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Seeing where communism lives in the 21st century

There was a time in the 20th century when the word "communism" got the same airplay as "terrorism" does now. Though it's no longer the focus of fear, communism didn't die out entirely at the end of the Cold War. It persists in a few states around the world, explored by photographer Tomas van Houtryve in his new book Behind the Curtains.

Tomas van Houtryve / VII

2009: An all girls group of Young Communist League members walks past a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in front of the Yan'an Revolutionary Memorial Hall in Yan'an.

Van Houtryve dealt with hair-raising circumstances in his quest: trekking in Nepal below military helicopters to find Maoists, impersonating a businessman to gain access to North Korea, and hiking deep into Laotian jungle to find hiding US-allied Hmong refugees left over from the Vietnam War.

That last mission led to a heartbreaking meeting:

Upon seeing us, some of the adults broke down in tears. They claimed not to have seen an American since the CIA pulled out of Laos more than three decades earlier.

Having traveled to several war zones and natural disasters, I had never seen such a ragged and desperate group of people. It took a while before they were calm enough to explain their situation to us and submit to Thomas’ interviews. Five men came forward saying that they were CIA-trained veterans of the Secret War. They pulled forward family members to show their bullet and shrapnel scars from attacks by the Lao People’s Army.

“If I surrender, I will be punished,” explained Xang Yang. “They will never forgive me,” he said of the Communist government. “I can not live outside the jungle because I am a former American soldier.”

Tomas van Houtryve / VII

2007: Relatives of veterans of the CIA Secret War break down in tears at their hidden village in the Vientiane province.

Tomas van Houtryve / VII

2006: People buy bread in a bakery in Havana.

Tomas van Houtryve / VII

2009: Papers fall out of the windows of the Parliament building while rioters ransack the inside in Chisinau, Moldova. Opposition leaders accused the Communists of rigging the recent elections and demanded a recount.

In Nepal, van Houtryve hiked for days in the Himalaya to reach a Maoist-controlled area. Upon meeting a local militia group, he observed:

The soldiers were much younger than I expected. Our minders had claimed that all fighters were over 18, but when Alex spoke to the battalion’s vice political commissar, he had a different reply. “According to Lenin, once they are 15, they can join the army.”

Many were girls. One wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt caught my eye. I also spotted Spiderman, Jurassic Park and several Harley Davidson designs in the crowd. How had Britney’s image penetrated this remote area while the news of communism’s global collapse apparently had not?

Tomas van Houtryve / VII

2005: A Maoist rebel soldier wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt stands among a batallion of other soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, First Brigade, Mid Division during a drill in a schoolyard in the village of Gairigaon, Nepal.

Book cover, Tomas van Houtryve's "Behind the Curtains."

You can buy the book at the VII Photo Agency's store.  View an exhibit in New York and meet Tomas at a book signing in San Francisco.

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