually raise the barrel a few fractions of a degree. So the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds will bounce upwards towards the head. I always thought that made perfect sense, and saw no reason why it wouldn’t work in real life.

I fired again, for a little longer, concentrating on keeping my eyes open. More rounds in the black; one of them through the neck.

“What’s it feel like,” Adam asked.

I fired off a few more rounds. “Fuck.”

I kept shooting until the rifle went ‘click’. Very Hollywood. I squeezed the trigger again to be sure. Click. I thought about it, and the weapon seemed a little bit lighter. Empty. I still kept it pointed in the air as I handed it back for fear a phantom round might still be perched above the firing pin.

It was an utterly foreign, almost euphoric, experience for the time that we were there. We took turns with the gun for an hour or so. Even tried to talk to Bruce’s brother for a bit, but without much success. Adam and I were getting good by the end. Even Bruce seemed impressed when I snapped in a new clip, leveled the weapon and deftly sent two fresh rounds into the silhouette’s face.

Broader implications of the experience would unfold over the next few days.

[*$18.00 USD is, as of 2007, 1% of the per capita GDP in Cambodia. The American equivalent would be $460.00]


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