28 January 2004

Music through the Dark

There must have been many "reluctant elements" in Cambodia at that time because every night the soldiers took someone to kill. At first they did not kill in the light of day. The soldiers always took people at night and killed them in the animal world of the forest.

The soldiers were constantly looking for mistakes, indications of sabotage, enemies. They became more and more irrational. At first just the staff and military officers of the former government were killed. After a while, the definition of enemies expanded to include anyone with an education, anyone wearing glasses, then the families, even small children, of the enemy. People were killed for the smallest imperfection--asking a soldier a question, eating food other than that rationed to them, being late to work, anything at all. We used to say these men had pineapple eyes: hundreds of eyes looking for mistakes and reasons to kill.

One of the men I had been in the forest with made the fatal mistake of missing his family. he had not adjusted to living in the cooperative and became depressed. His depression made him careless, however, and he began to talk about missing his wife and children, missing his home in Phnom Penh, misisng the feeling of being full. So one night the soldiers pulled him from his hammock and took him to the forest. We heard a single shot. They wanted to kill his idea of what society should be. That was how the soldiers were. They believed that in order to kill an idea, you must kill the body.

I came to know all of this not at once but gradually over a number of weeks. When I realized what had happened, I cried to myself, "This is not Cambodia and these are not my people! Where is my Cambodia?" I could not comprehend.
SOURCE: Music through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia, by Bree Lafreniere (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 81-82. The speaker is Daran Kravanh, whose love for music endangered his life and whose accordion-playing helped save it.
I cannot tell you how or why I survived; I do not know myself. It is like this: love and music and memory and invisible hands, and something that comes out of a society of the living and the dead, for which there are no words.
UPDATE: By coincidence, the January 29 edition of The Guardian carries a story about a remarkable documentary film, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, by one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng.
Unlike Belsen or Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng was primarily a political death centre. Leading members of the Khmer Rouge movement, including those who formed an early resistance to Pol Pot, were murdered here, usually after "confessing" that they had worked for the CIA, the KGB, Hanoi: anything that would satisfy the residing paranoia. Whole families were confined in small cells, fettered to a single iron bar. Some slept naked on the stone floor. On a school blackboard was written:

1. Speaking is absolutely forbidden.
2. Before doing something, the authorisation of the warden must be obtained.

"Doing something" might mean only changing position in the cell, and the transgressor would receive 20 to 30 strokes with a whip. Latrines were small ammunition boxes labelled "Made in USA". For upsetting a box of excrement the punishment was licking the floor with your tongue, torture or death, or all three.
Of course, the reporter is John Pilger, so the chief culprits are Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, whose work "Pol Pot completed" (that notorious capitalist lickspittle!).

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