Talking about bridges

Talking about bridges

History reminds me of a river: on most days, sitting nearby a bridge, we could see it calmly flowing before our eyes. However, in times of storm and heavy rains, a bridge is where danger occurs.


Many years ago, I became very close to an adorable girl from a town named Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During one of our nocturne conversations, that often took place facing the Mediterranean while sitting on Nice old town pebbles beach, she told me the story of Mostar bridge.

Stari Most, “the old bridge” in English, was built in 1566 by Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of famous architect Mimar Sinan and stood for 427 years. Croats deliberately destroyed it using mortar shell bombing on 9 November 1993, during the ethnic conflict that opposed them to Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sinan disciple engineered its aerial pull to last forever and statics laws prescribed it could only be annihilated by an equal and opposite push of human hate. By shattering the old bridge, Croats intended to eradicate memories of pacific co-existence of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic populations living on the banks of Neretva river.

Between 1991 and 2001, several conflicts tore the territory of the former Republic of Yugoslavia leading to the death of approximately 130000 persons. It all happened a few kilometers away from our borders: in Puglia we saw F104 taking off from Italian air force bases, ready to bomb Serbian positions during Kosovo war and rockets were deployed on our beaches in protection from retaliation.

I did not understand such slaughter: Yugoslavia was a developed and prosperous country that colonel Tito managed to steer firmly for almost forty years after the end of World War II, navigating through cold war perils while maintaining peace among many different ethnic populations living within its borders.

Flashback to the sixteenth century, when great Mimar Sinan, Hayruddin master, disseminated Ottoman Empire of remarkable landmarks. One of the most accomplished displays of his craftsmanship was the bridge on Drina river in Višegrad, built in 1577 and named after Mehmed Paša Sokolović, that became four centuries later the splendid scenery where the epic plot narrated by Ivo Andrić in The Bridge on the Drina unfolds.

Artillery had been silenced for a while at the time when I read the novel. I found there answers to all my questions about wars in ex-Yugoslavia: stories of the generations living near Višegrad bridge were the best illustration of how Bosnia-Herzegovina was cursed by both history and geography, condemned to be one of the sharpest friction points between Arab and European civilizations, “impersonated” in that region by Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.  My Bosnian ex-girlfriend mom used to say that in Balkans every generation has to live through three wars; according to this rule current generations are safe, what about the future ones?

Few writers reached Ivo Andrić heights in representing events that shaped Western world history and among them I surely count Ernest Hemingway, one of my youth literary heroes. Talking about bridges, “Old man at the bridge”, first published in May 1938 and later included in “The first forty-nine short stories“, is a little shining literary gem where, in purest Hemingway style, no word is redundant. Bridges are a great writers affair.



Old man at the bridge

An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him.
“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”

There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.


Post Scriptum

Ernest Hemingway had a passion for Spain and a long time ago inspired me for a 5000 Kilometers drive through Andalusia and Algarve, two regions that, despite being in the heart of Christian Europe, were ruled for centuries by Moors and went under the name of Al-Andalus. Spanish Catholic kings finally conquered back Al-Andalus but for long the lower part of Iberic Peninsula, likewise Balkans, was a perilous bridge between civilizations. During my road trip, I walked across the bridge that joins the two parts of Ronda and was impressed by its daring architecture.  This story started flowing under the stones of the old bridge in Mostar and comes to its end on Puente Nuevo in Ronda; The great Sinan would have loved it.

(Ulaanbataar, 23 of April 2017)

16 snapshots – March ’17

16 snapshots – March ’17

My destiny is not yet to settle down and as life takes me to unexpected places, I look at things around me with endless curiosity. There is so much beauty to be found in this world.

All pictures but the last one (that was sent to me by a friend who went diving in Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia) are taken with my phone and have been slightly enhanced.


More travel photography on this blog

Walk away

Walk away

 “I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”
― Bruce Chatwin


Far away from home

There once was a king in India, a Maharajah, and for his birthday, a decree went out that all the chiefs should bring gifts fit for a king. Some brought fine silk, some brought fancy swords, some brought gold. At the end of the line, came walking a very wrinkled little old man, who walked up from his village in a many days journey by the sea and as he walked up the king son asked: “what gift did you bring for the king?” and the old man, slowly opened his hand to reveal a very beautiful sea shell with spirals of purple and yellow, red and blue.

The king son said: That is not a gift for a king! What kind of gift is that?”

The old man looked at him slowly and said: “Long walk, part of gift”.



Your turn now

It works better in nature; in a park or in a wood, preferably on a day when the sky is blue and the air is fresh. Leave your mobile phone at home or in your car. If you can, wear comfortable clothes and shoes and forget your looks as they will not be of any use. You are out for a walking meditation and, for a few minutes, please just be alone with yourself. Once you arrive at the place you chose, stand still for a short while: allow your body to get acquainted with the surroundings. Then start walking, keeping a pace slightly slower than normal.

Make a few steps in a straight direction and start relaxing your body: relax your neck and shoulder; if it helps, draw a few circles with your head: look at your right, then down, then left, finally up and repeat slowly.

There is no hurry: for a few minutes, you won’t be running after any short-term objective or self-satisfaction.

Put your attention on colors, lights, sounds surrounding you, your body temperature, the breeze caressing your face, your relaxed muscles and start breathing deeply, a bit slower than usual. Then pay a little more attention to the rhythm of your breath. Breathe in deeply and, as you fill your lungs with fresh air, raise slowly your chin. Then breathe out slowly and do it again and again. At a certain point, while you breathe, a smile should appear spontaneously on your lips; do nothing and leave it there. You are now connected to your body.

Now connect with the ground and your walking nature: remember, you have to walk slightly slower than usual. At every step, push your mind in your foot as it makes contact with the ground. It is important that you feel the contact between your foot and the ground at each step, while your mind waves circulate freely between your breath and muscles, the lights, colors, sounds around you.

Now it is time to establish a trustful link with yourself. While you walk, allow your mind to explore: some say that meditation is about emptying your mind while I would say it is the opposite:  be open to any kind of thoughts without confronting them. Maintain the connection between your feet and the ground and continue breathing slowly; let your thoughts blow freely like the wind in the open space of your mind and do not cherish one more than another. Be fair to them all: do not get attached to any particular thought. If anything from inside or outside comes harming your mindfulness, acknowledge its presence in a detached way and continue walking and breathing slowly.

Go on like that for a few minutes, step by step, breath after breath, thought after thought; be attentive to what happens and stay connected to everything around and inside you. Then, just slow down until you stop, look around for the last time and finally close your eyes slowly. It is over.

It works better in nature and it does not take much time. All you need is your feet, lungs, thoughts, some fresh air, your chin and lips; it is really simple. Get off your car, let go of your phone and sorrows. Embrace and enjoy your thoughts, breath, smile. Go out for a walk with the best of yourself.


Credits

I heard the story that opens this post in a TED talk named “Swallowing the sword, cutting through Fear” by Dan Meyer. If you have a few spare minutes, watch it. Among other things, you will learn how to make the impossible possible and the difference between danger and fear.

I would like to credit Joshi Daniels for the picture titled “En route”, above.

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Once were heroes… Fallen angels

Once were heroes… Fallen angels

This is the second of two blog posts about Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

In Once were heroes… shining stars, we revisited the stories of Usain Bolt, Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps, maybe the most memorable Rio heroes, that combined for a total of 9 gold medals.

All medals have a reverse and Olympic ones make no exception: while the three men I just named ascended the highest heights of sports glory, four girls were hiding in a dark corner at the opposite end of the trajectory, sharing a tale of falls and painful defeats.

It is now time to look at the other side and into the life of few athletes whose names are not to be found on Rio Olympic champions lists.

Falls – Part I

Pole vaulting is a raffinate exercise of subtlety. In order to excel, an athlete has to perfectly control every fraction of his body and mind, while melting together speed, precision, grace, power, guts, iron muscles, lightness. In no other track and field specialty, a human body falls from a higher height than pole vault.

Yelena Isinbayeva jumped thousands of times in the long decade where she dominated this discipline and was trained to fall like no other. Nevertheless, the fall she had to experience while preparing for Rio, was of a kind she never endured before. A kind that hurts badly.

Nothing in Yelena childhood and family background anticipated that she would become one of the most successful athletes ever. Born from a humble family, her father is a plumber, her mother a shop assistant, she approached sports at the age of 5, when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in her hometown Volgograd, Russia. At that time, they both worked full time and were looking for a way to keep Yelena busy.

She trained as a gymnast until at the age of 15 she attained the height of 1.74 meters and became too tall to be competitive in gymnastics. One day, her coach suggested she tried track and fields and pole vault but Yelena objected that she had never heard of such discipline. Her coach told her that if she did not like it, she did not have to continue. She ended up listening to the advice and her brilliant career was started.

Yelena Isinbayeva was undefeated for almost six consecutive years between 2004 and 2009, establishing an amazing 30 world records along the way. She was the first woman to pass the mythical bar of 5 meters, both indoor and outdoor and improved the world record by a total 24 centimeters. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2004, 2005 and 2008.

Many coaches analyzed Yelena jumps and observed that what sets her apart from any other woman specialist is her exemplary mastering of the so-called “L-Phase”, where it is vital to use the pole’s rebound to convert horizontal speed into height. They credited her gymnastic background for such a better gesture. Yelena explained her approach to pole vaulting with simpler words: “I like that I can control my body” she said once. “I like to fly. I like those feelings when you’re over the bar. It’s more beautiful than other track and field events.”

I witnessed one of her world records a summer night in Monaco in 2008, where she raised the bar to 5.04 meters and passed it. Yelena is a very communicative athlete: I remember that night her eyes full of joy and absolute determination.

In an unconventional move for an athlete of her caliber, who can easily make several hundred thousands of dollars at each appearance, in 2010 Isinbayeva decided to take a break from competitions.

She came back one year later, to face a fiercer pool of opponents. After conquering a bronze medal in 2012 London Olympic games she started cultivating the wish of a retirement in style, after Rio Olympics, a gold medal around her neck.

Another couple of years passed, Isinbayeva took another break to give birth to her daughter Eva in June 2014. In December of that same year another member of Russian athletics team, Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, appeared in a documentary on German television uncovering a large-scale doping fraud: Russian athletics officials supplied banned substances in exchange for 5% of athletes earnings and falsified tests together with doping control officers. Successive investigations revealed implication of Russian government, RUSADA (Russia anti-doping agency), secret services, WADA (World anti-doping agency), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). Two former directors of RUSADA died in 2016; one of them had just approached the newspapers telling that he would publish a book on Russia state doping.

The scandal eventually led International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian track and field athletes from 2016 Rio Olympic games. In August 2016, WADA reported that Yuliya Stepanova’s account, containing confidential information like her personal address, had been hacked while no other athlete profile had been accessed. Stepanova and her husband had fled Russia after appearing on German television in 2014; after giving a fundamental contribution to the fight to re-establish transparency in sports, today they seek asylum in foreign countries and fear for their lives. They have been completely abandoned by sports institutions.

The ban was the sunset of Yelena Isinbayeva Olympic dreams: she was denied the possibility to compete, despite a spotless 14 years career where she never tested positive to an anti-doping examination. In a press conference, she said: “I will never agree with, and never forgive, my exclusion from the Olympics”. Paradoxically, being banned as a result of a doping scandal, she has been elected by  fellows to serve an 8-year term on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission.

After Rio, during the Russian nationals, Yelena Isinbayeva posted the 2016 world leading jump of 4.90m and finally announced retirement.

Falls – Part II

The problem, in sports today, is that often the show on display on our TVs is pure fiction. We pretend to believe that what we see is real, but we know that it’s not true. Athletes take forbidden substances that enhance their performances and in doing so are covered by organizers, sponsors, sports institutions, that all happily sing with one voice “the show must go on”. Illegal betting alters results of football, tennis and many others sports worldwide.

From the very moment sponsors and television money invited themselves to the party and started crunching sportsmanship ideals, the race between doping and anti-doping technologies is as intense as the chase to new records.

The reality is that Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 track and field were not the only cheats. Others have been unmasked during the games, many have probably gone uncaught, some will fall and will have to return their medals in the years to come when anti-doping tests will be repeated on samples collected in Rio. In this situation, believing in sports today is almost impossible.

I said “almost” because from time to time, we witness stories like the one of Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin.

The episode has become iconic, but I wish to recall it to those who missed it.

Heat 2 of women 5000 meters. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin line up with favorite Almaz Ayana to chase a place in the final. In the second part of the race, while athletes are grouped in a confused bunch, the two girls collide and crash on the blue track.

Hamblin remembers: “(one moment after the fall I was down, thinking) What’s hit me? Why am I on the ground? And then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, ‘Get up, get up! We have to finish this!’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this!’ ”.

The voice was D’Agostino’s who jumped back on her feet and was about to restart running when she saw that Hamblin was still not moving. Nikki raised herself and the two girls resumed the race, but D’Agostino was clearly hurting and soon collapsed again. This time, Hamblin was there to lend a hand.

Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino fall in 5000m Heat 2
Abbey D’Agostino stumbles on Nikki Hamblin in 5000m Heat 2
Get up! We have to finish this!
Get up! We have to finish this!
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino crying on the finish line
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino crying on the finish line
D'Agostino in a weelchair greeted by Hamblin
D’Agostino in a wheelchair greeted by Hamblin

4 and 1/2 laps, almost 2000 meters, were still to go. Hamblin injury being way less serious than D’Agostino’s, Nikki passed the finishing line well behind the other athletes, in 16:43.61. Exhausted, she turned around and saw D’Agostino staggering down the track; Abbey finally crossed the line at the last place, more than two minutes after the winner, with a time of 17:10.02.

Nikki Hamblin waited for Abbey D’Agostino on the finish line, passed her arms around the other’s neck, then the two girls cried together.

Abbey D’Agostino had run for more than two kilometers with a torn cruciate ligament and was in too much pain to leave the track on her own feet. When race officers urged for a wheelchair Nikki helped Abbey to sit down and kept looking at her as she was carried away.

“I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that” Hamblin later declared and her words are the best possible end of the story.

The metaphorical medal that Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin won in Rio is more precious than Schooling, Bolt and Phelps ones and even more deserved than the one denied to Yelena Isinbayeva. It is a medal made of transparent, clean and fresh air, a substance that in today sports is much more needed and rare than gold.


Original images of this sportsmanship tale can be found here. Watch them, they are really refreshing.


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Once were heroes… Shining stars

Once were heroes… Shining stars

Lights went down on 2016 Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic Games a few weeks ago and athletes from different disciplines are again spread around the world.

National football championships replaced badminton, Judo and synchronized swimming on our TVs and sport fans habits are back to normal routines. However, how amazing it is, every four years, to observe sports stop worldwide, as stars athletes move in the Olympic village along with perfect unknowns and compete for the same objective! Olympic Games are a comet: a bright periodic collision between ideals of sport and reality of money.

In this cycle of two posts, I will take you through the stories of a handful of Olympic heroes, examples of talent and dedication that enlightened Rio nights. Today I start with two phenomenal athletes, bearing destiny in their names.

Catch me if  you can

Bolt noun (LIGHTNING):  a flash of lightning that looks like a white line against the sky

“I am a living legend”, Usain Bolt said at a press conference on 12th of August 2016, after dominating the 200 meters final in Rio and no one could really argue. The statement came just before the curtain fell on his last Olympics, enshrined by Jamaican relay team win in 4*100, leading Bolt to his third triple-gold medal.

As of today, Usain Bolt has nine gold medals in Olympic Games, 11 in Athletics World championships; he holds the world record in 100m, 200m and 4*100m. Before him, no sprinter had even come close to such records, and the one that will equal such performances is probably not born yet.

Usain is today 30 years old and the remaining of his athlete career is likely to be a sweet celebration of his legendary gestures, a few more displays of his trademark lightning sign, retirement and immediate induction into track and field hall of fame, a “best of all times” tag close to his name.

After his tenure is over, will his records be what we’ll remember best of Usain Bolt?

History will tell but, besides his monster performances, the Jamaican surely deserves to be remembered for the way he turned track and field sprint disciplines upside down. From the very first moment he appeared on the running track, all in him seemed to be coming from another world, starting from his features making him better suited for volley or basketball than sprint. Usain is 1.95m and, while his competitors are often short and very compact, he is slim and abnormally tall. His reaction times, not the best in class, and his body structure slightly handicapped him in his late days in 100m. On the other hand, his unusual height makes him simply unbeatable in the 200m, once he can fully develop his speed.

Usain Bolt persona is unusual too, to say the least. Before him, sprinters used to be arrogant, nervous, and unapproachable. When the Jamaican appeared on the scene, he started a carnival of his own: he would smile and play with cameras in the most terrifying moments, just before Olympics 100m starter gunshot. During the race, he would relax, slow down, hit his chest in a dominating sign, turn and look around, all before the finish line. Then he would smile, again and again. In case you missed it,  give a look to Rio 200m semi-finals finishing and appreciate how Usain plays with Andre De Grasse in a hilarious “catch me if you can” movie remake.

The show is not over, yet, but the end is coming closer. After Usain Bolt retirement grim athletes will likely take possession of sprint again and world-class athletics will no longer be as fun. He has been the fastest but also one of the coolest dudes on Earth and for almost a decade he managed to make us believe that 100m in around nine seconds is as easy as a smile.

Maybe this is the biggest lightning Bolt legacy.

23 to 1

School verb [ T ]: to train a person or animal to do something

I have been living in Singapore for almost three years and, since I moved here, I am intrigued and fascinated by this small country. What startles me most is how everything is carefully planned and relentlessly executed.

This systematic approach led Singapore to great achievements: the country is today a full-scale lab where social, technological, economic experiments happen every month, most of the time ending up in an improvement of collective conditions of living. Of course, the medal has a dark side, but I am not going to talk about it in this post.

Before Rio, Singapore constant performance improvement score was not showing up at all in sports. After participating to 15 previous editions of the Games, Singapore Olympic medal count was stuck at a sad zero (gold medals), two (silver), two (bronze).

At the opposite side of Olympic success spectrum stood Michael Phelps, the almost unbeatable swimmer who, before lining up for his fifth Olympic games in Rio had already won an amazing 18 gold medals, holding the enviable title of most decorated Olympian of all times.

Allow me to roll back time to a morning in 2008 when U.S. swimming team visited a Singapore club where a 13-years old local kid, named Joseph Schooling, was training. Phelps was part of the team and back then had already won six gold medals, more Olympic metal than a talented athlete can dream of.

Schooling recalled that morning in a recent interview: “They came to the country club that I trained at, everyone just rushed up and was like “it’s Michael Phelps! It’s Michael Phelps!’ and I really wanted a picture … It was very early in the morning and I was so shocked, I couldn’t really open my mouth”.

After that morning, Phelps continued dominating the scene for the years to come: the only upset came from South African Chad Le Clos, who beat him in London 2012 Olympics 200 meters butterfly. After London, Phelps announced his retirement but came back in 2014, when he started preparing for next Olympics in Rio where he wished to right his wrong towards Le Clos.

One year after meeting Phelps, inspired by the American and supported by his family, Joseph Schooling, the young Singaporean, moved to the United States, first going to Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before attending the University of Texas, where he became a member of the Texas Longhorns swimming team, one of the top collegiate swim programs. Across the years, Joseph underwent continuous improvement in butterfly style swimming. He easily qualified for Rio 2016 Olympics, where he was bound to meet Michael Phelps again, but this time, the encounter was set to happen in the pool.

While everyone was looking at the unfolding of rivalry between Phelps and Le Clos, an underrated Schooling dominated his 100m butterfly semifinals on 11th of August. When swimmers positioned themselves on the starting blocks again for the final the day after, Goliath (Phelps) was in lane 2  and David (Schooling) in lane 4.

Many know the end of the story: Schooling claimed the win against his personal hero Phelps in one of the most surprising Olympic results ever. He led the race from the start and in an unseen final rush, Phelps, Le Clos and László Cseh of Hungary, touched the wall together, exactly three-quarters of seconds later, clinching a collective silver medal.

During the victory lap after the race, Schooling turned to Phelps and said, “Dude this is crazy, out of this world, I don’t know how to feel right now”. Phelps smiled and simply replied, “I know”.

Upon his return to his country, Schooling, the first ever-Singaporean Olympic gold medalist, was acclaimed like a God. He received a prize of one Million Singapore dollars (~730000 US $) and a parade was organized to celebrate his glory.

Today Olympic gold medals count stands at 23 (for Phelps) against 1 (for Singapore), but for this little country, such a slim account could not taste sweeter.


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Fisherman Blues

Fisherman Blues


Blue boats on a blue sea.
In the inlet of thought
suppressed,
they look but do not see.

The treasure of the depths
caught in the net of the eye.
The scent of life
captured by the memory.

A tranquil blues
of the water and the sky
sparkles like the priceless gems
gathered in peace.

The moments lost
in perpetual motion
immerse in the stillness
of the silver eve.

Copyright © 2016 Kat


Note: Sea is fascinating and soothing. It speaks a mysterious language of travels, colors, culture, traditions, pain and pleasure. I wanted to share images captured in different places and I asked my friend Kat in the Afterlight to put her words on my pics. And she sang the fisherman blues.

Thanks Kat, vaya con Dios!

If you speak Italian, you can also read Mare s. m. [lat. mare]

 

When the others go away

When the others go away

This is the first post in my blog new “Role Models” category.

An Italian proverb goes more or less: “lucky is the country that does not need heroes” and I fully buy into it. Superheroes belong to Marvel comics and many strong political leaders, often sung by today “journalists”, routinely walk over worn out democracy rules. Nevertheless, being part of the big human race circus can be confusing and role models are reassuring when we fail to see with clarity. I turn to them when facing complex situations or my own contradictions, and ask myself: “what would HE do?”; the answer I get in return is usually the right one. I have very few, they are quite unconventional, and I am happy to introduce them to you. Of course you’re not obliged to admire them like I do.

Before we start

It is time to take a few stands and give some credits:

Number 1: I usually illustrate this blog articles with relevant photos, but in this case, images will be neutral. This story is about a war surgeon whose life mission is to repair broken human bodies. Navigating the web, I found lots of pics documenting effect of cruelty on men, women, kids, babies. Those images are disturbing and I do not intend to shock or wake morbid curiosity. World Wide Web is out there for those who feel the need to see more.

Number 2: I will not promote anything else than expressions of creativity, such as bands, movies, books, writers, photographs, on this blog. Period.

Number 3: Just to immediately contradict the previous statement, at the end of the article you will find a link to a non-governmental organization website. This is a one-off and I am doing it because maybe after reading the story, you will think that these guys need support.

Number 4: Article below was written and belongs to , and appeared on the online version of The Guardian online edition on 14th of July 2013. You will find a few more links are at the end of the article.

Meet Gino Strada

Three years ago, the photographer Giles Duley walked into the Salam centre hospital in Sudan and was taken aback by what he saw. It was unlike any hospital he’d seen anywhere, let alone a country as desperate and chaotic as Sudan.

It performed world-class open-heart surgery free of charge, it was calm, ordered and spotlessly clean. “I mean absolutely spotless,” says Duley. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” At its centre was a beautiful garden. And there, in a corridor, he found the only unruly aspect of the entire operation: the man who created it all, a bearded, straggle-haired Italian called Gino Strada, leaning against a wall, chain-smoking.

In the studio in east London where Duley was photographing him for the Observer last week, Strada was still straggle-haired, still chain-smoking: “Though I can stay 10 hours at the table in the operating room and I don’t even think about a cigarette,” he says stepping outside to have a quick one between doing the interview and having his portrait taken. “I don’t even think about it until it’s over.”

The operating room is where Strada lives. He’s a surgeon, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who should be living comfortably in some well-to-do Italian suburb, but who instead has devoted the past two-and-a-bit decades of his life to living uncomfortably in some of the worst places on earth.

Aged 65, when other men’s thoughts might turn to retirement, Strada spends months-long stints in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or any other of the 47 healthcare centres worldwide set up and run by Emergency, the NGO he founded. Although both Strada and Emergency are practically unknown in the UK, he has quietly got on with doing the world’s dirty work: Emergency provides free high-quality medical care for the victims of war, 90% of whom are civilians, and the majority of whom are poor and have nowhere else to go.

“We think everyone has the right to be cured,” he says with the air of a man who’s been saying the same thing for decades. But then he has been doing exactly that. Which in part explains the world-weariness that accompanies him like a particularly faithful dog. (“He may appear tired and cynical on the surface,” says Duley, “but underneath he never relents.”) Strada has seen the very worst the world has to offer.

Even the most committed doctors rarely manage more than a few months in a war zone. Strada has done years and years. Emergency, in its 18 years of existence, has treated 5 million people under some of the most dangerous conditions in the world. He personally has operated on 30,000 people; an almost unimaginable number, I say.”Yes, but I always find it very, very interesting. When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy to go to the hospital. When I worked in Milan and I woke up in Italy, I wasn’t that excited; it was more like a routine.”

Emergency is doing extraordinary work, and yet that is not the most extraordinary thing about it – not the thing that struck Duley so forcefully when he walked into the hospital in Khartoum. The Salam centre for cardiac surgery is not some bush hospital patching people together with sticking plaster and a couple of aspirin: it offers world-class free cardiac treatment to patients from across Africa. (Many of its patients are young: rheumatic fever, which is endemic in Sudan and neighbouring countries, destroys the heart valves and disproportionately affects children and teenagers.) It’s the only hospital of its type on the entire continent and Strada’s view, which challenges most people’s ideas about how “aid” works, is quietly revolutionary. He believes that Emergency’s hospitals need to equal if not better those in the west.

But nobody believes that, I say. No other organisation is saying this.

“If you think of medicine as a human right, then you cannot have some hospitals that offer sophisticated, very effective, hi-tech medicine,” he says, “and then go to Africa and think, ‘OK, here’s a couple of vaccinations and a few shots’. Do we think that we human beings, we are all equal in rights and dignity, or not? We say, ‘Yes, we are.'”

At Emergency, he says, “we want to establish good hospitals, but how good should a hospital be to be good?” After a lot of debate, they decided the measure should be: “if it’s good enough that you would be happy to have one of your family members treated in it”.

Emergency’s hospital in Sudan is so clean that infection rates aren’t just lower than in hospitals in the UK and the US, they’re “lower by a power of 10”. And the cardiac centre is just the first in what he hopes will be a network of these specialist hospitals, all centres of excellence, that will stretch across Africa, the next being a paediatric facility in Uganda, designed by his good friend, the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

There’s an almost Fitzcarraldo quality to Strada – the Werner Herzog film about the man who pulled a steamship over a hill in order to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle. People thought Strada was nuts “and worse” when he decided to build a cutting-edge, world-class cardiac hospital in the Sudanese desert. “They wrote all kinds of things about it and me in Italy.” But he did it anyway. A children’s hospital on the shores of Lake Victoria designed by the man who co-created the Pompidou centre is relatively straightforward in comparison.

But then Strada negotiated with the Taliban at a time when Nato said negotiating with the Taliban was impossible, in order to operate a hospital behind their frontlines. He considers himself a surgeon above all else and, as a surgeon, he just likes fixing things.

“Emergency is just not like any other NGO,” says Duley. “I’ve worked with so many of them, but it’s just profoundly different in the way it treats people with such dignity and such respect. The hospitals are such oases of calm, they’re incredible.”

It’s impossible not to make Duley a part of this story, because he has championed Strada and Emergency’s work. He’s passionate about getting their story heard. During his visit to the Salam centre in Sudan, Strada urged him to visit Afghanistan, which Duley did. While he was there, as we’ve covered previously in the Observer, he was blown up and lost both legs and one of his arms. (Strada feels terrible about this “though it’s incredible to see Giles now, how it’s just made him even more determined”.)

“I knew that the first story I did afterwards would get a lot of attention,” he said. “And, for that reason, I knew I wanted it to be about Emergency.” It’s only because of Duley’s urging that Strada has stepped out of the shadows, appearing at two events in London last week.

And there’s no doubt that Strada’s work deserves to be better known. In Afghanistan alone, it operates four hospitals and 34 clinics. It has opened three during the past month. Strada says that the Red Cross has pulled 95% of its personnel out of Afghanistan “now the war is over” and Nato forces have built not one civilian hospital. “And the war is not over! The fighting is getting closer and closer to Kabul.” The casualty figures were up last month, he says, by 40%. We went to war in Afghanistan. Our government did so on behalf of us the people. And it’s been left to a small Italian NGO to mop up our dirty work.

“It’s absolutely criminal… I mean, you know Nato forces, they have their own back-up system. Their own medical facilities. And for the population there is nothing left. And even more than that, the Afghan government has to record the cost of the services international aid organisations provide, so it’s going to pay in the end. Very few can afford treatment, and for all the others there’s nothing. Therefore, if you’re injured or you’re sick, you just die, period.”

Opening and running one of his hospitals for three years costs €3m (£2.5m – “or the cost of three western soldiers for a year”). Drones – the victims of which they’re seeing in increasing numbers, at least 40% of them children – are just another obscenity. “Particularly if you think that thousands of miles away someone is putting down a killing list. The Nobel peace prize is signing a killing list every week.”

What do you mean?

“I mean, President Obama. He’s personally signing a killing list. They have squads of assassins, professional assassins, who kill people. Is this the idea of justice of the new millennium, that someone gets killed because someone else decided this one deserves to be killed without a trial, without pause, without nothing? Just crazy, crazy. It’s another human way to wage war. It’s not a human one, but this one is particularly nasty and particularly cruel.”

But then Strada believes that war should be abolished. Abolished?

“It has to disappear from human history,” he says. “Same as slavery had to disappear from the human history… and today the concept of slavery is disturbing.”War should disturb us equally, he says. It makes absolutely no sense. “It’s very peculiar to the human race and it’s crazy because what you are destroying is humanity… When you operate on children and teenagers, you ask yourself what the hell do they have to do with war? I mean, these people, they don’t even know why a war is fought around them, and they don’t even know who’s fighting whom.”

He reserves his harshest judgment for “humanitarian wars”. “Whoever speaks about humanitarian war should be eligible for a long stay in a psychiatric institution. It’s complete nonsense. No matter what people say or think, the end result is that 90% of victims are civilians.”

Emergency programs
Emergency programs

There are few people who can talk with the moral authority of Strada. He has earned the right to be listened to. Few people have seen the things that he has. Far fewer have done anything about it. He challenges you to think differently about things you thought you knew about (the inevitability of war, the inequality of suffering) and simply refuses to accept the status quo.

Duley is right. The world-weariness is a front. And there are signs that the world is starting to notice a little. A documentary short about the Salam centre, Open Heart, was nominated for an Oscar this year and Strada found himself flying from Afghanistan to the Academy Awards. But, given the scale and scope of his work, it seems ludicrous that he’s not better known.

He travels continuously. He rents a house in Venice but is there for only a few weeks of the year, for only a few days at a time. He’s had open-heart surgery himself: a quadruple bypass after a heart attack he suffered while under fire from Saddam’s forces in Iraqi Kurdistan a number of years ago. And in 2009, his wife, Teresa, with whom he co-founded Emergency, died.

Has it been difficult continuing alone? “It has, although it might sound strange, but it gave a bit more strength because we didn’t want to waste everything that Teresa had given. She developed Emergency in Italy, and we now have 4,000 volunteers there, and these people decided to support Emergency’s work because of Teresa.”

His daughter, Cecilia, now continues her work, and Strada is back on the road. Don’t you ever think sometimes you should be at home in Venice tending your roses? “It’s a nice idea” – he says – “but I’m a surgical animal. I like to be in the operating room.” The roses will wait.

What did we learn?

Hearing a statement such as “war should be abolished” you might be tempted to dismiss Gino Strada as one among many idealists. But when the others go away and the noise of battlefield no longer resonates in your TV, he stays. He is to be found always in the same place, the operating room, fixing human bodies, living by his beliefs and helping others, most of the time in silence. It might not be possible to build a better world, but he is fighting hard every day not to make it too worse. Respect.

What else?

If you want to learn why Gino Strada launched an Emergency program in Cambodia, read Smile Cambodia on this blog.

Here you can learn more about Emergency and maybe help them.

Afghanistan, when the others go away is a short movie about one of Gino Strada ideas: bring medicine students to Afghanistan to complete their studies in a war hospital. The movie is captivating, but it contains disturbing images. Also, it is in Italian.

Another interesting article on Emergency in Afghanistan appeared in New York Times Magazine online version on 18th of May 2012. Read with care, content is unsettling.

Don’t stop Tardelli

Don’t stop Tardelli

This post is an “emotional transfer” experiment.

Any psychologist could explain how who we are is the result of experiences that were instrumental in developing our personality; soul is like film in photography and bright moments we live, especially when we are kids or teenagers, leave permanent marks on it. From the moment we step into adult age, we keep eating Proust Madeleines for breakfast, every day. Most of the times, we just pretend we don’t care… we’re big guys (or girls) now.

“From the moment we step into adult age, we keep eating Proust Madeleines for breakfast, every day. Most of the times, we just pretend we don’t care…”

Those marking episodes are often very personal and would hardly make sense if we tried to explain them to our acquaintances. Still, individuals that grew up in the same time and place share collective memories. There is a scene in movie “Goodbye Lenin!” where the main character desperately looks for perished stocks of pickles, easily available in East Germany during the cold war. His mom felt in a coma before Berlin wall collapse and had recently awakened; surrounding her with Communist era memorabilia, he wishes to recreate for her an emotionally comfortable landscape. Whoever grew up in Eastern Germany and neighboring countries still associates old Trabant cars, pickles and certain Communist songs to childhood: if childhood was good, they will smile when they see a Trabant.

In this post, I will share with people who grew up in other places, one of the most defining moments for Italians, especially men, today in their mid-40s. I would like you to feel at least a little bit what we felt in that long summer of 1982.

I was born in Puglia, southern Italy, in July 1972 and back then I just turned 10; outside of Italy, eyes of the world in summer of ’82 were probably looking at short and deadly Falklands war between Argentina and Great Britain; I remember TV constantly reporting huge casualties on both sides.

I should not say, but in Italy we really did not care about Falklands war. If you found yourself walking on Italian streets in the night of 11 of July, you would have thought that some strange bomb had killed the whole country population while leaving buildings, cars and everything else untouched. That night we were ALL watching the football World Cup final.

Italy had a difficult preparation for the competition and was clearly an underdog. In the second round robin, we faced the two best teams, Argentina and Brazil and no one would ever have bet a dime on us. Surprisingly, we won both matches. Yes, in Italy, when speaking about 1982 football World Cup squad we say “We”. You would believe that there were 50 millions of Italians on Spain pitches that summer. Still today, some of us mentally spend a few refreshing minutes on those sunny pitches every year.

“In Italy, when speaking about 1982 football World Cup squad we say “We”. You would believe that there were 50 millions of Italians on Spain pitches that summer.”

So we find ourselves playing the final against Deutschland team, packed with stars and led by mighty striker Karl Heinz Rummenigge.

And-we-kick-their-ass-big-time

Paolo Rossi scored our first goal and deserves a story of its own. Then at the sixty-ninth minute, Gaetano Scirea passes the ball to Tardelli, just outside of the penalty area. He adjusts it on his left foot and, while fading, shoots a precise, beautiful, strong strike which the keeper cannot reach.

And then Tardelli starts running across the field. The whole Italian team runs after him but for a long moment, no-one can catch him. Marco Tardelli keeps screaming his incredible joy in the air. This image is timeless and still moves our souls almost 35 years later. Every Italian ran with Tardelli that afternoon; we were young, bold and shameless and we would have loved if that run could never stop.


Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile at 1982 football world cup in Spain

“Every Italian ran with Tardelli that afternoon; we were young, bold and shameless and we would have loved if that run could never stop.”


Many years ago, I read a collection of short stories by Gabriele Romagnoli and one of the novels was a tribute to that precise moment of summer of ’82. It’s a dialog between two players, in a locker room lost in the middle of some Italian province. I’ll do my best to translate without making too much of an offense to the writer.

Don’t stop Tardelli

They are the last two, all the others are already in the corridor, waiting to get on the pitch. The right wing is nervously tying and untying his shoe strings, then he beats his cleats on the ground.

The left-wing rolls his head back, closes his eyes and holds the hanger.

Right wing is ready to go; he is almost getting up but left wing starts talking, still.

Left wing: “What if they did not stop him?”

Right wing: “They did not stop who?”

Left wing: “Tardelli. What if they did not stop him after he scored the goal in World Cup final? You know, we watched that scene a thousand times on TV: he runs shouting, shaking  his fists, runs so fast, those spirited eyes…”

Right wing: “So what?”

Left wing: “Then the others reach him and drag him down. But what if they did not do it? What if no-one stopped Tardelli?”

Right wing: “And? What would have happened?”

Left wing opens his eyes.

Left wing: “If he kept running, with that orgasm inside, if he went out of the stadium shouting, people would have followed. He would have kept running with all that force. He would have never stopped, millions of people behind him, running after a winner who wants to win, again and again. That’s it! If we all followed Tardelli, would that have changed the world?”

Right wing looks at him and shakes his head.

Right wing: “Nothing would have changed, he would have felt down on the sideline. A player is a player and does not get out of the pitch. No-one would have run after him!”

Left wing (nervous): “Oh, really? Well, if today I strike the winning goal, don’t even try to stop me!”

Right wing gets close, puts a hand on his shoulder, looks in his eyes.

Right wing: “No winning goal today, dude. We fixed this match, we’re bound to lose”.

End of the story

Gaetano Scirea died in 1989, in a car accident while scouting local football talents in Poland.

We still call Paolo Rossi “Pablito”, to remember those Spanish nights.

Tardelli eventually got stopped that afternoon, but he never really got out of the pitch. 35 years later, it’s still common to see him running on TV, young, bold and shameless.

Italy won another title in 2006, after kicking once again Deutschland ass. But no football World Cup will be like 1982. Ever.


Other media on Tardelli and 1982 football World Cup

If you speak Italian and wish to complete the Amarcord experience, you should also:

If you want to understand how Paolo Rossi could be convicted in a match-fixing scandal and then be the best scorer in 1982 football World Cup, read “Viva l’Italia!” on this blog.

Non Fermate Tardelli

Sono rimasti solo loro due nello spogliatoio, gli altri sono già nel corridoio, in attesa di entrare in campo. L’ala destra slaccia e riallaccia le scarpe. Batte i tacchetti sul pavimento. L’ala sinistra tiene la testa rovesciata all’indietro, gli occhi chiusi, le mani aggrappate a due attaccapanni. L’ala destra è pronta, accenna ad alzarsi. L’ala sinistra parla senza muoversi: “E se non lo fermavano?”
“Se non fermavano chi?”
“Tardelli. Se non fermavano Tardelli dopo che aveva segnato il gol nella finale dei Mondiali. Sai quella scena vista mille volte in tv: lui che corre urlando, i pugni chiusi, le gambe a mille, la faccia da pazzo”
“Sì, e allora?”
“Poi arrivano gli altri, i compagni, e lo tirano giù. Ma se non lo avessero fatto? Se non avessero fermato Tardelli?”
“Beh? Che cosa sarebbe successo?”
“Ecco l’ala sinistra apre gli occhi Se avesse continuato a correre con quell’orgasmo dentro, se fosse uscito dallo stadio urlando, e la gente dietro, via, con tutta la forza, senza più fermarsi, milioni di persone dietro uno che ha vinto, con la voglia di vincere ancora. Ecco, se fossimo andati tutti dietro a Tardelli, sarebbe cambiato il mondo?”

L’ala destra lo guarda, scuote il capo: “Non cambiava niente, cadeva da solo sulla linea di fondo. Un calciatore è un calciatore, non esce dal campo. E nessuno gli andrebbe dietro”
“No? Beh, se oggi segno il gol della vittoria, tu non provare a fermarmi”
L’ala sinistra gli si avvicina, gli mette una mano sulla spalla: “Nesssun gol della vittoria, Tardelli, questa partita è venduta. Venduta a perdere”.


More sport stories on this blog

Once were heroes… Shining stars: the amazing tales of Usuain Bolt and Joseph Schooling

Once were heroes… Fallen angels: more stories from 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smile Cambodia

Smile Cambodia

Siem Reap and ancient Angkor

It was March 2014 and I was lounging on a couch in a hotel named Indochine, in the small town of a Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was sipping a drink by the hotel pool after a day spent visiting ancient Angkor archeological site and, as I often do on a trip, I was reading about history of the place on the internet, when suddenly the cruelty of mankind struck me, like a punch in the stomach.

Siem Reap is known to South East Asia travelers for being the closest town to Angkor, the ancient capital of Khmer empire. Its streets are not paved; dry heat and wind raise dust clouds and make breathing difficult for those venturing out in the hot hours. Besides Angkor Wat, the town has a charm of its own and among its landmarks, I noted the French market, with its typical colonial layout, now lined up with tourist restaurants and the old market stalls where dried fish, colored vegetables, spices and Kampot pepper can be bought for as little as 1 USD.

Siem Reap is crossed by the river that bears the same name. The river banks host terraced restaurants where travelers and locals mingle and dine. While going for a stroll by the river banks at sunset, dim electric lights appear here and there while daylight goes down and the town finds itself floating in an uncommon darkness, reminiscing Indochine French colony times.

Ancient Angkor area is a place that forces Westerners, born and bred in a culture of European cultural supremacy, to reconsider their beliefs about art, religion and many other things.


Angkor Wat site plan


While the archeological site is often referred to with the name of the most well-known temple, it encompasses a wealth of other amazing heritage buildings.

Angkor Wat temple initial design and construction took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Khmer king Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king’s state temple and capital city. Toward the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu center of worship to Buddhism.



Thanks to Naomi Leeman for her sketches above.

The outer gallery of the Angkor Wat temple measures 187 x 215 meters (614 x 705 feet). On the second level, it measures 100 x 115 meters (328 x 377 feet). The inner gallery is a 60 x 60 meter (197 x 197 feet) square area. The tower above the central shrine rises 65 meters (213 feet) above the ground. These dimensions bring Angkor Wat to top the ranking of biggest religious buildings in the world.

Despite the fact that the temple of Angkor Wat was never abandoned by the Cambodians and continued to be an important spiritual center for hundreds of years after Angkor capital city and Khmer empire collapse, a widespread belief wants that French explorer and researcher Henri Mouhot, “discovered Angkor” in 1860.

I smile thinking of Monsieur Mouhot, in 1860, “discovering” the biggest temple in the world and I like to imagine this happening in the middle of a worshipping ceremony; once again, well done the Colonial history-makers!

I leave to Alison Carter and her well-documented blog the easy task to demonstrate how the notion of “discovery” is usually associated to previously unknown things.



Like everybody else, I was in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.

And here comes the part that is hard to swallow, that I re-learned by the hotel pool in that March afternoon, thanks to modern technologies and Wikipedia that gives you access to instant knowledge about everything, everywhere. I say re-learned because, while reading, childhood memories awakened and I remembered how words “Khmer Rouge” often resonated in Italian TV news on in the late seventies and sounded tragic and mysterious back then.

All facts below are quoted from “Khmer Rouge” Wikipedia page.

Also, the movie The Missing Picture by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities of Khmer Rouge and won the  Un Certain Regard section top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Where Khmer Rouge came from

During the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement, which had little, if any, connection to the hard-pressed party in their homeland. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot, who rose to the leadership of the communist movement in the 1960s, was born in 1928 (some sources say 1925) in Kampong Thum Province, northeast of Phnom Penh. He attended a technical high school in the capital and then went to Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics (other sources say he attended a school for printers and typesetters and also studied civil engineering).

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge remained largely unchanged from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. The leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities.

The Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge’s Central Committee during its period of power consisted of:

  • Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) (died 1998), “Brother number 1”, General Secretary from 1963 until his death, effectively the leader of the movement
  • Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot), “Brother number 2”, Prime Minister, arrested in 2007, high status made him Pol Pot’s “right-hand man”, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ieng Sary (Pol Pot’s brother-in-law) (died in custody awaiting trial for genocide, March 14, 2013), “Brother number 3”, Deputy Prime Minister, arrested in 2007
  • Khieu Samphan, “Brother number 4”, President of Democratic Kampuchea, arrested in 2007, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) (died July 21, 2006), “Brother number 5”, Southwest Regional Secretary, final Khmer Rouge leader, died in custody awaiting trial for genocide
  • Son Sen (died 1997), “Brother number 89”, Defense Minister, Superior of Kang Kek Iew. Assassinated on Pol Pot’s orders for treason.
  • Yun Yat (died 1997)
  • Ke Pauk (died 2002), “Brother number 13”, former secretary of the Northern zone
  • Ieng Thirith, (died 2015) arrested in 2007, sister-in-law of Pol Pot, former Social Affairs Minister, deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012.

Destruction of a country

Khmer Rouge, captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 marking the beginning of their four years rule on Cambodia.

  • During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, while executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state.
  • Estimates as to how many people were killed by the regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of Cambodia population).
  • Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into “Old People” through agricultural labor.
  • In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about “two or three kilometers” outside the city and would return in “two or three days”. Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the “threat of American bombing” and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would “take care of everything” until they returned. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people.
  • The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population (“New People”) into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labor camps. Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare.
  • Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries were seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death.
  • The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.
  • They did not believe in western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead; because of the famine, forced labor, and the lack of access to appropriate services, there was a high number of human losses.
  • Commercial fishing was banned in 1976, resulting in a loss of primary food sources for millions of Cambodians, 80% of whom rely on fish as their only source of animal protein.
  • Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity
  • Schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.
  • Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments was executed.
  • Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.
  • Deaths during the Khmer Rouge era reduced the Vietnamese population in Cambodia from between 250,000 and 300,000 in 1969 to a reported 56,000 in 1984.
  • Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were not ethnic minorities but ethnic Khmer.
  • People perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses which, according to the regime, meant that they spent too much time reading books instead of working, would be killed. Ironically, Pol Pot himself was an educated man with a taste for French literature and spoke fluent French.
  • Many artists, including musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Serey SotheaPan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands were persecuted.
  • “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.
  • Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, were targeted.
  • People would be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.
  • All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs.
  • The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
  • Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other.
  • Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately.
  • Almost all freedom to travel was abolished.
  • Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy; instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune.
  • All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with.
  • In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.

Fall of Khmer Rouge

On April 18, 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages, mostly in the border town of Ba Chúc. Of the 3,157 civilians who had lived in Ba Chúc, only two survived the massacre. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.

By December 1978, due to several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Kampuchea, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed.

On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members, invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade

Despite its deposal, the Khmer Rouge retained its United Nations seat, which was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old compatriot of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary from their student days in Paris, and one of the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name “Democratic Kampuchea” until 1982, and then under the name “Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea“. Western governments voted in favor of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea retaining Cambodia’s seat in the organization over the newly installed Vietnamese-backed PRK, even though it included the Khmer Rouge. Margaret Thatcher stated: “So, you’ll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea.”

Sweden, on the contrary, changed its vote in the U.N. and withdrew its support for the Khmer Rouge after a large number of Swedish citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives demanding a policy change towards Pol Pot’s regime.

Across the years and until 1998, Khmer Rouge remained active, thanks to military and political support from China, U.S., Great Britain and many others.

By 1980, Eastern and central Cambodia were firmly under the control of Vietnam and its Cambodian, while the western part of the country continued to be a battlefield throughout the 1980s and millions of landmines were sown across the countryside.

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force behind the Khmer Rouge insurgency.

In 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990 and it did so in 1989, having allowed the government that it had installed there to consolidate its rule and gain sufficient military strength.

After a decade of inconclusive conflict, the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government and the coalition of rebel forces opposing it signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament. In 1992, however, the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting, boycotted the election and, in the following year, rejected its results.

There was a mass defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, when around half of its remaining soldiers (about 4,000) left. In 1997, a bloody factional fighting among the Khmer Rouge leaders exploded, ultimately leading to Pol Pot’s trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in April 1998. Khieu Samphan surrendered in December.

On December 29, 1998, the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the 1970s genocide. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured.

Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era. Nonetheless, their generation is affected by the traumas of the past.

Members of this younger generation may know of the Khmer Rouge only through word of mouth from parents and elders. In part, this is because the government does not require that educators teach children about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools. However, Cambodia’s Education Ministry started to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009. China has defended its ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “The government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than 70 countries”.


End of the story

This is the end of the story: in just four years of ruling, Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate one fourth of Cambodia population. They left a nation inhabited by ghosts and orphans, where men and women bringing the scars of landmines are not an uncommon sight. Still, sun rises and sets every day on the timeless beauty of ancient Angkor stones and kids play up and down those stones and have beautiful smiles on their faces.

I wish Cambodia a future that smiles as brightly as those kids. I hope men will not reach similar levels of cruelty again. I hope things like these will never ever happen again.


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Credits

Alison in Cambodia (by Alison Carter): a blog about archaeology and related issues in Cambodia

Naomi Leeman: design and illustration

Reuben Teo photography: for the beautiful image of sunrise at Angkor Wat opening this post

 

Continue reading “Smile Cambodia”

Viva l’Italia

Viva l’Italia

Mark Twain once wrote:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Well, not much prejudice will be left in me when, in a few years, I will reach a moment, where I will have lived longer abroad than in Italy, my home country.

Having spent a long time lately hearing languages I do not understand, eating food I would not be able to cook or struggling to absorb cultures that do not resonate in me, a light and mellow nostalgic feeling brought me to question myself on the meaning of being an Italian far from Italy, today. Seen from Asia doesn’t Italy look like a small boot, caught in the middle of its walk between Central Europe and the doors of Africa and Middle East? And still, even from a distance, how vivid is this beautiful country in my heart, how much it permeates the way I speak, move, live my life!

So, I asked myself: “what is it like being Italian?” and the first answer that came to me, when I finished sipping my espresso was: “it is simple”. No need to overthink it. Italians are loud, lively, seductive, unreliable, full of passion and everybody will expect you to be like that. Just conform to expectations and they will be happy. They will probably go back home and tell their friends they met a real Italian and he was just like in the movies. Being Italian gives you an extra boost that can make people a bit happier and I am not sure Germans have similar stuff in their toolbox, for example.

But if you scratch the surface a little, the reality is bitter-sweet and Italians know how to suffer, as well. To make it simple, our Greek cousins were stranded on our coastline long ago and found landscape and climate enjoyable. They brought with them an unequaled aesthetic taste that Romans managed to corrupt and sublimate at a slow pace, in the millenary cycle of Empire rise and fall. Armored with genius, Romans ruled the world and after the Empire slowly succumbed its own contradictions, the soft spot they left in the middle of Europe teased appetite of people from everywhere, who arrived or left Italy to plunder, trade, paint, love, write, sail, plot, play music, build cathedrals, conquer. After all this simmering of arts, ambition, passions, Italian people were born uneven, attracted by good and evil in a symmetric way; our eyes relentlessly chase sin, beauty and other unreachable ideals, like in a Piero Della Francesca perspective.

“After all this simmering of arts, ambition, passions, Italian people was born uneven, attracted by good and evil in a symmetric way; our eyes relentlessly chase sin, beauty and other unreachable ideals, like in a Piero Della Francesca perspective”

The French expression “pourriture noble” could be translated into “noble decay” and designates a bacterium exploited in winemaking to produce some of the sweetest and most delicious wines. Italy is undergoing a noble decay process for centuries now, and cycles bring us ripe fruits such as Renaissance and more sterile periods.

“Italy is undergoing a noble decay process for centuries now, and  cycles bring us ripe fruits such as Renaissance and more sterile periods”

So, this is it: for those who want to grasp how tragic and beautiful Italian public life has been in recent past, I have put together faces and images that are a hymn to tragedy and creativity, to Italians we love and admire. To those that from time to time, still managed to awaken our weary pride and distracted us for a moment from our important occupations, like flirting or cooking spaghetti ai frutti di mare!

If I shot a movie on Italy, it would be like this

Original Soundtrack

Francesco de GregoriViva l’Italia

Starring: in order of appearance

Enzo Ferrari and Gilles Villeneuve

Gabriele Salvatores Mediterraneo, Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1991

Architect Renzo Piano

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti‘s Il Gattopardo, from Tomasi di Lampedusa novel

Director Claudio Abbado

Sergio Leone and Robert De Niro at C’era una Volta in America screening

Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren on Otto e Mezzo shooting

Fiat 500 – Urban scene in Florence

Paolo Rossi and Enzo Bearzot at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Sprinter Pietro Mennea

Giorgio Armani, an icon of style

Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita

Songwriter Fabrizio De Andre’

Years of lead

Bud Spencer and Terence Hill

Enzo Bearzot and Sandro Pertini at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Vittorio Gassman on his Vespa

Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese

Iconic Tuscany

Songwriters Giorgio Gaber and Enzo Jannacci

Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider

Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica

Legendary Vespa Piaggio scooter

Nanni Moretti on his Vespa in Rome

Writer Dino Buzzati

Writer Umberto Eco

Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Vlora ship in Bari, 8th of August 1991

Milo Manara sketch

Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both killed by the mob in 1992

Gilles Villeneuve, arguably the most spectacular F1 driver ever, and his Ferrari

Writer Italo Calvino

Songwriters Lucio Dalla and Francesco De Gregori during Banana Republic tour in 1979