PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—A few weeks after we met, I called Arn to tell him that I would be traveling north to his home province of Battambang, Cambodia. “I’m in the movie theater,” he said. “I’ll call you back.” He said it was a horror movie about a Cambodian woman who could command the nation’s snakes—he called her “the snake lady.”
Two hours later, he retuned my call, canceled his appointments and told me he would take me to his hometown himself. The next day, Arn, his sister and I drove down a dusty red road that extended toward Wat Ek and the killing fields just beyond. On the way, we stopped to pick up his stepmother, who lived in a little shack next to a dilapidated rail line. The tin walls were decorated with pinups of Thai movie actresses, Hindu and Buddhist deities. Before the Khmer Rouge arrived, she was a star in the opera. After Pol Pot was ousted, she survived by making a living as a local astrologist and palm reader for shantytown dwellers.
The way to Battambang held secrets discernible only to those who knew its intimacies. We passed though the dust and looked beyond the road’s stony edges to the various locales where Arn’s family witnessed Khmer Rouge atrocities—9 out of his 12 brothers and sisters perished under the regime. Arn’s stepmother and sister retold the tales of those times and their stories were punctuated by a forced laughter that many in Cambodia use to mock the past. "Remember when Khmer Rouge almost raped you for singing a man's song?" mother said to sister. Together they begin to sing the song. “I thought you were a virgin/Why have you tricked me so?”
"Remember that time when they almost shot you for teaching the children to sing the opera?" said the sister. The mother laughed. "Yes, they had me tied up to that pole for two days. I never was too much of a singer."
We paused at a local cafeteria, a collection of decayed tables and chairs. When the food I paid for arrived, Arn’s stepmother and sister looked at the servings of chicken with their mouths agape and eyes wide like children. There was a car accident outside; a truck had swerved away from a little girl crossing the street and flipped on its side. They glanced at the scene briefly then returned to their meal. They spoke to each other in Khmer, and the words grew louder and more punctuated with laughter.
We arrived to Wat Ek and the stifling midday hours and the fine silence of the temple compound conjured myriad recollections. The memories arrived through the heat and the bright sunlight in ghostlike fragments, and as they issued forth, Arn’s voice became like that of a child. It shifted from the past tense to the present and the words came out matter-of-factly, as if he was talking to himself.
At first he recalled the silence that the Khmer Rouge tried to impose. It hovered about, muffling the sounds of birds and insects. “No talking. No. No talking,” Arn said to himself as he walked. But it was a false silence—interrupted both from without and from within. When he played the khlim, the music grew like thick vines inside his head and protected him from the outside. “I would play and sometimes I would think I was in heaven,” he told me. The music made sounds of asylum—sounds that shielded him from the other sounds beyond the vines. It protected him from the cadres when they laughed at their victims and taunted them before they perished. It muffled the sound of the special hammer they used to break heads, the cracking skulls “sounded like coconuts,” he said.
When he spoke to me, he gave the impression that he was revealing an evil so terrible that for the longest time, it could not be spoken. Out of the 600 or so children who came to the camp, perhaps 20 had survived. He talked about what it was like to be raped, of the smell of feces and vomit so profound that his olfactory glands simply give out as a defense mechanism. He described a little girl the Khmer Rouge chased through their living quarters—as they grabbed her hair, they bickered with one another over who would have the right to eat her spleen. He was forced to hold the naked victims while others stabbed them with bayonets. The cadres stabbed them or shot them or clubbed them with the special hammer, and Arn had to bury them—regardless of whether they were dead or still alive. He said he could still remember hearing the screams of the wounded cursing him from below the earth.
Then Arn recalled deeply repressed feelings of sickness. He walked away from the monastery for about 100 yards and gazed at a cardamom tree. It still stood at the site where late one night, he went out to steal a banana only to encounter a 6-year-old eating a corpse. “The boy always seemed to be sick during the day, but at night he would slip out,” Arn told me. He found the site of the little boy sickening, and despite his better judgment, he told the cadres what he saw. “When I told them what happened, they were angry that he had the strength to go out and eat the dead, but not the strength to work during the day. They killed him that afternoon.”
The grief was etched into the outline of Arn’s narrow face. It spoke through bulging and watery eyes and nervous fingers. As he revealed to me what had once been muffled and silent, it was clear that Arn was neither seeking exculpation for wrongs he committed nor justice for the violence performed against him. He spoke because he knew that behind every horror, there is the power of survival. A power that is human, that connects with other humans. He knew that each time he cried, he reconciled with the spirits of the dead and connected with those of the living. With each word and with each telling, his existence as a human being was at once more threatened and reaffirmed.
That evening, we ate dinner in town. Arn’s mother and sister began to tell me stories of what happened to them at the camps. Then Arn’s friends joined in. Each story was a horrible as the next. I tried to listen, but I found my head beginning to tingle as if some blister was growing inside. I watched the rats running the streets and a sickening heat enveloped me. I could no longer eat. My mind moved from the specific to the general. I knew that their stories were a kind of blues—a song that enabled them to relinquish their mask and reveal that they were still here, still living. But the more I was swept up in their tales, the more I became ill. Everyone at that table had lost a brother or a sister or a father. Everyone had believed at one time that they, too, would be extinguished.
I looked out on the landscape and saw it as a vast cemetery. The land on which the farmers plowed was littered with the fossils of the dead. I thought of the man I had seen earlier in the day, plodding behind an ox near the temple. He told us that sometimes the turning of the earth brings the bodies closer to the surface. He has grown accustomed to laboring atop the dead. The cardamom tree is a memory machine, nurtured by a femur or a tooth. I, too, eat beneath its branches.
I began to feel as though I would lose consciousness. I returned to my hotel, stumbled up three flights of steps and spent the night trying to vomit and perspire away what was inside my head. Arn knocked on the door. I didn't answer.
When I woke up the next day, my head was still spinning, but it was easier to walk and to eat. Arn had just gotten out of bed, and I could tell that he had the same recurring nightmare about running and being shot. He had dark half-moons under his eyes. He asked me how I felt, and I began to laugh. “You’ll be OK,” he told me.
The ride back to Phnom Penh was punctuated by storms that swept across the rice fields and relieved us of the heat. We ate bags of tangerines, and Arn began to sing basat operas and talk about movies. A song came on the radio—I didn’t understand the words, but the melody soothed me, and I began to sing it. “Do re mi/Do re mi son la." As we passed a pickup truck filled with strangers, my mind turned to my father dealing the cards. I reached out into the cool rain, and they, too, reached out, touching my hand as our vehicles passed.
Greg Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You can contact him here.