28 June 2024

Khmer Villagers vs. Forced Migrants

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 211-213:

When we first arrive in the village, I give my personal history as a widower separated from his wife, hoping to be able to stay in the village and have the possibility of planting some food to send to my brother, who is required to go to the front lines (in the youth mobile unit). However, quite the contrary, in this village we have no possessions whatsoever. We are only temporary people. Even the place where we sleep is temporary.

The owners of the house stare at us like we are creatures of Hell risen up to dwell beside them. They loathe us. They never invite us up into the house to visit.

On the day of our arrival, it just so happens that there is a large rainstorm, so kingkuok toads come out here and there to catch food. The toads in this area are strangely large, even larger than toads in the river country. We catch the toads for food. The owners of the house find this very odd, and Mother Lam says to us, “Damn, you children eat such awful food! The people who came before you never ate such things as you folks. It’s disgusting! Hey! Bury the skins far away, don’t throw them into my mulberry bushes!”

Indeed, the people of this area are very clean. Never mind the toads—they won’t even eat little frogs caught in the village. They will only eat frogs caught out in the rice fields. But we are filthy people, eating anything. Some even go so far as to eat earthworms. The earthworms in this place are also strangely large, as thick as my pinky and as long as twenty-five to thirty centimeters. They call them traok earthworms.

After leaving the jungle, we thought we had escaped from worry. But after coming to live with the base people, we have emotional issues, trouble sleeping, trouble eating, trouble relieving ourselves. Having just arrived, we do not yet know the proper order of things, and we don’t know where to find a latrine, so we dig holes and defecate among the mulberry bushes. They scold us so loudly it can be heard throughout the village, and then they take us to the cooperative chairman to be “built.” Have we no shame!? The jungle people come into society and can’t do anything right—not even shit.


Back when we lived in the jungle with other people of the same “ministerial” [kongsey < Fr. conseil for colonial administrator, therefore urban] class as ourselves, when we all got full or starved together, we never suffered emotional hurt. But coming to live with the “capitalist” [figuratively, the base people, not the new people, but separate from the kongsey] class is emotionally painful. We collect our rice rations at the appointed rate of half a can apiece, while they collect a different amount. We bring bowls to collect the rice, while they bring baskets. They eat rice for every meal, while we eat only phek porridge (porridge mixed with leaves).

When we fall sick with a fever and ask to rest, they say it is “consciousness sickness” [psychosomatic or faked illness due to prerevolutionary mindsets], and they taunt us, saying that it is because we are so lazy that we can’t find anything to eat. The others can get sick as often as they like, and when they do, they are tasked with fishing with nets. We are the only ones they send out on mobile units, while the others cool their heels back at the village. Only a week after arriving at this village, my younger brother Samorn is once again assigned to the district’s young men’s mobile unit at the Kok Rumchek worksite.

One evening, as we are busy transplanting rice seedlings, we are suddenly sent back to the village to prepare for departure on a mobile work detail. We are not led by any of the base people, but are instead driven off like cattle, without a grain of rice or salt for rations. They tell us that clothing, shoes, and rice have already been prepared for us in Phnom Srok. At dusk we enter Phnom Srok and have no idea where to find clothing, shoes, or rice. It’s not until very late at night that we finally get some uncooked rice to make porridge with. In the morning we are sent away again with no directions and no assignment.

27 June 2024

Khmer Rouge Fertilizer Crews

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 201-203:

The piles of ash on the farm are all used up now. The fertilizer unit makes its own ashes to mix with the excrement. Making ashes is not an easy task; we must fell large trees, saw them into pieces, carry them and place them into piles, and then light fires to burn them. Now the fertilizer unit has been divided into three teams: the ash makers, the excrement carriers, and the fertilizer mixers.

I and Bong Sae, my group leader (a former teacher in Kampong Speu province), who both have similar wounds, are placed in the excrement carrying team. This team has four people: Bong Sae, Bong Phon, Bong Him, and me. We stop using bangky baskets to carry the excrement because we find two wooden buckets, each attached to a board. We carry one bucket between two people. It’s very difficult because we can’t breathe without taking in the stench, but our labor is not as rigorous as that of the ash makers.

Each morning we carry the buckets from the fertilizer shed and scoop the excrement out of the latrines from one end of the village to the other and then back again. In the morning, we must carry four buckets, and another four buckets in the evening. At first, we are reluctant out of sheer disgust. Then after doing it every day, our noses get tighter, and we grow accustomed to the stench. After scooping the excrement into the buckets, those who smoke sit and have a smoke to gather their strength. I’m not a smoker, so I walk around and look at the villagers’ huts, observing the lives of each family. Only we, the excrement carriers, have the possibility of becoming so intimately familiar with the real lives of the villagers.

We go from one latrine to the next, from one hut to the next. The shit from this latrine is like the shit from that one, their shit is like my shit. All of it is dark green colored like the leaves of trees, different from animal droppings only in that ours smells worse. Before we had latrines, we relieved ourselves in the fields. When they encountered our excrement now and then, the base people would say, “human tracks, but animal shit.” Only the excrement of the cadres, the chhlops [lit. 'spies': monitors and enforcers], the cooperative chief, and the soldiers has a natural color. If any of the people’s latrines has fresh excrement with a color like that of an animal, it is certain that last night they had rice or corn to eat. If they didn’t trade for it, then they must have stolen some corn from someone’s field.

Some latrines have a decent amount of excrement, while others hardly have anything at all to scoop out—even if we only come by once a week. It’s because the owner is down sick and has no leaves to eat, so there’s not much excrement to produce. At each hut we see illness and suffering. Tears, pus, blood, clear fluid from sores, all flowing and mixing together. When I never saw anybody besides myself, I used to think that I suffered the worst. But after seeing others around me, I am surprised. Most of the people in the village are suffering as badly as I am. Some even have it worse than I do: they have no family, but are left to suffer in illness, all alone.

Some days, the excrement carriers postpone scooping excrement for a while to help carry a dead body to be buried. We cut wild bamboo and split it into strips about a meter-eighty in length, then we use dah kun, yeav, or preng vines to weave the strips into a lattice to wrap the corpse in (instead of a coffin) and carry it to be buried. Some corpses have grass mats to be wrapped in, while other corpses have nothing at all but these bamboo lattices. The four of us don’t know any proper religious rites, so we simply bury the corpses straight, like we would any other thing. And we are not afraid of the corpses either, for we have become the village corpse buriers, and we are as accustomed to this work as we are to the smell of excrement.

Those with strength are sent out on mobile assignments away from the village, and those who are ill nearby have no strength to carry the corpses to be buried. So it falls to the excrement carriers. Every two or three days we have a body to carry off and bury.

There is no special place for burying bodies. We usually bury them in the forest behind the houses of the dead, a distance of only about 100 or 150 meters.

24 June 2024

Khmer Jungle Hospital

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 157-158:

All the patients at the hospital are Life Slaves; there are no base people mixed in. Some people have the shivers, some have swelling, some have dysentery, some have skin lesions. These are the types of illnesses common during this so-called revolutionary era. Patients lie moaning and groaning day and night. Some patients with no hope of survival have been abandoned here by their families to lie alone, sick and moaning. Some of them have siblings or a spouse to sit with them, help them relieve themselves, and bring them food or water.

We can’t tell who are the medics and who are the soldiers. They all wear the same black clothing and black caps with silk kramas around their necks. The medics don’t watch the patients. They are at their own place over near the dining hall all the time. At about nine in the morning, three or four of them walk over to poke their heads in and check on us. In the afternoon, at about three o’clock, they come again. If a patient dies in the night, the body lies with us until morning. If a patient dies during the day, only after one of the patients goes to tell the medics will they quickly take the body away to be buried. They have no medical supplies or equipment whatsoever. They don’t come by to treat the patients; they only check to see who is close to dying and who is not yet close to dying.

Contrary to what I had heard, there is not much medicine. I have been here for four or five days now and haven’t seen so much as a single pill. If there is medicine, it is mostly just “rabbit turd” pills. If liquid medicine, it is mostly clear or reddish-colored medicine in old soft-drink bottles.

Most of the medics are females who seem to have no medical expertise. One day they bring some foreign medicine to administer by injection to patients with shivering fever. They have ampules with the word QUINOBLEU written in French on the sides, containing a dark blue intravenous liquid. The female medics give me an injection. I feel excited to be so fortunate to be treated with foreign drugs. They turn my arms back and forth, left and right, forearms, wrists, looking for a vein. One of the female medics gives up and hands the task over to another medic. They trade off back and forth and after ten sticks still can’t find a vein. I am sick and just can’t take any more of this, and I beg them to stop sticking me. They don’t know how to give an injection or how to find a vein. I’ve lost my chance at the good medicine.

The two other patients who came with me from the village to stay in this hospital house are both gone now. One of the men, about my age, had a shivering fever but was still able to walk. He went back to the village after trying out the hospital for about two days. It’s better that he left anyway; if he had stayed, it would only have led to catching some other illness. Like me—when I left the village, I only had a shivering fever, but now I have swelling as well.

As for the other man (about forty years old), who had some swelling when he left the village, after he got to the hospital the swelling got worse. He came from the village alone, like me, without any wife or children accompanying him. He dies after sleeping at the hospital for nearly a week. I’m not able to go back to the village, but if I remain, the outcome is clear.

23 June 2024

Oxcarts Into the Khmer Jungle

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 141-143:

The sun rises dimly and the sounds of oxen calling moo! moo! moo! mixed with the sound of their wooden bells clack! clack! clack! and metal bells clang! clang! clang! awaken us from sleep. We are surrounded by hundreds of oxcarts pulled by small oxen. Other oxcarts hurriedly approach, churning up clouds of dust behind them. Where have they come from? Have they come to transport us? The answer becomes clear when we are ordered to board the carts and continue our journey onward.

Where are we going? They don’t tell us. They are a very secretive bunch. Trucks, trains, tractors—they never tell us where we are going. If we ask the cart drivers, they might as well not answer at all because we don’t know the area anyway. But we do know that they are taking us to a place where trucks and tractors can’t go. Damn! Maybe we really are going to eat the stones of the mountains. No, there are no mountains here. As Life Slaves [an epithet coined by the author to denote the “new people,” the class of people treated most harshly by the Khmer Rouge (though sometimes defined as everyone except the cadres); opposite: Life Masters; p. 644], we are prepared to accept our fate.

Last night we slept outside some village. Now the oxcarts take us over a wooden bridge across a large canal [the moat around the town] and into the village. We see a sign reading “Phnom Srok District Primary School.” When we arrive in the village, the locals—young and old, male and female—stand around in an orderly fashion watching us as though waiting to welcome a kathen tean parade [annual festival when clothing is donated to the monks]. Indeed, it’s a parade like none they’ve ever seen: hundreds of oxcarts, one after another.

The carts steer through the village and then back out again. We pass over a sandy road through rice fields and sparse trees. I think of my family moving from our house north of Wat Tuol Tumpung to the shores of Boeng Trabek more than nineteen years ago. We had ridden on an oxcart through fields of kantraeuy [Chrysopogon sp.] and barang [Urochloa sp.] grasses with small reang [Barringtonia sp.] and trah [Combretum sp.] trees growing here and there in clumps. At that time, I had ridden the cart with my mother. But now there is no mother on the cart with me. [She died of starvation.]

The small oxen struggle to pull the carts along the sandy road, making me feel particularly sorry for them. I ask the driver, “Father, why are the cows here so small?” “Nephew, this land can only support small cows like this. We can’t use the big ones because there is so little grass here that the cows have to eat prech leaves.” Prech leaves? What are prech leaves? I used to know of a novel (or maybe a movie) entitled The Hunter’s Trail, the Prech Buds. Prech must be in the jungle, where a hunter goes to hunt animals. This driver’s home village must be near the jungle. Are we going to live in his village?

After passing through the fields and forests for a while, we enter a village. It’s a fairly small village with dense stands of banana trees, coconut trees, papaya trees, and manioc [= tapioca] shrubs growing here and there. But we couldn’t even see it from very far away. The villagers are surprised at our presence, and they call out to each other and stand around staring at us.

The people of Phnom Srok had looked at us with familiar gazes, but these villagers look at us with amazement and wonder, as though they’ve never seen such a thing. Perhaps they’re as puzzled as we are, wondering where we are going.

I tap the driver and ask, “Uncle! What village is this?”

“This is Boh Sbov village, Nephew,” the cart driver replies. None of the cart drivers are soldiers or members of the Organization. They are all locals with oxen and carts who have been gathered from various villages to help transport us. After leaving the village, we again pass through rice fields, then through scattered clumps of trees, then through sparse trees, then through forests so wild they nearly overgrow the cart road, forests with tall thin trees. They are taking us into the jungle! Are they taking us to live in the jungle? We drive through a forest with large, tall trees and after a while the carts begin to stop one after the other, about ten or fifteen meters apart.

17 June 2024

Khmer Rouge Stated Goals

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 78-80:

One day, about a week after the groups and villages are organized, we receive an order to attend a meeting in Tuol Tnaot at 7 p.m. Each family is to send one representative. When we return from work in the evening, we hurriedly eat dinner and head out for the meeting at the appointed time.

Tonight is a new moon and there is no moonlight. We all sit on the ground in front of a wooden house with a tiled roof beside the highway, near the mouth of the road leading to Wat Don Sar. A small kerosene lamp has been lit and casts a flickering light on the meeting.

A revolutionary cadre dressed in black and wearing a black cap on his head and a krama around his neck comes and stands before us to announce the start of the meeting. We don’t know his name or his rank, and we can’t see his face clearly in the dark. He begins to speak:

“Greetings, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who have just been evacuated from Phnom Penh. The Revolutionary Organization regrets taking so long to get you organized into groups and villages. Our Organization has faced many responsibilities and has been very busy. Now we have gotten you organized, so you ought to understand the political line of the Revolutionary Organization and the way of life in revolutionary society. The Revolutionary Organization has the political aim of annihilating all traces of the regime that ruled the country for sixteen years [Sihanouk, 1954-1970], as well as the five-year, one-month regime [Lon Nol, 1970-1975]. Therefore, anything in the image or spirit of these two regimes must be obliterated. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters who used to live under these two regimes, you must learn to align, temper, and build yourselves to become suitable as a revolutionary people.

“Cast off the morality of vice! The morality of exploitation! The morality of taking advantage of others! Obey the discipline of the Organization! Don’t be free! Don’t have your own opinions! Don’t be vague in your consciousness!

“Food will be distributed according to your labor. Those comrades who work will receive food. The Organization has no need for the lazy or the worthless!

“The wheel of history rolls forward! No one can stop the wheel of history! Whoever puts forth his arm will lose his arm! Whoever puts forth his leg will lose his leg…”

This is our first lesson. We hear them say nothing about returning to Phnom Penh. We hear only the words “revolution,” “annihilate,” “temper.” Now we see clearly: They don’t support Sihanouk’s royalist regime as Dad thought. They will squeeze us because we are the people of the two regimes that the Revolutionary Organization must annihilate.

14 June 2024

Khmer Rouge "Grandpa Snoopy"

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 76-78:

Starting now, a new administrative structure has been put in place: group, then village, then cooperative. All of the leaders are people who had been living in the liberated zones. My group is led by Pu Et. He is in his sixties, dark skinned, skinny, balding in front, with large eyes and curly hair, about a meter sixty in height. He was born here in Tuol Ampil. He has built a hut about seventy meters to the north of mine. The cooperative cadre who has taken charge of Tuol Ampil is called Phal, a man of about thirty-five who used to live at Boeng Trabek near my house and knows my parents very well.

We are a people who no longer have the freedom to move about or eat as we please. We have become workers who labor as we are ordered, in line with the aims of the Organization, at the appointed hours: from six until eleven o’clock in the morning, and from one in the afternoon until five o’clock in the evening. The Organization provides us with the necessities of survival: rice and salt. Occasionally, we receive a small portion of kerosene. We are to go and receive these supplies at the cooperative headquarters in Tuol Tnaot every day when we return from work at noon.

After the land is divided up, our corn ends up on the common land. We are worried that the Organization will confiscate these crops and make them common property.

I ask the cadre who comes to measure and divide the land, “Excuse me Brother, the corn that I planted before—is it still mine?”

“How much corn is it, Comrade?” the cadre asks.

“About twenty by thirty meters, Brother,” I answer.

“Oh, that’s nothing! You keep it and eat it,” the cadre reassures me. We stop fretting and once again our mouths have spit to swallow.

Each day Dad leads his two granddaughters, Sophal and A-Lin, by the hand to go sit and watch the corn so that cows don’t eat it. The corn is already starting to produce some ears. The rice that we transplanted with Mom in the water in front of the hut is starting to look nice. One day Pu Et, our group leader, comes to my family and says, “The Organization is taking your corn. Don’t touch it!”

This news causes all of us to lose heart and despair, especially my father. He says nothing, and he stops bothering to sit and watch the corn as he used to. One day, as I am going to collect our rice ration at Tuol Tnaot, I ask the advice of the cooperative chairman on the corn problem. He assures me that there is no problem, that we should keep it for the benefit of our own family. His assurance alleviates our anxiety, but with no one to stand guard and protect the corn for a few days, the cows have already eaten nearly half of it.

Pu Et is a very jealous and strict man. He has just arrived from the liberated zones, and he has nothing yet. None of his plants have had time to bear any fruit, so when he sees that others’ plants have already borne fruit, he gets jealous and wants them for himself. If we have better food than he does, he is unhappy. If he catches anyone sneaking off to trade things at the villages along the highway for rice, bananas, or yams, he confiscates their spoils and then “builds” them, guiding them in the way of the Revolutionary Organization, forbidding free movement and trade.

Each day he walks by and pokes his head into our hut at about eight or nine o’clock to see who has what to eat and who hasn’t gone out to work. How we despise this attitude! We, all of the “new people,” give him the name “Grandpa Snoopy.” When we see him coming from a distance, we call out or whisper to each other, “Here comes Grandpa Snoopy!” Both his wife and his daughter act haughty, as though they, too, are our leaders and supervisors.

13 June 2024

Leaving Phnom Penh, 1975

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 56-59:

Between dawn and 11 a.m., we are finally able to cross the Monivong Bridge, and we continue beyond to the Chbar Ampov subdistrict headquarters building where we stop to rest and prepare food. Here there are tamarind trees with cool shade. My brothers and I go to look for water for cooking rice. We figure that drawing water from the river will be easier than searching for well water at local houses. We walk through Chbar Ampov Market (the old market on the south side of the highway) and head for the river.

This is the first time in my life that my eyes have ever witnessed such an awful scene. Only four days ago, this was a battleground, and large brick-and-cement houses have been demolished, with chunks of brick and cement of all sizes, shards of roof tiles, dishes, pots and pans, tables, and chairs littering the ground all over the road. In the gendarmerie post, the body of a woman lies face up on a desk, naked and swollen, maggots perforating her flesh. Along the riverbank lie the bloated corpses of soldiers, some on the banks, others floating half in and half out of the water. Some bob up and down on the water’s surface, occasionally washing up against the bank. The water here, which appeared from above to be decent, is in actuality covered in a slick of dark-green foam mixed with grease from the corpses. The river water is undrinkable, and we return empty-handed.


As our thoughts drift with the smoke into the sky, suddenly the sound of gunshots pierces the air: bang! bang! bang! Startled and shaken, nearly losing my grip on the bicycle handlebars, I look around, worried that someone has just been wounded or killed. I think this because as we rested a little earlier, we heard that this morning a soldier shot and killed two people who took rice from a warehouse on the west side of the river. But I can’t see that anything has happened. The crowd continues walking forward. Then a military vehicle comes driving against the flow of foot traffic with two or three black-clad soldiers sitting on the hood. They are the ones who fired the shots, to open the road. We squeeze together on the right side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass.

We have walked another 200 meters when suddenly a mid-Pisakh [=April/May] rain shower begins to pour down without the slightest warning. Our bundles of bedding and clothes are soaked. We continue forward in the rain until we are nearly to Wat Niroth before finding shelter.

The locals here have all been evacuated. We take shelter in a wooden house with a corrugated iron roof whose owner was a fisherman. Up in the house, there are still several old fishing nets of various types and sizes. We salvage one small net and one larger net to take with us. We rest at the house for two nights until our bedding and clothes are dry and then continue our journey.

11 June 2024

Evacuating Cambodian Cities

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 45-46:

I dash into the house and call out, “Dad! Mom! They’re forcing everyone out of the city!” But my neighbors and family are busy celebrating peace and the end of the war and the spoils of victory at the hands of the Organization; they are not interested in what I have to say.

I have just spent a day filled with worry and fear. My family has just spent a day celebrating with a happiness that they haven’t seen for five years. Everything that I had just imagined to myself was all wrong—especially the reaction of my parents. In fact, my parents haven’t worried a bit about my absence. They feel that everything is going wonderfully. They have figured that I was gone all day tasting the joy of the birth of a new Khmer society.

The neighbors who have been going back and forth to gather loot from the Chamkar Mon warehouses know perfectly well that people are being evacuated from the city. But they assume that this matter does not affect them, that they won’t be ordered out by the Organization, because the Organization has allowed them to take freely from the warehouses.

Almost every family goes out to collect loot and stockpiles it in their house. My younger brothers procure three sacks of rice, several cases of beer, two or three mattresses, and large amounts of salt, fish sauce, soy sauce, and soft drinks, and pile them all over the house.

A French proverb says that “a single swallow does not herald the arrival of Spring.” I am but a lone swallow, the one person who desires to instill fear and an awareness of what will come. But no one believes me! They only believe in what is plain: that they have become wealthy without the necessity of effort. Let the neighbors refuse to believe, but I must win over my own family. My mother doesn’t matter; my father is the one who controls the power in the family.

I attempt to speak with my father about what is on my mind, but he objects, saying, “A-Moeun! You aren’t thinking straight. If they have just taken the city, what is the point of forcing us out? Do you remember what happened last year? People in Steung Mean Chey and Boeng Tumpun fell prey to propaganda that they would be forced out, and they fled in the middle of the night all the way to the riverfront by the palace. When they went back home, all of their stuff was gone.”

10 June 2024

Cambodia, April 1975

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 11-12:

Cambodia is a small Southeast Asian kingdom, bordered by Vietnam on the east, Thailand on the west and north, and Laos to the north. Its primary religion is Theravada Buddhism. Its main ethnic majority are referred to as Khmers, and the national language is Khmer. The capital city, sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Sap rivers, is called Phnom Penh.

The kingdom was colonized by France for nearly a century, from 1863 until 1953 when it secured full independence from France under the leadership of King Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk abdicated the throne a year later to take a leading role in Cambodian electoral politics, which he dominated for the next fifteen years as a popular and powerful head of state.

On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a parliamentary coup by his prime minister, General Lon Nol. This seminal event broke Sihanouk’s long and carefully maintained neutrality that had kept Cambodia out of the Vietnam War raging next door, as Lon Nol immediately aligned with the United States against the communists, causing the conflict to spill over into Cambodia.

Thus began a bloody civil war, as Lon Nol founded the Khmer Republic, notoriously corrupt and heavily funded by United States military aid; and the embittered Sihanouk, with Chinese support, publicly allied himself with the Cambodian faction of communists, dubbed (by him) the “Khmer Rouge,” in an armed resistance against the new government. Hoping for a return to power, Sihanouk allowed himself to be made the nominal figurehead of this armed resistance, and because he was highly revered by many Cambodians, especially in the countryside, this decision lent tremendous influence and strength to the Khmer Rouge in recruiting large-scale support from the Cambodian populace.

Five years of violent conflict and devastating national division led, ultimately, to an imminent Khmer Rouge victory in mid-April 1975. As Khmer Rouge forces surrounded Phnom Penh for the final battle against disintegrating government forces and prepared to capture the city, the city’s population eagerly awaited the end of the war and the return of peace.

08 June 2024

U.S. Enlists Mafia to Invade Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 316-317:

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mussolini declared his support for Hitler, with whom he had concluded the so-called Pact of Steel four months before. He did not immediately declare war—the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, having warned him that Italy simply did not have enough tanks, armored cars and aircraft. To get involved in the European conflict at this point would, said Badoglio, be tantamount to suicide. Nine months later, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Norway, Belgium and Holland had been invaded; France was falling. On June 10 Italy declared war. Mussolini had hoped to help himself to Savoy, Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and Algeria from the French, but to his disgust Germany signed an armistice establishing the collaborationist government under Marshal Pétain at Vichy, which retained control over southern France and all its colonies.

So far as North Africa was concerned, only Egypt was left; and in September 1940 the Duce sent a large Italian force across the Libyan border. The British troops stationed in Egypt were at first hopelessly outnumbered; their counterattack, however, proved far more successful than expected and resulted in massive numbers of prisoners. So decisive was the Italian defeat that Hitler was obliged to send out his Afrikakorps, under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Only then did the British lose the initiative, ultimately to regain it at the Battle of El Alamein in October–November 1942.

The story of the Desert War is not ours, but it exemplifies the several successive humiliations suffered by Italy between 1940 and 1943. Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in October 1940 once again forced Hitler to send troops to his rescue; and by the beginning of 1943 disaster threatened him from every side. Half the Italian troops serving in Russia had been annihilated; both his North African and his Balkan adventures had been dismal failures. The Italians had had enough. Then, in July 1943, the Allies launched an operation which, as well as giving them a foothold in Europe, promised to remove Mussolini from the scene for good. They invaded Sicily.

For Sicily, hitherto, the war had been disastrous. As an island, it had suffered even more acutely than the rest of Italy. The ferryboats to the mainland were disrupted; the export market largely disappeared, while imports became irregular and uncertain; sometimes the Sicilians had found themselves with virtually nothing to eat but their own oranges. The rationing system was a bad joke; the black market reigned supreme. For the Mafia, on the other hand, conditions could hardly have been better. With a good deal of help from its branches in New York and Chicago, in the last years of peace it had already begun a swift recovery from the Mori reign of terror; and by 1943, whatever Mussolini might have said or believed, it was flourishing.

American intelligence officers, somewhat better informed than the Duce, understood that for the projected invasion to be successful it was vitally important to have the Mafia firmly on the Allied side. They therefore made careful approaches to the dominant boss of gangland crime in the United States, a Sicilian named Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano. He had in fact been in prison since 1936 on compulsory prostitution charges, but was still very much in command. In late 1942, after long discussions, the two sides struck a deal. Luciano would have his sentence commuted; in return, he made two promises. The first was that his friend Albert Anastasia, who ran the notorious Murder Inc. and who also controlled the American docks, would protect the waterfront and prevent dockworker strikes for the duration of hostilities. The second was that he, Luciano, would contact other friends in Sicily, who would in turn ensure that the invasion would run as smoothly as possible.

07 June 2024

Il Duce Redevelops Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 314-315:

IN 1937 MUSSOLINI PAID his third visit to Sicily. By then Italian troops had invaded and occupied Ethiopia which, together with the already existing colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland and the more recently acquired Libya, constituted a quite considerable African holding; and Sicily, being nearer to Africa than anywhere else in Italy, had thus gained new importance; “indeed,” declared the Duce, “it is the geographic centre of the Empire.” He would, he continued, inaugurate one of the happiest epochs in the island’s 4,000 years of history. This would involve, first of all, the demolition of the vast shantytown outside Messina inhabited by the thousands rendered homeless by the earthquake. (Many of those affected might have been excused for wondering why twenty-nine years had been allowed to pass before any action was taken at all.) The entire latifondo—those vast tracts of land owned by absentee proprietors, still known as “fiefs” and still being cultivated, if at all, by medieval and feudal methods—would be liquidated; and all Sicilians would henceforth be properly and adequately housed. New villages would be built across the island.

It seemed that Italy would never understand. One of these villages was actually built near Acireale, but the local peasants refused to move from the one-room huts in which they had always lived with their livestock, and a whole company of Tuscan peasantry had to be imported to occupy it. With yet another lesson unlearned, eight more villages were constructed—and suffered similar fates. Several meetings were held to decide upon their names; none, as far as anybody remembered, to discuss water supplies or electrification. But by this time the government had other things to think about. The Second World War had begun.

06 June 2024

Mussolini vs. the Mafia

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 312-314:

On January 3, 1925, the Duce declared himself dictator. Now at last he was ready to tackle the Mafia. He was not the sort of man who could tolerate any challenge to his own authority, least of all from an organization so mysterious and so powerful. Moreover, he had been conscious, during his two visits to Sicily, that the local bosses were distinctly disinclined to show him the respect to which he was generally accustomed. On one of these visits he took mortal offense when the boss of Piana dei Greci, Don Ciccio Cuccia, publicly proclaimed that his visitor needed no police escort—since Cuccia’s own presence offered protection enough. By now too the Honored Society had acquired an international reputation. It was plain, in short, that Sicily was not big enough for Mussolini and the Mafia. For the sake of his own self-esteem, one of them would have to go. He summoned Cesare Mori.

Mori was a northerner, born in Pavia, and was already in his middle fifties. He had grown up in an orphanage and had studied at the military academy in Turin. Having joined the police, he could already look back on two periods of service in Sicily, the first in Castelvetrano—where he had distinguished himself by capturing the notorious bandit Paolo Grisalfi—and the second in 1919 when, in Caltabellotta, he had made more than three hundred arrests in a single night.


In 1924 he was appointed Prefect of Trapani; but his power in Sicily really began only on October 20, 1925, when Mussolini transferred him to Palermo, with special powers over the entire island. His job could be simply stated: to eradicate the Mafia.


Mori started as he meant to go on. In his first two months he made another five hundred arrests, and in January 1926 he moved against the little hill town of Gangi, surrounding it, cutting off its communications with the outside world, making some 450 more arrests, and butchering all its cattle in the town square. This was to be the pattern for the next three and a half years, all over western Sicily. “The Iron Prefect,” as he was called, was fighting the Mafia, and he did not hesitate to use Mafia methods. He cheerfully ordered torture when he considered it necessary, and thought nothing of holding women and children hostage until their menfolk surrendered.


It was another two years before Mori was recalled to Rome. After well over 11,000 arrests, he had left the judiciary with a huge task. The subsequent Mafia trials—one of which numbered 450 defendants—were to continue until 1932. Meanwhile, Mori published a book of memoirs in which he declared that the Mafia had been finally destroyed, and that Sicily had won its last battle against organized crime.

He was wrong, of course. He had indeed dealt Cosa Nostra a heavy blow, but it was not dead—far, far from it.

05 June 2024

Sicily's 1908 Earthquake and WW1

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 308-310:

At 5:20 A.M. on December 28, 1908, Messina had suffered the deadliest natural disaster in European history: an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, followed by a forty-foot tsunami along the nearby coasts. More than ninety percent of its buildings were destroyed, between 70,000 and 100,000 people killed. Hundreds more were buried alive, often for a week or more, since all terrestrial lines of communication were shattered; it was several days before the Red Cross and other relief organizations could reach the city. Nearly all the municipal archives were lost—which is why so much of modern Sicilian history has to be told from the frequently misleading point of view of Palermo.

The Messina earthquake resulted in a huge increase in the rate of emigration. Sicilians were already leaving their homeland in greater numbers than any other people in Europe. In the early days many of them had made the relatively short journey to Tunisia, then a French protectorate; but by 1900—though Argentina and Brazil were also popular—the vast majority were traveling to the United States. By the beginning of the First World War, the number of emigrants totaled not less than a million and a half. Some villages, having lost virtually all their male population, simply disappeared off the map. Here indeed was a terrible indictment of the way the island had for so long been governed; on the other hand, many of those emigrants who prospered made regular remissions to the families they had left behind, and reports of their prosperity gave the younger generation new ambitions toward education and literacy. Moreover, the increasing shortage of labor led to a huge increase in agricultural wages.

The war itself created new problems. Sicily’s export markets, on which the island depended, were virtually cut off for its duration. War industries, of the kind which were established elsewhere in Italy, were clearly not indicated in a region in which there was no skilled labor and no efficient transport. The government, desperately needing cheap food, fixed unrealistically low prices for flour; officially declared wheat production consequently declined by about thirty percent over the war years. Black market prices rocketed. As for the Mafia, it had never had it so good. Here the villain was the notorious Don Calogero Vizzini, who somehow escaped military service and made vast sums out of wartime shortages. In 1917 it proved necessary to pass a law against the stealing of animals; thanks to high prices and government controls, whole flocks would disappear overnight. True, there were occasional compensations: men who went to fight in the north would return with new skills and new aspirations—but also with new political ideas. During the years of war, Sicily moved steadily to the left.

Finally, during the postwar years, more and more emigrants were returning in retirement to their old homes, often with considerable savings, and bringing with them all their experience of the New World. Some, admittedly, also imported the latest techniques of gangsterism, but these were only a small minority; perhaps the most important result of the years spent abroad was a new self-respect, and with it an inability any longer to accept the old cap-in-hand approach to the large landowners. Gradually, the people of Sicily were learning to look their masters in the face.

01 June 2024

Bismarck Unites Italy

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 297-298:

In 1866 the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck found Austria to be a serious obstacle to the realization of his dream of uniting all the German states into a single empire. He therefore forged an alliance with the new kingdom of Italy: the two would attack Austria simultaneously on two fronts. In the event of victory, Italy’s reward would be Venice and the Veneto. A single battle was enough. It was fought on July 3 at Sadowa—also known by its German name of Königgrätz—some sixty-five miles northeast of Prague, and it engaged the greatest number of troops—some 330,000—ever assembled on a European battlefield. The Prussian victory was total. It bankrupted the military resources of the Emperor Franz Josef and opened the way to Vienna. The ensuing armistice duly resulted in the cession of the promised territory. Venice was no longer the independent republic that she had once been, but she was at least an Italian city rather than an Austrian one; and Italy could boast a new and economically invaluable port on the northern Adriatic.

The unity of Italy, however, could not be achieved without Rome; and Rome too was acquired by courtesy of Bismarck, who had cunningly drawn France into a war by his threat to place a prince of the ruling Prussian House of Hohenzollern on the throne of Spain—a proposal clearly unacceptable to the French, who would have then found themselves completely surrounded by Germany. War was therefore declared—by France, not Prussia—on July 15, 1870. It was to prove a bitter struggle; Napoleon III was going to need every soldier he had for the fighting that lay ahead. Thus, by the end of August, not one French soldier remained in Rome. Pope Pius IX was left defenseless. Napoleon’s defeat at Sedan on September 1 spelled the end of the Second Empire; and on September 20 the Italian army entered the Holy City. The Pope withdrew inside the walls of the Vatican, where he remained for the last eight years of his life. The plebiscite that was held shortly afterward registered 133,681 votes in favor of the incorporation of Rome into the new kingdom and 1,507 against. Rome was now part of Italy, not by right of conquest but by the will of its people; and the kingdom of Italy, under its sovereign King Victor Emmanuel II, finally took its place among the nations of Europe.

As the voting figures showed, the Sicilians were as happy as their new compatriots. They were, after all, a good deal more Italian than Spanish, and even though their King was a Piedmontese—a man of the mountains rather than of the sea, and hailing from as far from Sicily as it was possible to go while remaining an Italian—there seemed a fair chance that they would be allowed to play a larger part in their own affairs than they had in the past. They hoped so, anyway.