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Former Khmer Rouge blacksmith forges ahead

Former Khmer Rouge blacksmith forges ahead


Torm Sen hammers at his forge, as he has for the past 60 years.

The incessant metallic hammering of a busy blacksmith's shop is a most un-neighborly

noise. Appropriately, the approach to the spark-filled smithy of Torm Sen is an echoing

assault on the eardrums.

Inside the shop, on Route 5 eight kilometers north of Phnom Penh, it's an intensely

hot, clanging cacophony, and at its center - adorned in a red hat, a long-sleeved

blue shirt and a krama around his waist - is 73-year-old Torm Sen. On this day, he

is crafting a pair of metal-sheering scissors. He glistens with perspiration.

After hammering away on the new scissors for 10 minutes, Sen reluctantly leaves his

forge to sit on a bamboo bed and sip tea.

"We don't have time for relaxing," said Sen, a Cham Muslim. "Many

customers come every day to order products."

For 60 years Sen has forged and refashioned scrap metal into a wide array of domestic

and agricultural products. These days he buys metal from a junk seller near Olympic

market for 1,600 riel a kilogram. He generally pounds through one ton - $400 worth

- of scrap metal each month.

"We never have to advertise or sell at the market because people have heard

from one another that our handmade products are good quality, sharp and strong,"

said Sen's wife, Sok Khor, 57. "Many people come from many places to buy or

put in an order."

Sen's shop has never been hotter. He sells his knives for 10,000 to 20,000 riel.

On a good day he can sell more than ten.

According to Sen and his wife, the family has been able purchase two modern motorbikes,

put their children through school and build two wooden homes in Khor village, Chrang

Chamres II commune in Russey Keo district. His wife even made a visit to Malaysia

last year.

But things weren't always so lucrative for Sen.

During the Khmer Rouge era, he used to make metal agricultural implements for the

people forced to labor in the fields.

Sen said he was very lucky then, as he did not have to work as hard in the inhumane

conditions other people did. But the Khmer Rouge soldiers did not let him stray far

from his home, where kept his nose to the grindstone making knives, axes, hoes and

sickles for the laborers.

"It was lucky because I was not separated from my family, and I ate much better

than others," Sen said. "The Khmer Rouge seemed to feel pity for me and

never hurt me at all."

Sen said that during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Sihanouk) era he made about 20 axes

and knives a day. But in the Pol Pot era he made only four or five a day yet kept

busy at work all day so that the Khmer Rouge soldiers could not accuse him of being

lazy and punish him.

He said people had to work very hard under the Khmer Rouge, and many people were

killed for even very small mistakes.

"I was very sad to see those people killed," Sen said.

Sen was born in Kampong Tralach district of Kampong Chhnang province. He became a

metal smith at the age of 13, learning the trade from his father. At first he made

only knives, but later learned to make sickles, scissors, axes, and hoes. He later

moved to Kampong Speu to open his blacksmith business.

Back in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum and Lon Nol times a metal smith made just enough

money to keep his family going from day to day. And under the Pol Pot regime Sen

said he earned nothing beyond food for survival.

Sen has married twice and has had 16 children, five of whom have died. His first

wife died during the Pol Pot era. After the Khmer Rouge time Sen moved to his present

house in Russey Keo district, where he married his second wife.

Sen said being a metal smith is hard work, and requires at least two or three people.

It takes an abundance of physical energy.

Luckily for him, two of his sons have joined the business and can do much of the

work. Now Sen works only two or three hours a day, and as he gets older is gradually

handing over more work to his sons and an employee.

Sen's son, Sen Fasiin, 26, who has studied smithing from his father for four years,

says now he can make many different metal tools.

Fasiin says he works from six in the morning till five in the evening. When the business

has many orders, he doesn't take a day off.

Most of the tools Sen produces are either agricultural or household implements. He

is unconcerned at the increasing mechanization of agriculture, and says there is

still strong demand for his products.

"There's never a day when we can relax, so many customers come to order our

products," he says.


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