by Alexa Pinsker
“I do this work so I don’t go insane. I want to make my life meaningful for those that died, if I didn’t do this work what would I live for?” Arn Chorn-Pond.
Photo Credit: Emily Seagrave
While doing our practicum in Cambodia, I read a book that our supervisor had highly recommended in order to gain more cultural awareness for our practicum. The book “Never Fall Down” by Patricia Mccormick shares the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond who is a child living in Cambodia and attending school like most in his rural village. In 1975 soldiers from the Khmer Rouge arrive in his town and demand that the entire village march into the countryside without explanation. Arn watches as fellow villagers are beaten, killed, and fall ill from disease during this long march into the unknown. The soldiers eventually explain that the villagers will be forced to work in labor camps as part of the new government led by Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge – a communist party based on the premise that all Cambodians should be living in an Agrarian society where the educated, artistic or political minded are exterminated. Teachers, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, light skinned people, and wealthy people were all targeted, tortured, imprisoned and / or killed. Children were separated from their parents in work camps. In this very graphic account of his experience Arn describes the horrors of his everyday life, but also his drive to survive. Although he was not previously a musician, he learned that if he could master certain instruments and learn the revolutionary songs of the Khmer Rouge he could survive. As a member of the Khmer Rouge, Arn also participated in merciless killings of others and cruel acts.
When the Khmer Rouge fell after 4 years of power due to the Cambodian-Vietnamese war, Arn was adopted by an American minister, Mr. Pond during his stay in a refugee camp in Thailand. He then spent high school and college in the United States under the care of Mr. Pond.
Before going to Cambodia we watched a documentary entitled “The Flute Player” which shared Arn’s current experience in Cambodia as a musician and Khmer Rouge survivor. Arn started the Cambodian Master Performer’s Program in order to revive the traditional music of Cambodia which was banned during the Khmer Rouge and virtually forgotten by Cambodia’s current population as 1/3 of the population was killed during the genocide also erasing Cambodia’s cultural history. Arn mentors Cambodian youth in the USA and in his home country to both teach and encourage the folk music of Cambodia. In this beautiful documentary Arn explains that there is a lot of pain and anger being a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. In order to find meaning in his own life, he has sought out other survivors attempting to make sense of the situation. “I do this work so I don’t go insane. I want to make my life meaningful for those that died, if I didn’t do this work what would I live for?” he says in the film.
One of the most meaningful moments of our trip to Cambodia was our visit to Arn Chorn-Pond’s home in the countryside. We were invited to listen to him play music with his partner Seyma and swim in the Mekong River. The conversation was light and friendly as some of us took a dip in the river alongside his home. His smile was huge and warm, and then we all gathered for lunch and to hear his performance. Here is a recording of the song that Arn and Seyma chose to sing which is called sraleanh in Khmer, which translates to love in English. Click here to listen to: Cambodian Love Song.
Photo Credit: Erin Shannon
Arn explained that the Khmer Rouge targeted artists because they expressed who they were as artists. As an art therapy student I feel grateful to be able to express myself. Arn is the true revolutionary as he is using the creative arts to heal and to transform and revitalize a country deeply traumatized by genocide.
Audio Recording: Emily Wilson
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