PHNOM PENH - Arn Chorn-Pond sits with his eyes closed, exhaling as his fingers dart along his bamboo flute. There was a time when playing the flute was, to him, a matter of survival.
Arn was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Sent to the labor camps, he survived by learning how to play revolutionary songs on his flute. He watched as those around him were murdered or starved to death. Sometimes, he says, the music was used to cover up the screams of people being executed.
“They would put a loud microphone so I can play into it, so that people in the countryside will hear music instead of hearing the screaming," Arn recalled. "The Khmer Rouge, made a special axe, they hit people in the back of the head, and you can hear miles away, I’m telling you. You can literally hear miles away. Like an axe hitting a coconut shell, but only human skulls. I can hear it even today, in my head.”
In a country where a quarter of the population died under the Khmer Rouge, each survivor has a unique story to tell. Now, Arn is telling his story in a new way. He’s the subject of a new novel aimed at American teenagers.
Written by U.S. author Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down retells Arn’s childhood under the Khmer Rouge. The book is a work of fiction, but draws extensively from Arn’s own experiences, which he recounted to the author over a series of interviews. It tells of his eventual escape to a Thai refugee camp, and his new life in the United States, where he moved after he was adopted by an American aid worker.
Arn explains that "never fall down" is a phrase he used to tell himself repeatedly.
“Even working in the rice field if I fall down, just stumble in the rice field with the mud, if I step in the rice field and fall down once, just once, you will never get up,” Arn explained.
Although the novel describes events that are decades old, Arn says he hopes it will establish a vital link to a dark, but important story.
Today’s American teenagers were not alive back then, but their country was nonetheless closely involved in Cambodia in the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover. To try to root out Vietnamese communist forces believed to be camped along Cambodia’s eastern border, American planes secretly carried out heavy aerial bombardment.
Some historians say the bombings helped to drive civilians to support the Khmer Rouge, fueling its rise.
“Why? It's important especially for Americans to know. It’s in their consciousness, their connections to Cambodia," Arn said. "The young people now, after 25 years, a few generations down now, they say, ‘Were we involved in Cambodia?’ Sure. American kids should know also about this connection. The young people care as soon as they heard the story. When I begin to share the story they really listen, the young people in America really respond."
The book goes on to describe Arn’s experiences after leaving Cambodia - the difficulties of growing up in a new country, the only non-white kid in an all-white high school.
But Arn struggled most with a question he still can not answer: why did he survive, while his own brothers and sisters, and so many others around him, perished? Arn says for the longest time, he kept it bottled inside until he thought he would explode. That changed when his foster father arranged for him to share his story before a large audience in New York.
“And I spoke for the first time really and I broke down for the first time," Arn recalled. " And I knew how important it was for me to cry. To learn how to really share my experiences with American people. To let them know what happened here.”
Arn now splits his time between the U.S. and Cambodia. Under the Khmer Rouge, he survived because of his music. Now, he works to ensure traditional Khmer music also lives on.
“Music saved my life in the first place," noted Arn. "That’s why music's coming back to my life now again and I'm using it to the fullest, not only to just play but to pass down this culture that's dying, to the next generation.”
The organization he co-founded, Cambodian Living Arts, helps the surviving masters of traditional Cambodian instruments, and encourages young students to learn.