Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Saturday, 4 December 2010
Thet Sambath has been looking for the truth for ten years. That’s how long it’s taken him to track down some of the men and women involved in Cambodia’s savage Khmer Rouge regime. His father, brother and mother were murdered during that reign of terror, but Sambath isn’t after revenge – he wants his countrymen to hear their stories.
If anyone can persuade ageing party cadres and henchmen with blood on their hands to open up, it’s Sambath. A senior reporter on the Phnom Penh Post, he asks extraordinarily uncomfortable questions with charm, humility, smiling eyes and a gentle voice.
A British filmmaker, Rob Lemkin, has captured Sambath’s mammoth quest and turned it into a film, Enemies of the People. It has been nominated for an Oscar.
Every weekend Sambath kisses his young family goodbye and heads into the country, video recorder in hand, to dig up the unbearable past. His wife, wringing out washing, is non-plussed: “I wonder why he is so different from other people,” she smiles. “He’s always off in the forest.” She seems unaware that he has sacrificed ten years of his life to discover, for the first time in Cambodian history, what actually went on between 1975-79. She just misses her husband.
Sambath started at the top. Nuon Chea (below) was Brother Number Two to Pol Pot – and is now an 84-year-old with bad teeth and a certain grace. It took three years of regular interviews before Nuon Chea admitted knowledge of any killing, something Pol Pot never did.
But it’s a pair of illiterate farmers, Mr Khoun and Mr Suon, who provide hard facts, in all their terrifying detail. “You must talk to uneducated country people to get the truth,” says Sambath. “It’s hard for foreigners and journalists, but easy for me because I am a country person too.”
Between them they were responsible for killing hundreds, probably thousands, of Cambodians. They slit their throats and, when their hands started to ache, stabbed them in the neck and flung the bodies into ditches. Sambath, armed with a plastic knife, smilingly asks one of the men to show him how he did it, as casually as if he was asking for a demonstration on the best way to slice an onion.
Later, they confess to eating human gall bladders. But they are remorseful, and eager to tell their story. One of the men has a look so haunted he appears possessed (pictured, below). A Buddhist like most Cambodians, he isn’t expecting to come back as anything much in the next life. “I feel desolate,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sambath has decided that, after ten years, he’s finally ready to tell Nuon Chea that his own family was butchered in the 70s. He hadn’t wanted to tell him before in case Nuon Chea thought he was out to avenge them. He does so softly, off camera, while we watch the man’s reaction. “What is your response to my family’s story?” asks Sambath, quietly. It’s unbearably moving.
Nuon Chea was arrested in September 2007, and will stand trial next spring. “I feel very sad,” says Sambath. “We worked together for ten years.”
It is entirely to Sambath’s credit that you feel no hatred towards these men, only sorrow. Perhaps we see them through his forgiving, generous eyes. "These people have sacrificed a lot to tell the truth," he says. "In daring to confess, they have done good – perhaps the only good thing left."
I went to Cambodia earlier this year. Its people were warm, friendly but, behind the smiles, sad. Perhaps with these stories the country can start to come to terms with his heartbreaking past. If it does, one extraordinary man can take a lot of credit.
Tuesday, 30 November 2010
"In my ignorance or arrogance, I underestimated the physical challenge of it," he says. "I didn't realise we would be in the saddle so long, and by the third day, I wasn't sure if I was up to it."
Wednesday, 25 August 2010
Sunday, 6 June 2010
We catch a lift to the end of the swim, at the village of Shillingford a mile away, and await the swimmers (pictured, above – that's me by the barge wrapped in a woolly grey cardigan).
Thursday, 27 May 2010
Tuesday, 20 April 2010
The tribal people of the world don’t have much of a voice. But journalist Joanna Eede has been collecting their extraordinary stories. She has spoken to Bushmen in Botswana, Amazonian Yanomami and Canadian Innu, among others, about their lives, homes and beliefs.
“This is our land. Do only people live here? No, there are also monkeys, even bears. The land is for everyone, men, animals and plants. The land is full of the spirits of our forefathers, it is a reciprocal relationship. The land is for our men of today and for our children.” So say the Asháninka tribe in Peru, echoing the beliefs of tribes the world over.
These people inhabit some of the most remote corners of the earth: tundra, sea-ice, mountains, deserts and prairies. They have done for thousands of years. “The affinity with their homelands is reflected in the names tribal peoples call themselves,” says Eede. “They are the savannah people, the people of the headwaters, the people from the wild pig place.”
“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’,” says Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota Sioux. “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame.”
Each tribal society is unique. But most share the belief that man and nature should live together – and that a long-term attitude to the caretaking of the planet is vital. “The Iroquois of North America always consider seven generations ahead in their decision making,” says Eede.
We can learn from these wise people, who tread lightly and lovingly on the planet. "Only we, the indigenous people, know how to protect the forest," says Davi Kopenawa, from the ancient Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest. "Give us back our lands before the forest dies. It is dangerous to abuse nature. The sky is full of smoke because the napë, the non-Indians, are logging and burning our rainforest. The rains come late, the sun behaves in a strange way. The lungs of the sky are polluted. The world is ill."
This week, indigenous people in Brazil are threatening violence after a successful tender for the rights to build a giant hydro-electric plant on their ancient land. "Indians will be forced to kill the white men again so they leave our lands alone," says leader, Raoni Metuktire.
We can also learn from their philosophy on life, too. "The desire for possessions is destructive," says Davi Kopenawa. "Nothing that can be bought, or sold, has any real meaning. Possessions are looked upon as symbols of advanced humanity, yet they disappear with the wind. All they do is cloud the mind and pollute the soul."
What can we do? Tell their stories, the tribal people say. "You have seen with your eyes what is happening here," says a Bushman in Botswana. "Go and tell people what you have seen. What would make us happy is if we have the rights to stay on our land."
Last Sunday, a glamorous gathering of actors staged a one-off benefit in London, performing readings from Eede's book, We Are One, which was written for the charity Survival International to mark its 40th anniversary. Julie Christie and Gillian Anderson shared a stage with Derek Jacobi and Mackenzie Crook. Sadly, Colin Firth didn't make it...
Should we care that tribal people are being forced away from their land and livelihoods? "Yes, if we believe that taking other people's lands – and so destroying them – should not be tolerated," says Survival International director, Stephen Corry. "They teach us that price and value are not the same things, and that community can be more intelligent and humane than government."
Or, as Cecilia Mitchell, a Mohawk in the USA puts it: "Different people, different ideas and different beliefs make life so much more interesting.”
Photographs, from top: Mike Goldwater, Grenville Charles, Bruno Morandi
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Sunday, 14 March 2010
Sunday, 7 March 2010
Thursday, 25 February 2010
Courtney Love, it must be said, isn’t the sort of guest who usually graces The Guardian’s morning conference. On the days there is an invited speaker, it’s usually director of policy at this, or deputy chair of the national association of that – not fast-living former strippers.
But she stalked into the packed room in six-inch scarlet and black heels, skinny as a model, squeezed herself between the bemused editor and deputy editor, and held the room in thrall.
I can't really tell you any more – everything she said was off the record, and I'm an honorable journalist. But we’re among friends, so I’ll try to give a flavour of how extraordinary she is. Bonkers is another word for it.
“I’m here to share my thoughts with you, high brow and low brow,” she announced, tongue in cheek. Nothing was censored – she used the f-word liberally, was wildly indiscreet, and made grand pronouncements: she knows, for example, with unwavering certainty, who the future president will be.
Her thoughts, how can I say this politely, meandered – when asked a question, she would veer off on a tangent so unrelated that not only she, but everyone else, had forgotten the question. It didn’t matter – the tangent was always more interesting.
She was genuinely funny. She noted that drugs may have once played a large part in her life – “but don’t tell anyone...” she said. When asked how she felt about ageing (she’s 45) she said: “I’m here, aren’t I? I think that’s pretty age appropriate.”
She’s an Anglophile: she loves Russell Brand and Noel Fielding – “comedians as rock stars” – and the hip taxidermist, Polly Morgan, and is obsessed with fashion. She talked Hollywood, foreign politics, split infinitives, feminism and – movingly – about how hard it is for her daughter to listen to her Dad’s music. I admired the way she was unintimidated by the crowd of opinionated journalists. She was a match for any one of them.
Most of all, she made me feel like I’ve lived a really, really boring life.
And the Venezuelen president? Apparently he may have taken a shine to her, she claims. That’s it – no more revelations from me. But get me drunk and I’ll tell you everything.
Monday, 25 January 2010
Friday, 1 January 2010
"How can you have left your passport on the plane?" he asked, smiling, after I breathlessly told him what I'd done. I didn't know myself - tiredness, preoccupation, hurrying to make my connecting flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Vivek picked up his phone and spoke to someone, unhurriedly. It seemed an inconclusive conversation. "Can I look on the plane? It's just out there, I just landed," I said.
He shook his head. It took me a second to realise he was doing an Indian head wobble, which can mean yes, no, maybe, whatever...
"We will get your passport back, no problem," he smiled. "What seat were you in? Do you have ID?"
I handed him my credit card. It's a measure of how much, from experience, I trust Indian people - or perhaps how desperate I was - that I did this without hesitation. "Wait here," he ordered.
Five minutes later he was back, strolling calmly towards me clutching my green travel folder. I tried to play it cool, but I was so relieved I wanted to cry. I gushed my gratitude and sprinted from the terminal.