Sitting inside the dimly-lit reception area of the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) in Phnom Penh, I nervously took note of the time: nearly 45 years since the Khmer Rouge came to power; almost 40 years since his escape and journey toward survival; 20 years since the inception of the Cambodian Living Arts, and merely an hour-and-a-half to capture it all through the inadequacy of words. Amidst the discomforting silence that was occasionally interrupted by the pacing steps of the CLA artists and staff across the hall, my knees rocked to the sound of every passing second on the wall clock as I became overwhelmed by the time that was weighing on me.
Arn Chorn-Pond is the founder of the Cambodian Living Arts and a celebrated musician, he’s also known as one of the few children who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-79). Truth be told, upon meeting him, I reckoned much less about his celebrated status that had until then, made its way into my scribbled notes. Instead, I was drawn more toward the air of humility that adorned Arn; in addition to wearing his larger-than-life laugh and the checkered-printed krama around his neck, with woven colors that appeared to alternate much like his experiences of resilience and despair. I soon came to realize that his story – tantamount to the collective history of the people in Cambodia and their efforts (or lack of) to deal with past atrocities – was akin to photographic memories; so vivid that they did not need my words to be revived.
Below are excerpts from that interview, edited lightly for length and clarity.
The pain is still afresh, even though it was decades ago. I was separated from my family around the age of 9-10 years. I have only a brief recollection of my parents as they used to own an Opera Company back in the days. But music was the soul, the roof of our lives. I remember going to movies with my little brothers and sisters, eating ice-cream, singing love songs and carelessly dancing to the tunes of rock-and-roll. That childhood was short-lived. Soon after, children like me were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to the labor camp so they could be trained and brainwashed. Nearly 700 children starved to death, and I painfully witnessed the slow demise of my own brothers and sisters.
End of an Era
Under the Khmer Rouge, artists were among the first to be attacked – their free-spirited ways of being were contrary to what the Khmer Rouge wanted to establish by means of brainwashing. Traditional music was banned as it was a reminder of the “bad” or “corrupt” past; artists were killed and musical instruments were destroyed. In fact, nearly 90 percent of all performing artists of that period were killed – it was almost an end of an era. What was worse was how music and the arts were used as a double-edged sword – the Khmer Rouge not only destroyed the positive influence of artists, but also used some of their musical instruments as weapons for propaganda purposes.
Playing music saved my life – something that I realized 25 years later. Literally, I was spared from the killings because the Khmer Rouge noticed early on that I was good at playing the khim – the Khmer hammered dulcimer – and was soon enrolled in a music band to play propaganda songs about the revolution, about rice, about the glory of Angka – things that had no meaning for me.
But equally, music helped me survive. Looking back, growing up during this period was confusing for children – children who were forced to watch the killing of prisoners, day in and day out; at a time, when every little action was a judgment call around life and death. As a result, what remained of your childhood were the sounds of the killings – people being hit on the back of the head until you could hear the skull crack; the lingering smell of the dead bodies that were dumped in the adjacent mango grove and the stillness of the moments, as you eventually learned to make yourself numb to such every day events.
The Khmer Rouge used to strategically put a microphone that would echo our music on to the loudspeaker so that the killing sounds were muted in the background. Still, I could hear the moaning voices of the prisoners who were killed – I did not know how to express the horror of what I was witnessing. The only way I could cope was by playing the khim as fast as possible – so fast, it was almost identical to the pace of my panicking heartbeat.
Weapons of Destruction
Around 1978, when the Vietnamese came, my life took another drastic turn. The Khmer Rouge now took away my musical instruments and replaced them with guns. Soon, I became a child soldier, like many others who were sent to the battlefield without any training. On some instances, holding a gun made you feel like you had some power; but on many other occasions, you were rendered powerless. I carried some of my injured friends on my back for several days; I held them until they died, leaving nothing but blood on my hands. It was not possible to get rid of this blood, this smell. I decided to run away, to escape in the jungle.
From One Jungle to Another
I came to New Hampshire in the fall of 1980 – to a place called “America” that I had only heard of until then. It was as if I had escaped from one jungle and found myself in another – I did not speak the language and the kids at school bullied me; even called me a “monkey.” I remember feeling a lot of anger but did not know how to communicate it – until then, I only knew how to kill. Despite the acceptance I received from Pete [Peter L. Pond who adopted Arn from a refugee camp in Thailand], I could not process the love that I was given by them. As humans, we tend to continue toward violence – wanting to inflict pain on others because of what was done to us.
Thirteen years after – I began my journey toward recovery and healing. I volunteered with Amnesty International and founded several organizations such as “Children of War” and “Peace Makers” in Providence, Rhode Island. Working tirelessly with the youth involved in street gang groups, I encountered the face of present day wars – wars that are internally disruptive of these young people, without a clear enemy. Somewhere, I was tired in my efforts to reconcile. It was then that I decided to return to Cambodia.
Upon my return, I found my second master. These were musicians who once performed for the royalty and now nobody even knew about them. Not only were they consumed by their own insecurity, their art forms were in danger of becoming extinct. Some of the traditional music and art forms in Cambodia were oral traditions – passed on from the master to student – the prospects for which were weakened with the brutal killing of artists and musicians under the Khmer Rouge. When knowledge dies, it is the culture that dies.
I started a school of arts in a backyard, to revive what was lost. Eventually, these efforts led to what you know today as the Cambodian Living Arts. For the few masters who survived, and whom we eventually found, music became a way of reviving Cambodia as they had known before the genocide – being able to connect with their lives before the Khmer Rouge. For the younger generations, it offered a foundational education in the arts, an awareness of our past traditions as well as means of economic sustenance. The Cambodian Living Arts gave the impetus for individual agency – to choose, to control, to shape our society’s narratives, and thus became part of a larger process of reclaiming our dignity – both for the masters and the students.
With music, life came to a full circle for me. I learned from others, about my parents; it was as if my past was familiarized to me through the threads of music. Providing arts education also meant that it was contributing towards my own healing. I learned to transform myself while transforming the experiences of others. What was most precious was being able to reinstate my identity as Khmer – something I lost during my childhood in times of the genocide.
Memory and Remembrance
It is difficult to explain the contradiction – our societies are wanting to move on from the past, but our identities are still stuck with the events of the past, sometimes even obsessed with it. Till today, we fail to notice that the image of Cambodia is so much more than just the Killing Fields. The CLA was one small effort to rework this image of Cambodia – to instead, give something to people that they can remember; to better ourselves as a community.
During some of our performances, you will often notice parents who are sitting in the audience crying to even witness the kind of music being played after decades. Music has the capacity to generate those feelings – of understanding and empathy, even for the newer generations who may not have seen the past atrocities with their own eyes. Music does not judge you – in fact, it can create lasting relations between the art form, the artists and the audience – all of whom are equal and not serving a single power as was the case in the Khmer Rouge.
Of course, every survivor has a different way to cope – some people choose not to speak about it. One cannot keep poking the old wounds by talking again. We can choose to do that; to repress the pain and the memories; or we can come out of it and see the banality of everything. For me, the story needed to be told. My story – where I saw my little brothers and sisters starve to death. Being able to tell this story also ensures that their lives continue to have meaning; as if they could continue to live through me.
Dreams and Emotions
You see, children growing up under the Khmer Rouge did not know how to cry. You showed the slightest hint of emotions and the next thing you knew, you could be killed. For the longest time, I did not know what it means to cry. I used to struggle in my dreams, finding it difficult to breathe with the constant reminder of the Khmer gunshots. Sometimes I could cry, but only in those dreams. Even after all these years, I am still recovering. Sometimes, I dream of the young boy who escaped and got lost in the jungle. He keeps extending his arm toward me, asking me why I left him stranded, alone. I try so hard to reach him, but I cannot hold his hand.
May be, someday, I will.
Arpita Mitra is an independent researcher and an alumna of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, with a specialization in transitional justice and the use of arts in trauma recovery, healing and memorialization of children’s experiences. Views are personal.