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Cambogia: omaggio a Terzani

OMAGGIO A TERZANI : la Cambogia, le nuove elezioni e un passato da ricordare

Testi e foto di Daniele Sbampato

Un caso forse, forse no. Il 28 Luglio Tiziano Terzani partiva per il suo ultimo viaggio, quello definitivo, il più difficile, quello che ogni viaggiatore, ogni uomo, vorrebbe lasciare per sempre in sospeso. Il 28 Luglio 2004 è il giorno della morte di Tiziano Terzani, il 28 Luglio 2013 è però anche il giorno delle nuove elezioni che si stanno tenendo in Cambogia. Lui, reporter, giornalista di altri tempi, scrittore, visse in Cambogia i tumulti del post-Vietnam, la devastazione della guerra civile e l’orrenda aberrazione dei Khmer Rossi. Nelle atrocità di quegli anni scoprì il punto più basso dell’animo umano, e anche il suo idealismo vacillò di fronte ai campi di sterminio di Pol Pot e davanti agli occhi senza pietà dei guerriglieri-bambino.
La Cambogia è la terra della disillusione di Terzani, ma per tutti noi dovrebbe rappresentare un monito della storia. Sul passato di questa terra non sono state spese abbastanza parole e ancor più sul presente dovrebbero concentrarsi i nostri tentativi di comprensione.
Un dato su tutti: oggi, nel giorno delle elezioni che probabilmente sanciranno la vittoria del CPP (Il partito cambogiano per la gente), l’età media della popolazione è di poco più di 21 anni.

Direzioneitalia propone un viaggio fotografico nella Cambogia di oggi e di ieri. Uno sguardo che in parte vuole rendere omaggio a Tiziano Terzani seguendo le sue orme, ma che soprattutto vorrebbe promuovere l’attenzione nei confronti di un paese tanto magnifico quanto sfortunato.


READ THE REPORTAGE IN ENGLISH!!!! Read it under the pictures. Enjoy!

Tiziano Terzani called them “Ghosts”. Cambodians, survivors from a war they had never belonged to. Those who, stumbling on their unsteady feet, walked away from their homeland; no more home, no more family, only a confused thought rising with the determination: to go ahead.

In 1979 the Vietnamese army set free Phnom Penh and the whole country from the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge. After 5 years, Pol Pot’s dream to create a new mankind, according to a deformed interpretation of Marx’s theories, came to an end. Almost three million people lay beneath the red soil, resting in mass graves or charnel-houses built inside caves.

The Angkar’s aim was the extirpation of every past symbol, from religion to history, from culture to political ideologies. Especially the family, always the nucleus of the Cambodians’ life, was extirpated, separating wives from their husbands, mothers from their sons.

The new men claimed by the Khmer Rouge would have been the perfect soldiers, loyal, ruthless, being unaware of the difference between good and evil.

Khmer Rouge used to divide families, enrolling children or adolescents into their army. Young people were educated to obey the Angkar’s code, growing their sense of belonging to the organization. Their minds were so deeply subdued to the father’s rule (Pol Pot’s), they were sent out to spy villagers, searching for a betrayer or simply for unusual speeches.

They began playing a game whose trophies were the survival or the death of other people.

Tales of men with black uniforms and red foulards, who murdered wielding batons. Today Cambodian kids utter the history of their country as if it was an ancient legend. They were born after the Vietnamese occupation, often abandoned or neglected by parents: the war has weakened family ties. Saha is a young “tourist guide”; he learnt English while speaking with tourists, telling them about Phnom Sampeu, the killing caves. In this place, hundreds of people were murdered and their bodies thrown away. A small charnel-house is the silent witness to humanity’s woe. 

Monks are coming back to bring a spark of spirituality and education. In a country where religion, arts, and history were completely wiped out. Schools are born inside the temple complex; most of them are built thanks to crowd-funding or by “generous donations” from political parties.

July 28th, Cambodian voters are deciding whether to end or continue the rule of the CPP. The Cambodian People’s Party has run the country for over 28 years and its leader, Prime minister Hun Sen, is one of the most controversial personalities of the 21th century. Firstly enrolled with the Khmer Rouge, he became the leader of the rebellion against Pol Pot supported by the Vietnamese government.

Often pointed out as a puppet in the hands of Saigon, when the regime was overthrown, he was nominated Prime Minister in a country in which the distinction amid rebel and nationalist, Khmer Rouge or farmer, became meaningless. 

After the Khmer Rouge extermination, most of the remaining population was completely deprived of an education. The killing field showed the bones of the Cambodians intellectual elite: whoever wasn’t capable of climbing a palm tree, or those who wore glasses (symbols of an intellectual life), were murdered because useless or dangerous for the Pol Pot’s regime. Furthermore, the elderlies, the ethnic minorities, and the disabled were slaughtered, while the survivors exchanged the little they were left with for food and rice. Hun Sen inherited a country of ghosts, in which allies and enemies walked away, together, to cross the border to Thailand.

Tiziano Terzani, one of the greatest Italian reporters, witnessed the Cambodia’s downfall. In 1979 he tried to cross Poipet, the border between Thailand and Cambodia, to record the Khmer Rouge’s coup, and there some young warriors arrested him under the charges of being an American. He stood a whole day leaning against a wall under the threat of the Khmer Rouge guns. He saved himself thanks to his knowledge of the Chinese language: a Chinese merchant, who knew the khmer dialect, convinced the kidnappers to release him.

In his books he remembers the kid who grinned pointing the gun against his chest.

In 1985, when Hun Sen came to power, a third of the population had vanished, and the median age was below 18 years old.

In these years, Hun Sen strived to centralize the power into one party, the CPP, through a smart use of the media, sometimes resorting to violence. Hun Sen’s detractor criticized his abuse of power, election irregularities, and sale of land to foreigner investors. Most of the opposition leaders were charged with odd and fabricated allegations leading to their losing their parliamentary immunity. This has been the fate of Sam Rainsy, leader of the homonymous party, forced to a self-imposed exile until last week when the king Norodom Sihamoni granted him a royal pardon.

Despite the fact the election is taking place as early as July 28, Sam Rainsy is going to run a flash-campaign to catch the attention of especially the young Cambodians, whom are looking at him as a new man projected into the future and close to the Western world.

Today, walking in Poipet on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, it’s difficult to think this is the same place that saw Tiziano Terzani risk his life. Tall hotels and strip of casinos rise amid the two countries, turning this area into a gambling destination. In Siem Rap, nearby the monumental temple of Angkor Wat, shimmering restaurants and hotels are symbols of a weird modernity. Do these buildings belong to Cambodians?

No, they don’t. Chinese and Western entrepreneurs have purchased the land for pennies on the dollar. 

The police have often evicted people from their land; no longer than one year ago some villagers begged to receive aid from the US from the roofs of their houses.

But what can the Western world really do for Cambodia?

The Vietnam War and the anger against the Unites States and their invasive policy that sprung from it were the prime drivers behind the Khmer Rouge madness. Pol Pot and his followers were an extreme reaction to the philo-Americanism practiced by the government. Their vision of communism (a Western ideology) applied to the Cambodian reality led to bloodshed.

Today the country is running on another tricky track: the rushing economic growth boosts differences amid the rich and the poor, corruption is spreading inside the political class, the media are tightly controlled by the CPP and the land dispute problem is far from being solved.

Presumably on July 28 the elections won’t bring such radical changes, these sons of “ghosts” keep looking beyond the borders, dreaming of Thailand, new technologies and the US. Furthermore, the growing incoming tourism is nourishing this process of westernization, which is not going to be stopped. 

The question is, how a country with such fragile foundations will bear these capitalistic ideals of life and economy? Is it really possible to look at the future without first recovering the lost values, traditions, and without shedding light on the recent history?

Another foreign influence, another risk.


“We are allowed to stop speaking about the past only when we have truly learnt its lessons”.

Tiziano Terzani


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