Cambodian musician Arn Chorn- Pond and Liberian national Nicholas Davis sat side by side at a news conference in Phnom Penh yesterday and spoke of the things they have in common—night terrors, flashbacks and headaches.
Mr Chorn-Pond, 42, served as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, while Mr Davis, 30, fought for 11 years as part of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia during the West African country’s years of civil war, which raged from 1989 to 1996 and again from 1999 to 2003.
The two men said that they and other former child soldiers shared their stories, experiences and feelings with 200 Khmer youth participants at the Peace Conference Angkor 2009 in Siem Reap presented by local NGO Youth for Peace.
The conference, which began Sept 20 and ends today, has been an opportunity for former child soldiers to discuss their past and hopefully inspire Khmer youth to talk about the Khmer Rouge period and its impact on their lives, said Andreas Selmeci, coordinator of the Civil Peace Service, a branch of Germany’s official development agency DED. “Victim and perpetrator in one person, they can be a bridge between the two groups in their country,” he said.
For example, Mr Selmeci said, Khmer Rouge soldiers typically say they were only following orders, but they rarely address the fear they felt at the time. He added that many survivors of those times continue to suppress these feelings and deal with the trauma in unhealthy ways, leading to negative behaviors that have an impact on their children, such as alcoholism or abuse.
Mr Chorn-Pond, the son of an opera company owner from Battambang, said he escaped certain death at the age of nine by playing the flute for Khmer Rouge soldiers during the days of Democratic Kampuchea. But in 1979, he was handed a gun and forced to fight Vietnamese forces in the jungle.
Mr Chorn-Pond fled in 1980, eventually making his way to a refugee camp where he met his adoptive father, who took him to the US. Although he has talked about his Khmer Rouge experiences abroad, including being the subject of “The Flute Player,” a 2003 documentary that followed him when he first returned to Cambodia, the forum was the first time he talked about his experience in his native country.
“I sometimes feel sad and alone talking about the Khmer Rouge and I feel like I’m not a good person,” he said.
Mr Davis remembers it was a Saturday in 1990 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia came through his village and forced the able-bodied men and young boys into training camps where they learned how to use AK-47s and received magical branding believed to make a soldier bulletproof.
“If you didn’t want to go, they would shoot you,” he said.
Now based in Ghana and a founder of the Veteran Child-Soldiers Association of Liberia, Mr Davis said he is traveling in the region, especially the Philippines, to talk about the use of child soldiers and the consequences that follow.
“I want people to not accept war because war is not child’s play,” Mr Davis said.