Cambodia war survivors turn to music

By Denis D. Gray
The Associated Press

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AP) — By the walls of ancient temples, survivors of Cambodia’s killing fields and minefields drop their crutches, put aside their artificial limbs, and blindly grope for their instruments — and then play music.

A mournful melody floats from a two-stringed “tro” bowed by Kak Vy, whose right leg is gone. He is joined by a zither plucked by Khieu Sarath, who lost his parents and sisters to Khmer Rouge murderers and whose mine-shattered leg was amputated without morphine. Phun Ath, blinded by a rocket, taps a drum softly.

Now, the first tourists arrive at the wondrous temples of Angkor, and the 20 musicians hope that by dusk, their playing will have earned them enough to sustain their families for another day. Together, they support more than 100 children and wives.

The musicians’ lives mirror Cambodia’s agony: 3 million dead in three decades of a savage war, American bombing, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, a civil conflict, and now coping in a country where a third of the people earn less than $1 a day.

Several members of Ankor’s two orchestras say they teetered on the verge of suicide before finding hope by banding together to play the music of their ancestors.

“When I lost my leg, I didn’t want to live on this earth anymore,” said Khieu Sarath. “Before I lost my leg, my friends called me ‘friend,’ but when I became a disabled man even my close friends would call out, ‘One legged-man, where are you going?’”

Khieu Sarath’s trials began during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in the mid-1970s, when 2 million of his fellow Cambodians perished.
Fanatic communists executed his father because he allowed cows he was tending to stray into a cornfield, and they executed his starving mother because she stole a cup of porridge from the communal kitchen. His two sisters were killed for taking a nap after grueling hours building a dam.

In the civil war that followed the Khmer Rouge fall in 1979, Khieu Sarath set off a land mine during a firefight and writhed in pain for 16 days in a remote jungle until help arrived. The people tied his hands to a tree.

“My leg was cut like raw meat with a hack saw, without any injections,” said the 48-year-old former soldier.

“Life was difficult for a disabled man. At the beginning, I did not particularly want to be a musician. But I had no choice. I had to find something that was not difficult for a disabled man, and this job fits a lot of people like me,” he said.

Khieu Sarath gathered some of the disabled people in 1997, and now seven of them play at Angkor’s much-visited Ta Phrom, a monastic complex where gnarled roots and soaring trunks of ancient banyan and silk cotton trees intertwine with crumbling, dusky temples.

“Victims of Landmines,” is written on a sign in five languages. If every passing tourist who clicked a camera donated, the group would be rolling in cash, but as it is, they’re very lucky to earn several dollars apiece, plus $4 daily saved in a communal pot for any among them in distress.

Most of the musicians are former soldiers. Several desperate villagers from the surrounding area have joined them, including Nov Rey, the only woman among the 20 whose husband threw acid on her face for a reason she still can’t fathom. A smile shines from her scarred face as she relates what it takes to care of her five children alone.

The group was brought together in 1999 by Phun Saroeun, who lost his left leg and two fingers fighting the Khmer Rouge alongside his two brothers, one now blind, the other missing a leg, and both also members of the orchestra.

Six of their cousins — an entire family — were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge.

“I hope that a regime like the Khmer Rouge will never return to Cambodia. I hope that my children will not have to endure the same suffering as we did,” said the 46-year-old father of seven.

The Angkor musicians say the long delayed, United Nations–backed trial of the top five Khmer Rouge leaders, which began in earnest last month, may bring some closure and peace to them and their country.

“As an ordinary person, I want all five of them to publicly admit before the Cambodian people that they are guilty. I want them to confess that they committed genocide,” Phun Saroeun said. (end)

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