Good Bye Tsukiji​

Good Bye Tsukiji​

On October 11, 2018, Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo will close down and the area where the market is located will quickly be redeveloped to become a transport hub for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Tsukiji market started operations in 1935 and is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It is also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. The market was portrayed in many popular movies, including 2012 Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that revealed to the world the unlikely saga of Jiro Ono, the 93 years old chef that runs a three-Michelin-starred Japanese sushi restaurant in Ginza.

Tuna auctions are maybe what Tsukiji is most known for. Throughout the day, intermediate wholesalers assess hundreds of fresh and frozen tuna before they go up for auction. Following a ritual unchanged for decades, they check fattiness of tail cross-sections in the dim light of their torch lamp and scribble down the lot number of the best animals. After the auction, tunas are cut using hand-crafted traditional knives and dispatched to the next ring of the supply chain.



The fish market will move to a new location in Toyosu waterfront district and precious space will become available in the heart of Tokyo. Since the plans were first unveiled, the project has been delayed multiple times. The last delay was due to concerns about consumers health after important quantities of chemicals had been found in the new Toyosu site.

Paradoxically, the urbanists that layout plans for the capital of the most traditional country on Earth seem not to care about symbols and legacy of old times. Ancient buildings are a very rare sight in Tokyo: many have been destroyed by Second World War bombings or earthquakes. Those that survived will likely be wiped away by Japanese passion for progress and novelty.


More travel photography on this blog


Other media on Tsukiji fish market

The incredible hands: a documentary on Tsukiji fish market and tuna wholesalers

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Let’s get lost – episode three

Let’s get lost – episode three

What happened so far?

In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.

In episode two, after arriving in Ulaanbataar, I meet mysterious Mr. Batar, who delivers me a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser. On an early Saturday morning, I and my British workmate Mark leave the town; throughout the whole day, we will explore a scarcely inhabited territory while trying not to lose our track. We also become familiar with the solid beauty of Mongolian horses, roaming free in the wildland.


Being right there

In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a middle-class man, trapped in a 9 to 5 job he does not like anymore. For a succession of unforeseen circumstances, one day he quits his office and embarks on an adventure on the tracks of Sean O’Connell, a legend photographer who disappeared while hunting the animal whose image no-one has ever captured, the snow leopard.

When finally Walter Mitty meets Sean O’Connell on a frozen Himalayan ridge, the snow leopard is there, in the middle of the zoom lens, just one click away. Oddly, Sean O’Connell, although mesmerized by the unique vision, is not shooting, and this dialog happens:

Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it [the snow leopard shot]?
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here. It’s gone [the snow leopard]

In the strange days we live, when was last time we were “right there”? How much “right there” experience we allow ourselves in one of our average weeks? Are those moments something we look forward to, or we prefer to escape them and comfortably choose the distraction, being it social networks, messengers, noise, other people opinions, scary news on TV, information overflow, a job that does not excite us…

And so we are, me and Mark, my British workmate, in a place named Gun-Galuut, in Mongolia. For a whole day, we have been breathing fresh air and wandering across the vast grassland. Since the moment we entered the Nature Reserve, every trace of human presence has vanished. We continue venturing deeper into this unknown territory, using the profile of the hills or the clouds in the sky to locate ourselves and hoping we will be able to find our way back. All around us, Mongolian horses roam peaceful and free.


 

 


The track becomes rougher and now insinuates at the feet of low promontories, covered with sharp rock fragments. Afternoon sun is going down and the lights around us change, giving the landscape a more dramatic pitch. I decide to look for a viewpoint and see on our left a steep path leading to the edge of a higher hill, possibly accessible to our Toyota. The full power of our four-wheel drive is barely sufficient to climb our way to the top. The car pants and progresses slowly as we gain altitude and approach the end of the ascent. Finally, we get there; I stop the car, turn off the engine,  pull the handbrake and get off, followed by Mark. We are on level ground now: in front of us, the upwards path that took us there finishes into a vertical rocky wall. On the right, at a distance of about fifty meters, we see a natural terrace ending on a cliff top and I start walking in that direction, instinctively attracted by the panoramic opening.

As I get closer, my point of view changes and a chain of mountains starts to appear at a great distance. I am maybe twenty meters away when I see the horse and, at first, I do not understand. He lays on the ground, on a side, you would tell that he sleeps but he is dead. It had to happen not long before, as the hair is still shiny and the body is in a perfect state, except for a little scar on the head, probably caused by a scavenger bird.

Now I am just next to the dead horse and appreciate the harmony of his figure. While I walk around him, the first thing that awakens irrational thoughts is the position of the body. It lies exactly at the middle of the half-circle shaped terrace; his head looks at the view opening from the height of the cliff on hundreds of kilometers of emptiness.

I look at Mark, who has not made it to the terrace and is standing a dozen meters away, staring in my direction.

The second thing is the ascent and how hard I had to push the Land Cruiser in order to get there. For a dying animal, that had to be a hell of an effort.

The wind blows and the sun has gone down; the air is chilled now.

The third thing is the dead horse position, the effort to get there, the absolute majesty of the landscape.

I keep turning slowly around him, observing the scene from many angles, immersed in my thoughts. The view in front of me is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Far ahead, hundreds of identical peaks, crowned by bright white clouds rise up to the sky. The physical space between the dead horse and the mountains is an immense empty prairie where the animal lived in freedom from the very moment he first stood on the ground to his last day when he decided to climb there and look at all that again from a height.

As I continue standing right there, in front of that mystical scene, lights and composition remind me the most accomplished Caravaggio paintings. I have my camera with me, in my backpack and I am looking at award-winning photography material but there is something bigger around me on that cliff and I just want to stay in it.

I look at the horse for the last time, then I look at the far away mountains, turn around and walk away. When I pass by Mark, he follows me and asks: “What do we do?”. I can only tell: “We go home, man. We go home now”.

Let’s get lost – episode two

Let’s get lost – episode two

What happened so far?

In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some rough research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.


Wild Horses

I have an appointment with Mr. Batar, from Drive Mongolia, the car rental company, at Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbataar. When I arrive there from dinner, I notice the Land Cruiser and my man, waiting for me on the door. Batar is a cool dude, his fancy hat and turtle round glasses give him the looks of a Mongolian dandy. After a vigorous handshake, he proposes me to inspect the car, so we walk to the rugged four-wheeler. At a first glance, the Toyota had a fairly good life, one full of adventure but not too harsh. Mr. Batar shows me how to start the engine and that’s it; he seems happy and ready to leave. When I tell him that I am going to Gun-Galuut, he understands that the Land Cruiser is going for an hard-core day and gives me the second chapter of explanation: he shows me how to operate the electric winch on the front bumper, the spare tire, the hydraulic jack and all I needed in case of trouble. Then he looks at me, shakes my hand again and says: “Anyway, I know you can drive”.

I ask Batar how to reach my destination; he takes a map out of the Toyota gloves compartment and points to a spot in the middle of nowhere: “Follow the road, East direction – he says – when you get to the river, turn right. When you see the mountains on your left, go there”. I thank him and ask if there is something I should be aware of driving in Mongolia. Mr. Batar looks at me again and says: “do not drive over a goat. If you kill a goat you’ll have to pay for it”, then he hands me the car keys, wishes me a good trip, turns around and disappears into the fresh night. At no point, he has bothered to check my identity or driving license.

Comes Saturday and after an early breakfast, I meet my co-pilot, in the hotel lobby. Mark is a British workmate, he lives in Bangkok. The night before, he enthusiastically accepted to join in the adventure. When we get in the car I ask him if he knows how to drive an off-road car; he tells me that he has driven once or twice in the past ten years. I start the engine and here we are, cruising through a sleepy Ulaanbataar, direction East. It is seven o’clock in the morning, streets are empty and the sun shines. As the kilometers go by, tall concrete buildings become sparser and are gradually replaced by single-storey constructions. A little later, Mongolian Gers, the local dwellings, start becoming more and more frequent.

The paved road in the direction of Baganuur is comfortable. I relax at the drive of the Land Cruiser and observe the changing landscape passing slowly by. After an hour, we arrive at the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40 meters tall shining complex is a monument to exaggeration but serves the purpose of reminding whoever passes by that the fusion between the war chief and the horse, allowed Genghis Khan to federate the biggest empire in the history of humanity.

We start a slow ascent towards a mountain pass, now the road and the lineup of electric posts that flank it are the only visible signs of human presence. While we keep driving East we become acquainted with the sight of wild horses. They have compact bodies, long tail and mane and most often brown and shiny hair; Mongolian horses are known for their strength and at every winter can lose up to 30% of their weight due to intense cold. Beautiful and admirable animals.

The few signs along the road, all written in Cyrillic, do not provide us any workable information but, according to the map, we have approximately reached the point where we are supposed to leave the main road. We just take a 90-degrees turn and start driving straight in a vast grassland. A huge mineral mine on our right-hand side is the only landmark we use to navigate the otherwise completely empty space. As time passes, the sense of freedom is gradually replaced by doubts on our direction but there is no-one around to help us find our way. Finally, I see in the rear-view mirror a guy wearing traditional Mongolian attire on a motorbike. I stop the car, get off and he comes to meet me: I show him our destination on my mobile phone, only to realize that he can not read Latin characters or understand English. I keep saying “Gun-Galuut”, trying to pronounce the way I imagine a Mongolian would do and finally, our man understands and points in direction South-East. I exchange a dubitative look with Mark, then look at the guy smiling. He smiles back to me and makes a vague gesture spinning his forefinger around. I go back in the car and turn the key while the guy kick-starts his motorbike. My coworker asks me what is happening and I explain to him that we will follow our friend; he seems puzzled by the non-verbal communication that just happened.

Our Mongolian guide drives fast ahead of us.  From time to time he steers his motorbike right into a bump and enjoys a jump. After some time he stops and so we do. I get out of the car and go close to him. He gives a look at South, makes a sign with his hand as if he was putting a glass close to his lips, then looks at the high rocky hills at South East and smiles. I smile, put my hands together and slightly bow my head to thank him for his help. He starts his bike and goes away, headed West. When I get in the car, Mark seems more puzzled than ever as he asks me what we’re doing next. I look at him and say: “the guy told me to keep going until we find a Ger where we could be offered fermented horse milk, then we have to take a left turn and climb the mountains”. My coworker now clearly believes that I lost my mind but after a few minutes driving, we find one lonely Ger; a shy girl hears the noise of our engine, comes out and confirms, non-verbally of course, that the high hills we see on our left are the entry gate of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.


 


As we make our way into it, we realize that the notion of Nature Reserve in Mongolia is different from what we have seen elsewhere: this is not yet another man-made attraction park. There is no dedicated structure,  ranger, patrol car, no entrance gate or fee, not a single road. No-one explains what you will see. There is nothing to explain and the situation could not be clearer: nature owns the place and man is a very rare species.

The travel becomes adventurous: we test the power of Toyota engine to climb a low ridge and look at the panoramic landscape. Snow just finished melting and the yellow ground reverberates against the pristine blue of the sky. Then, we descend and drive close to one of the affluents of the Kherlen, where a herd of Mongolian horses is peacefully watering. The animals let us come close and observe us with curiosity. They seem familiar with human presence and show no visible stress.  I take some pictures and get back in the car.

We abandon the river bank to continue driving in East direction, following a track that softly ascends a hill. As we start sloping down, we see a more prominent trace of human presence: an agglomeration of eight Mongolian Gers, ordered in two lines of four, too neatly organized to be a nomad thing, enclosed by a wooden fence. As we park the car at the front gate, a tall man with a bright red sweater comes to meet us, smiling; he is the owner of the Ger camp and surprisingly speaks a very good English. Mr. Batbold is a biologist, a conservationist and a very busy man: during the winter, the temperature in Mongolian steppe can drop well below -40 degrees Celsius. The camp is open all year and when the snow finally melts, our host has very few days to repair all the scars that ice caused to the infrastructures. Also, he needs to install eight more Gers on their round concrete slabs, to double the camp capacity and revenues during the summer season.

While we have lunch at the ger camp, Mr. Batbold tells about the species of birds and other animals that populate the reserve, then he advises us to continue our exploration towards the mountains. We thank him for the hospitality and get in the Toyota again.

The camp disappears from our views, driving becomes challenging when the path crosses very bumpy sections and I do my best to reduce the discomfort. The landscape around us changes but remains magnificent: lowlands around the Kherlen river gradually morph into hills covered with bright green grass, where goats peacefully graze. Another spring has arrived and the cycle of life perpetuates: all creatures have a few months to recover and build up sufficient energies to survive next winter.

As we glide slowly through this eternal countryside scene, shepherds go up and down the hills, riding their horses with mastery. From time to time, falcons float in the air above our heads. In the total absence of distraction, my thoughts slow down, crystallize, melt with the environment, capture slight changes in the air. Time has stopped here: our Land Cruiser is the only visible sign of modern civilization, the rest would have looked exactly the same if we passed by five hundred years ago.


What happens next?

In episode three we will reach the end of the adventure. We will also have an intimate conversation with a legendary photographer who will tell us what it means to be “right there”.

 

Let’s get lost – episode one

Let’s get lost – episode one

This is, among other things, a travel story. It is about two trips to Mongolia that I did in January and April 2017. As the story is long, I decided to break it into three parts, for an easier reading. I will publish the following two parts on Mondays, at an interval of two weeks.


Where I am coming from

I do not always feel comfortable in modern times because today society and lifestyle tear us continuously apart from what really counts. I feel that we invest a lot of time, money, energy, striving to achieve objectives that do not make us happy. Finding joy in a world that surrounds us with noise and buries us in clutter is not a simple exercise.

In the past, these feelings materialized in a sense of frustration. With time, I learned to focus on what makes a difference for me. I am happy when my dear ones have what they need to live the life they want. I am good when I am surrounded by positive people, when someone cares about me. I like when the wind blows freely, waves crash on a sandbank, the sun sets on the sea. This is all I believe in, the rest does not count.

Combining my personal beliefs with a sustainable job is easier said than done. I would like to do something that inspires people and transform the world into a better place; Today, I am falling short on these objectives but no-one is perfect.

Instead, I work in a company that provides Information Technology solutions to airlines; in my day to day working life, I speak to very different people sharing a common mission: flying aircrafts around the globe. I travel and learn a lot and one day maybe I will find a way to make good use of these experiences. Recently, I heard a quote in the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“, that seemed a nice way to reconcile my job and my quest for happiness. It says: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”. I would argue that life does not need another purpose than being lived every day at the best of our possibilities. Still, the quote sounds overall right.

So as I said, this is, among other things, a travel story.

In January 2017, my work brought me to spend two days in Ulaanbaatar to meet local airline executives. In my imaginary map of the world, before that short trip, Mongolia occupied an unreachable corner: I read many stories and had seen countless images of its open spaces, where horses roamed free and nomadic populations continued migrating on ancestral routes. The day I flew there, I remember hearing the call of the wild as the Boeing 737 approached the landing strip: I was stuck at the plane window looking at the land below. It was white, endless, breath-taking. One day I ventured out for a short walk outside with my workmates; the sun was shining in a wonderful blue sky and the temperature was -36 degrees Celsius. A memorable moment.

When three months later I was sent back to Mongolia, the call resonated again and I decided to listen. Instead of preparing the business meetings, I spent the days before my departure dreaming of a day trip into the wild: at least for a short while, I wanted to get modern life distractions out of my way.

As I started thinking of logistics, one thing appeared sure: if  I wanted to explore Mongolia outback, I needed a reliable car; I remembered the advice of a French friend, who crossed the Sahara desert many times and sailed all oceans; he owns four Toyota Land Cruiser and always told me he would trust his “Toys”, as he called them, under all circumstances. Alcohol addiction shrank his horizons that today are constrained in the slim volume of a “verre a Pastis”, but this is another story and I prefer to think of him as the brave captain he used to be.

 

 

After a quick search, I got in touch with a woman named Deegi, who promised to rent me a Land Cruiser 76 in Ulaanbataar.

To pick a destination, I ruled out places recommended by all websites when searching for “day trip Ulaanbataar”. My attention was caught instead by Wikipedia very succinct description of a place named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve:

“130 km (81 miles) southeast of Ulaanbaatar, has a great diversity of ecosystems even though it has a comparatively small area. The complex of high mountains, steppes, rivers, lakes and wetlands are kept in their original condition. Visitors to Gun-Galuut see vast steppes seeming to meet the sky, the imposing mountains of Baits and Berkh, the homeland of rare creatures, Ikh-Gun and Ayaga lakes, a paradise of birds, Kherlen, the longest river of Mongolia and the Tsengiin Burd wetland, where water and wetland birds lay their eggs.”

The call of the wild resonated more distinctly; when Google Maps failed to locate it, I knew that was the place I had been looking for.

A Toyota Land Cruiser 76 waiting for me in Ulaanbataar, I was headed to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. The dice were ready to roll.


What happens next?

In episode two, we will finally arrive in Ulaanbataar, meet a mysterious man and embark on an adventurous trip to the outback.

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

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”