Arn Chorn Pond (third from right, in blue shirt) at the beginning of a community concert earlier this week. The former child soldier who founded Cambodia Living Arts is now recording his own songs. Photograph: Roth Meas/Phnom Penh Post
Music could be heard from houses, rich or poor, in Battambang town. People strolled leisurely across lawns. Children flew kites and vendors sold food along the street.
These are the sounds and images remembered from Khmer New Year 1975 – before the Khmer Rouge arrived and eventually turned a child into a soldier; they are also the images that journalist Patricia McCormick uses to begin her biography of Arn Chorn Pond, the former child soldier who went on to found Cambodia Living Arts.
Never Fall Down starts when he was nine and describes how music saved him from death and inspired him to work towards peace. Arn Chorn Pond says the book is accurate and that its author did not restrict her interviews to him.
“She also checked with former Khmer Rouge members who knew me in the past,” he said as he retold his story, beginning with his separation from his family and forced imprisonment in Wat Ek Phnom labour camp, about 10 kilometres from Battambang town.
As a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge he was forced to learn how to play a traditional instrument, the Khem, and become a member of a band. He recalls seeing people killed with an axe and being forced to help carry and bury corpses. He also remembers stealing food for himself and other children, as well as his music teacher, even though this could have resulted in his death.
Children selected for the band who did not learn to play an instrument quickly were executed, he says. “They blindfolded me and forced me to play the Khem. I learned how to play fast, so they kept me alive. The kids who learned slowly disappeared,” he recalls.
From musician to soldier to refugee
When Vietnamese forces pushed the Khmer Rouge towards the Thai border, Arn Chorn Pond and other children were handed rifles to fight them. He said he tried to forget what the Khmer Rouge had done so that he could fight against the Vietnamese, but eventually he, along with a group of other children, fled towards the Thai border to escape the war.
Arn Chorn Pond recalls being accused of being a Khmer Rouge solider, but says he understood his actions as defending his country against an invader, but he eventually choose to escape to Thailand because he thought there would be more food there.
It took him weeks to find and then cross the border and he recalls fainting from exhaustion and hunger numerous times. After crossing the border, he fainted again and was awoken by the sound of a bus that was picking up orphans who had escaped Cambodia.
Eventually he was fostered by a Christian clergyman and went to live in the United States, but returned in 1987 to search for his family. He found one sister here and later, while back in the States, he located another.
“I travelled back and forth [between Cambodian and the US] since 1987. I’d stay here for a few months, and then go back to the United States to raise money,” Arn Chorn Pond says. “Under the Khmer Rouge, we wanted to help other very much, but it was not possible. Now we are free, so why we don’t help each other as much as we can?”
In 1992 he set up Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development in Battambang, an educational NGO, and in 1998 he set up Cambodian Living Arts to preserve traditional arts. For the latter, he gathered older people to teach youths their musical and artistic skills.
More recently, he started a music-video-production company, Waterek, to produce his own songs.
Never Fall Down recounts how Arn Chorn Pond saw former Khmer Rouge members change into civilian clothes in order to enter refugee camps, but he asked the author not to use their names to avoid reviving conflict.
“The names were changed because some people are still alive and they would not want their names in the book. Personally, I’m not afraid, but it’s time to reconcile. We have to avoid fighting. Still, everything described in the book is true,” he says.
“I hope my book reaches the hands of young people because I want to share with them the story of what happened to young people during the Khmer Rouge. I also want to encourage them to spend time doing something good for society rather than spending their time drinking.”