Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Thursday, 18 March 2010
If a member of the Cu Chi village guerillas, which included young girls, was to kill a number of American soldiers, they were classed as heroes - "American Killer!". The Cu Chi people were from a peaceful rural area outside Saigon where there were many farms. When the American soldiers came in the Vietnam war and tried to infiltrate the region to capture Saigon they never reckoned they'd have such a difficult job with the Cu Chi people. The Cu Chi defended their homeland by tunnelling underground to hide all the villagers when the American army bombed and came with their tanks. They trapped any incoming battalion by setting traps of landmines and more traditional contraptions previously used to catch large animals. The tunnels they created spanned 250km squared and were on three levels, some more than 9 metres below the surface. They had underground rooms where they cooked (only in the morning because the smoke from the cooking coming out through an air hole, could be masked by the morning fog) and treated their sick, and they had special larger rooms for ladies who were pregnant and the elderly. The height of the tunnels is only 80cm on average and 60cm wide and they are formed purely from the compacted soil (it's very clay like here). It was an ingenious idea because it worked. There are remnants of American tanks and bomb shards all over but they were unsuccessful in their attempts to take the area. If they indeed found an entrance to the tunnel system and tried to get down it they would have found it very difficult to manouevure because of the lack of breathing space and any source of light would make navigating the tight corners almost impossible, not to mention that tight corners means guerillas can be hiding round them. At any one time there were approximately 2000 people 'living' underground in hiding. When we're invited to go down into one of the tunnel systems we're immediately aware of how hot it is underground and the tight space means we have to scamper, crouched through the dark and sometimes jump down into another level, then clamber back up to the next.
When there's no light up front (there are electric lights every now and then) it goes pitch black and it's impossible to see which way the tunnel is going, because it does twist and turn. A very claustrophobic experience, even for someone like me who doesn't normally suffer from it. And to think that some of the tunnels were less than half the size in diameter, the guerillas had to pull themselves through on their fronts and even that, for a small Vietnamese, must by tiny.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)12.03.10 - 15.03.10
The Run up to the Vietnam War (excerpt from the displays at the War Museum in Saigon)
'In the situation where the French army got more and more bogged down (they were attempting to hold on to Vietnam after the second world war) the U.S.administration strove to help the French colonialists. In September 1950, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, was activated in Saigon with the first U.S.army personnel operating in Vietnam. In May 1953 General Henri Navarre, General Chief of Staff of the NATO ground forces, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina. The "Navarre Plan" was drawn up with the ambition of "taking the initiative to defeat the Viet Minh within 18 months." U.S. vice president Nixon came to Vietnam to inspect the fulfilment of the "Navarre Plan" in Dong Giao in October 1953. After this trip the American administration accepted to provide France with $385 million of military aidsin the fiscal year of 1953 (equal to 60% of the whole war expenditure). In February 1954, while visiting the French troops in Dien Bien Phu, General W. O'Daniel, former U.S. Army Commander in the pacific, chief of U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group - Indochina, declared, "I am very enthusiastic about the prospect of war." From November 1953 onwards, Navarre started to build the group of strongholds of Dien Bien Phu with the intention to attract and wipe out the regular forces of Resistance to gain a decisive victory in the theatre of war in Indochina. After fighting day and night for 55 days, on 7th May 1954, the People's Army of Vietnam completely smashed the Dien Bien Phu group of fortresses and captured alive 16000 French troops among whom were one major- general, 16 colonels, 1749 officers and NCOs. General de Castries together with the headquarters of the Dien Bien Phu campaign surrendered unconditionally to the liberation army. On 20th July 1954 the participating parties to the Geneva Conference signed the agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Indochina, declaring the recognition of the independence, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam. After the Geneva Agreements, the U.S. administration gradually eliminated the influence of France by the pro American elements. Ngo Dinh Diem was sponsored by U.S. administration to become "President" of the so-called "Republic of Vietnam". In May 1959, the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, promulgated Law 10/59 authorising the special military courts to sentence to death on the spot those who were branded as "endangering the national security" in essence they were patriotic people, struggling against the savage and cruel repression of Ngo Dinh Diem. Backed up and encouraged by U.S. administration the Ngo Dinh Diem regime tried to sabotage the Geneva Agreements systematically, refused to hold consultations on general elections for unification of the country, made indiscriminate arrests, detentions and killings of patriotic people. Not contenting themselves with the repressive and murderous U.S./Ngo Dinh Diem regime, people from all walks of life in South Vietnam gathered together to form the National Front for Liberation of South Vietnam in order to overthrow the dictatorial regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, putting an end to the American intervention, building a democratic regime and advancing towards peace and reunification of the country. Fearing the collapse of Ngo Dinh Diem regime, the U.S. authorities set out the "special warfare" strategy, increasing their henchman military forces in number together with strengthening modern military equipment and weapons aswell as training and command assisted by the American military advisors. Military equipment and weapons were carried into Vietnam in great quantities by the U.S. administration. In December 1961, 33 (C) H-21 C twin rotor helicopters were brought to Saigon. In February 1962 the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was formed under the command of General Paul D. Harkins. By the end of 1963 the U.S. administration sent 16300 military advisors to Vietnam. The Staley-Taylor plan anticipated that the "pacification" of South Vietnam would be completed by end of 1962. Besides intensifying the mopping-up operations, the Staley-Taylor "pacification plan" also proposed the "national policy" of setting up 16000 "strategic hamlets", which in fact were huge concentration camps where the U.S. authorities and the Saigon governement hoped they could keep strict control of the people by trampling on their right to freedom of residence, freedom of movement to earn their living in a normal life. The U.S. administration "escalated the war". On 2nd August 1964 the U.S. army fabricated a story about the so-called "Gulf of Tonkin Accident" accusing falsely the Navy of Vietnam Democratic Republic of having attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox to give the U.S. congress pretext for approving the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" authorising the U.S. president to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States". The U.S. president Lyndon Johnson gave order to attack the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a sovereign nation, thus violating flagrantly the United Nations Charter. The number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam increased from 385300 in 1966, to 485600 in 1967, and peaked at 549500 by the end of 1969.'
Sunday, 14 March 2010
- The moto drivers and many young men wear sparkly caps that sit high on their heads- very fashionable!
- Crowded scooters and trucks carrying loads with people perched on top.
- Ladies and young girls seem to favour brightly patterned pyjamas as day dress. Go figure!
- Traditional wooden buffalo carts are still the favoured means of transporting farm produce and of course there are many oxen to be seen ploughing and munching their way through peoples' front gardens.
- litter- everywhere
- school children on pushbikes that are far too big for them, peddling their way to and from school in their clean white shirts and dark blue skirts or trousers, often barefoot.
Above fourteen of the beds are harrowing photos of the last victims the Khmer Rouges hadn't quite managed to finish off when they were ousted from power in 1979. The photos show the victims with their heads bashed in, sometimes arms removed and all lying in pools of their own blood. They now rest in peace in specially dug graves in the former playground of the school. An exhibition of the mug shots the Khmer Rouges soldiers took of each and every one of their victims shows hundreds of little girls, with their hair cut in the same bob style as would've been compulsory at the time, small boys and men and women of all ages including the elderly.
Some look scared but most stare blankly at the camera, their souls already lost to the knowledge of their eventual demise. Again it brings it home how recent this all was when you see, in some of the pictures, the girls have modern makeup on, allbeit it's streamed across their face through tears, and men who are trendily dressed in wide collared patterned 70s style shirts. These people were rounded up and brought here because they'd displayed some kind of association with the new people or city life. Even if you wore spectacles you were deemed to be an intellectual. We saw the tiny makeshift cells they were kept in and this building B made me feel nauseous and terrified of what I was seeing.
The spaces were only big enough to lie in and there were dried red pools of blood still visible on the tiled floor. We saw bullet holes in the walls and the numbers above the cells doors, crudely painted, corresponded to the numbers on the tags around the prisoners' necks in the photographs.Driving through the Cambodian countryside, past the stilt houses of farm workers who still don't have running water and perhaps electricity, their kids not attending school and having to work very hard just to feed their family, it's a tremendous tragedy what happened to the Cambodian people and the legacy it's had. People were split from their families, forced to work as slaves and brainwashed into the cult of following the Angkar (Khmer Rouges). The children were used as idolistic examples of the truth of the revolution, having been easily brainwashed because of their innocence and effectively used for seeking out so-called traitors. We wonder how these people are now. Can they live with themselves after they tortured and butchered their kin? In most cases they feared for their own life, knowing that if they didn't commit the atrocities they were ordered to they would suffer the same fate. Over 30% (1.7 million) of Cambodia's population was lost to the Khmer Rouges and in the subsequent years, when the Vietnamese stepped in to fight them off and formed a new socialist government, over 600,000 people dies in the famines that spread across the country in the chaos of families trying to find their way home and crops being lost because of all the bad agricultural practices of the Khmer Rouges. Western countries, in a position to help, criminally left Cambodia on it's own for the next 16 years. They were too involved in the pursuit of bringing down any threat of communist takeover and a Vietnamese government signified just that, so they even provided sanctuary for the Khmer Rouges, siding with them internationally.
Although Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, it's actually quite a small city. This probably comes from the impact of the mass genocide that was inflicted on the country's population by Pol Pot's regime in the late 70s. The city still has a few remnants of old French colonial buildings from the 1940s that have been left to rack and ruin. They were no doubt occupied by aristocrats before the Khmer Rouoges took over the city but were deserted as the armies bombarded the civilians and the destruction of a country and it's population began. The central area sits on the banks of the Tonle Sap River which flows alongside the giant Mekong and the Sisowath Quay is currently being paved and cleaned up as it's a focal point for the city, looking back on the Grand Palace and National Museum. We visit the museum in the 36 degree heat and get to see some of the more accomplished statues that were missing on our tour of the ancient city of Angkor. A lot of the heads of the Hindu gods which were gone at Angkor appear here on pedestals, some most probably looted at some point or other. It was exciting to see an example of the gold and gem 'jewellery' which was embedded into the stone carvings at Angkor. Once upon a time every statue and stone portrait in the place was adorned with a gold headress, earrings and necklaces. It must've been fabulous!
Saturday, 13 March 2010
This is an excerpt from a leaflet given to me by a street vendor, Tok Vanna, in Siem Reap when I bought a guide book from him. 'Tok Vanna is a 41 year old Cambodian with a wife, two children and a job as a street seller- but like thousands of other Cambodians, he has been badly disabled by one of the many landmines littering the country. He told the BBC's Kate McGeown his story. It happened in 1998. I was a government soldier in command of three or four men near Bauon Village, in the western province of Battambang. It was a mad time. There were three separate resistance groups- the Khmer Rouge, supporters of King Sihanouk and those following (former premier) Son Sann. I didn't actually want to be a soldier. In fact only about half of us wanted to do the job- many people were forced to fight against their will. On the morning of the accident, I'd been training new recruits on jungle warfare techniques and survival skills. I was taking a break from training when it happened. I went to get some food, but there was thick foliage all around us, and I had to clear a path to get through. I bent over to pick something up in the way- how was I to know it would go off? I don't remember much else after that. When I woke up, I looked down and saw that both my hands had gone. I wanted to kill myself- take away my own life. There was no future for me. What could I do? How could I get a job, get married, support my family? How could I even eat? There was a grenade in a bag attached to my waist. It was there from the training exercise earlier. I arched my body round and tried to reach it. I wanted to pull out the pin, but my friend saw me just in time and took the grenade away. I was taken to a government hospital in Phnom Penh, where the authorities paid for my treatment because I was a soldier. I didn't have enough to eat though, and my family had to send me food parcels. Gradually, after the pain subsided, I stopped wanting to kill myself and dared to think about having a future. I was in that hospital for nine months. When I eventually left I was too embarassed to go back to my family and let them feed me and pay for me. So I stayed in Phnom Penh and became a beggar for over a year. I was very unhappy during that time. My mother eventually came to the city to find me and she took me home and looked after me. But I had to go back to Phnom Penh for more treatment on my arms, and I used up all my money on hospital bills and ended up back on the streets. This time an aid worker found me and brought me to Siem Reap. I was given a job working with Rehab Craft Cambodia (run by and for Cambodians with disabilities), selling local crafts and gifts to tourists visiting the temples at Angkor. Life was beginning to get better- I got married and now have two children. But I really wanted my own business, so in 2000 I gave up my job with the charity to set up my own stall selling books on the streets of Siem Reap. I'm very happy now I have this job. Life is worth living again. But there are many others who are still suffering as a result of the landmines, both here in Siem Reap and throughout Cambodia.'
We learned that there are still approximately three million landmines scattered across the Cambodian countryside. When they were laid there was no map made to show their whereabouts so they could be anywhere from the side of the road to someone's back garden or farmland. This has resulted in countless accidents with the local people being critically injured, having limbs blown off or, worst case, killed. We visit a Landmine Museum set up by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who now works tirelessly to deactivate the mines and clear the land so that it's safe for people to use. He knows how to disarm the devices by gently clearing the land around it and performing a controlled explosion. He's notified of potential dangerous areas by locals who have suspicions or, have unfortunately had a run in with one. On display at the museum are a multitude of different kinds of devices he's uncovered and disarmed, including, worryingly some huge rockets, five feet long, which have most likely been dropped by the Americans and failed to go off. Some of the landmines are very small, the size of a can of coke, and some have target areas that can reach up to 250m with a 25m radius proving fatal to the victim. In the museum there's information on the Ottawa Agreement which requires countries, when they sign up, to cease all use and manufacture of landmines. Horrifyingly the US, China and Russia are among a few who haven't signed up. The US insist that their offensive strategies in Korea require the continued use of landmines. We come to the conclusion they must be a very effective way of preventing the enemy from sneaking up on you. Aki Ra has been through a lot, soldiering for both sides and himself laying a lot of the landmines he now attempts to clear. He doesn't want to dwell anymore on the horrors of the recent past and instead wants to look to the future of a safer, more prosperous Cambodia. This is a characteristic common to the current population who must've witnessed much tragedy and loss. The country is up and coming now, and although it's still very dangerous to stray off the road in case of landmines, there's a growing wealth surrounding tourism and the majority of people seem to be getting back on their feet. There's still a large deficit in the numbers of children attending school, it's not compulsory, and we see a lot of young ones involved in street selling to tourists mainly. And the social care system is non existent so people with disabilities have no help. There's a lot of evidence of humanitarian projects funded from outside the country, including clean water pumps installed in villagers houses and orphanages being set up and paid for mostly by generous benefactors. It's a completely different country to the one we've just come from- Thailand, it's bigger and better neighbour, as the Thais like to think. Cambodia, as a nation, has been historically bullied for centuries, by the Siamese on one side and the Vietnamese on the other. They fight each other for control of Cambodia's lands and the native people suffered endlessly as the armies of the two countries raped and pillaged their way through the kingdom. It was only really when the Cambodian royalty called on the French empire, who'd previously shown interest in the country, to protect them from being overthrown and losing their lands, that they managed to retain their sovereignty and hold on to the country. However, the fact that the French heavily taxed the population and introduced harsh regimes of punishment for criminals and other human rights abuses cannot be forgotten.