Olexandra Salo, Hlynske. Ukraine. Feeding the world..
There was a time, many years ago, when Cambodia was one of the primary rice bowls of Southeast Asia—able to feed its population and then some. By the time I arrived in Phnom Penh in February 1975 to cover the final weeks of a long and violent war that was about to get even worse, rice production had shrunk below subsistence levels. The entire economy, it seemed, was teetering on two legs of a stool—American economic aid, which continued to pour into the federal treasury, financing what was left of a shrinking and corrupt bureaucracy; and vast quantities of rice, airlifted in on a constant parade of cargo flights by several relief organizations, particularly Care, and two Christian missionary groups—Catholic Relief Services and World Vision. In 1972, when the war really cranked up, the rice harvest was barely 26 percent of the figure just three years earlier, and in the final weeks of the war, barely any land at all was under cultivation and accessible to whatever population was still controlled by the American-backed government. As I wrote in one of my first dispatches But in fact it was not the Chinese, or even greed. It was war and the resulting forced migration from ancestral rice-growing lands that caused the social and financial dislocations and all but total disruption in the food supply network. One immediate fallout from these imperatives was inflation, a daily reality familiar to we journos, as well as our Khmer colleagues and all those with whom we came in contact. U.S. dollars—generally in the form of $100 bills—exchanged on the black market had effectively become the nation’s only functioning currency. I’d “pigeoned” in several thousand dollars worth of the long green in a money belt, strapped around my waist beneath my undershirt. Dith Pran, the brilliant journalist and photographer who served as our translator, guide, and soul mate would exchange these dollars for the local currency—rials, or the short pink as we called it, a reference to the color of the worthless Cambodian currency. On the day we would have to settle our hotel accounts, our driver would appear with large shopping bags filled with bricks—stacks of thousand and five thousand rial notes that were never undone. Each stack was worth just a dollar or two, and we’d pile them in huge stacks on the front desk of the hotel as their cashier would solemnly count them up. And each time it would take a few more stacks as inflation continued to soar to Weimar Republic levels—only instead of overprinting their banknotes, the Cambodians simply bundled them into bricks and toted around stacks of them. The Khmer Rouge thought they had a solution to this dilemma. Years before the carnage broke out, Khieu Samphan, one of several brilliant and utterly twisted leaders of the Cambodian insurgents, had written in a dissertation at Paris’s Institut des Sciences Politique, an outline of an idyllic Khmer state—a pastoral, Rousseau-esque nation where farmers would labor all day in the fields for the common good; where poverty, inequality, and injustice would disappear along with all the evils attendant to an urban lifestyle of profligacy and greed. This end would justify any means to achieve it. Effectively, it was a blueprint for the charnel house that Cambodia would become as the illiterate, yet victorious peasant troops who entered Phnom Penh triumphantly 40 years ago this April, forced into the countryside the effete intelligentsia of the capital to forage and grow rice in the countryside. What the hardships of the rice fields did not accomplish, their overlords all too often completed. And there were many, especially among the blinkered European left, who believed in this vision, through a thoroughly distorted prism. As Jacques Decornoy, a classmate of Khieu Samphan at Sciences-Po and foreign editor of the great liberal French daily Le Monde, wrote on July 18, 1975