A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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WHEN RON ABNEY AWOKE, he didn’t know where he was, but he knew he wasn’t in Cambodia anymore.


Ron Abney

There had been a political demonstration, grenade explosions, a hurried evacuation by air. Here, the hospital room was clean. Through the window he could see new buildings in orderly rows—no dirt roads, no beggars, no amputees limping along in the tropical heat. No, clearly not Cambodia.

Abney was a political consultant, a graying foot soldier in the army of U.S.-funded advisers that fanned out to the former Soviet satellites in the 1990s to help recast them as multi-party democracies. He had been working in Cambodia as director of operations for the International Republican Institute. Now he lay in Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, looking at the grenade fragment that had been dug out of his left buttock. It was the size of a marble, but jagged.

Three or four days later, a man in a dark suit appeared at his bedside. He introduced himself as Tom Nicoletti, from the FBI’s Asia-Pacific office in Honolulu. Nicoletti looked the way an agent is supposed to look, square-jawed and solid, right out of Hollywood.[n] “We’re here to get the guys who did this,” Abney recalls him saying. Man, he’s a big old guy, Abney thought. Talks like John Wayne. Go get ’em man, go get ’em.[s]

Nicoletti stood in the same spot for the whole interview, a solid hour. Then he picked up the piece of shrapnel. Abney stopped him. “If you take it,” he said, “you gotta give me a receipt.” Nicoletti pulled out his card, and scrawled this on the back:

4/4/97. Received one small grenade fragment to be analyzed by FBI lab‹to be returned to Mr. Abney when investigation completed. T.E. Nicoletti.


Abney had been lucky. At least sixteen others were killed, and more than 100 were injured.[n] To many Cambodians, Abney’s injury seemed a stroke of luck. This was not the first attack on an opposition protest, but it was the first time an American was injured in one. For once, it seemed the truth would come out.

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A Tragedy of No Importance, by Rich Garella and Eric Pape
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