Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Poetry Of The Killing Fields

For years, Ly Van Aggadipo served as the spiritual mentor to many Cambodian refugees in this old mill city, guiding followers at the Glory Buddhist Temple through family issues, work problems and recurring nightmares from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. But his own internal struggles from the Khmer Rouge remained a mystery, and those who knew him say he rarely spoke of his own story of fleeing war-torn Cambodia. Then, soon after his death last year, friends found a collection of the monk’s poetry tucked under stacks of old Buddhist texts. On worn pages were handwritten, carefully crafted poems describing his memories of witnessing infant executions, starvation at labor camps and dreams of escaping to America.
Now followers are seeking to publish the poetry, even as the discovery of this vivid historical record of the atrocities has reopened for many a painful time they still have not reconciled in their own lives. “It put us in tears again,” said Samkhann Khoeun, 45, who studied under Ly Van. “We couldn’t believe it. When I read (the work), it was so vivid. It refreshed the memory.” Everyone knew the basics of Ly Van’s life, Khoeun said. “But we didn’t know the details and no one ever asked. He was so busy helping us,” Khoeun said.
Born in 1917 in a small Cambodian village, Ly Van and his family lived through the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, which perpetrated one of the worst mass genocides of the 20th century. An estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease and executions due to the radical policies of the communist group. According to the temple’s biography of Ly Van, he was forced to work on agricultural and public projects for 14 hours a day. It was during this time that the monk witnessed mass executions and large-scale starvation. In early 1979 when Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia, Ly Van and thousands of others fled to Thailand through dangerous terrain and later ended up in Lowell, a community second only to Long Beach, Calif., for the largest number of Cambodian residents living in the United States. While in Lowell, Ly Van helped establish the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and was invited to lead the Glory Buddhist Temple in 1988, a position he held until his death in January 2008.
Khoeun and others found the manuscript just days after Ly Van’s body was cremated. In one translated verse, Ly Van writes about how he and other refugees fled to Thailand by traveling through a treacherous mountain range packed with thieves and land mines. It was a well-known trek where Thai soldiers pushed refugees over cliffs at gunpoint while refugees tumbled over each other trying to escape. “Surrounded by corpses as we walked, slept and ate; an unbearably foul smell/Emanated from the swollen, rotten bodies, most of which were missing limbs and heads.” Ly Van also writes of the conditions of a refugee camp in Thailand where women were constantly raped, men were frequently beaten and families combated filthy living facilities. “…we had to sleep on the bare concrete floor, like animals/Dirty water and stench-filled raw sewage floated everywhere/We were swarmed by mosquitoes constantly, resulting in rashes all over our bodies.” Kowith Kret, whose parents were executed during the Khmer Rouge, said it was hard to read the monk’s account because it brought back the past. “But it is the fact,” said Kret, who also studied under Ly Van. “People have to accept the experience they’ve been through.”
George Chigas, a political science professor at UMass-Lowell who has seen copies of the poems, said the monk wrote in a rare 11-syllable meter style that is more than 1,000 years old in Cambodian literature. “It showed great devotion to cultural tradition and, at the same time, tries to preserve something that had been lost,” Chigas said. That’s important, Chigas said, especially since the Khmer Rouge regime burned old texts and killed scores of writers and artists. He compared Ly Van’s writing to Loung Ung’s memoir, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” as an act of “trying to put old demons to rest.” Today, an estimated 20,000 Cambodian Americans live in greater Lowell.
So far more than half of Ly Van’s poems have been translated from Khmer to English, Khoeun said. Members of the Glory Buddhist Temple are selling a CD of Ly Van’s work read in Khmer and expect the rest of the manuscript to be translated by the end of the year. They also are aiming to raise $40,000 to get 5,000 bilingual copies published by April 2010. So far, two publishers in Cambodia have expressed interest and the group still is searching for a U.S. publisher. After reading the poems, Khoeun said, he and other refugees have more questions for Ly Van. Questions, such as, when did he have time to write? What was life like in a refugee camp right before coming to America? And how many late relatives of the refugees did Ly Van know? “He knew my grandfather who died right when I was born. I never asked him about that,” Khoeun said. “I guess I always took him for granted.”
By Russell Contreras. Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Ken and Visakha said...

Thank you for posting this!

Ven. Ly Van never forgot his relatives (who are also ours), but devoted himself to their consolation.

Tirokudda Kanda

Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads.
At door posts they stand, returning to their old homes.

But when a meal with plentiful food and drink is served,
no one remembers them:
Such is the kamma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives
give timely donations of proper food and drink
-- exquisite, clean -- thinking:
"May this be for our relatives.
May our relatives be happy!"

And those who have gathered there,
the assembled shades of the relatives,
with appreciation give their blessing
for the plentiful food and drink:
"May our relatives live long because of whom
we have gained this gift. We have been honored,
and the donors are not without reward!"

For there in their realm there's no farming,
no herding of cattle, no commerce, no trading with money.
They live on what is given here,
hungry shades whose time here is done.

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here benefit the dead.

"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
they were my relatives, companions, friends":
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus on things done in the past.
For no weeping, no sorrowing, no other lamentation
benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way.

But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha,
it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.

In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown,
great honor has been done to the dead,
and monks have been given strength:
The merit you've acquired isn't small.