Kruy Nop, left, and Pang Thoerm pray during an April 17 vigil at Wat Vipassanaram in Long Beach. The annual observance commemorates the Killing Fields genocide. (Carlos Delgado/For the Press Telegram)
By Greg Mellen Staff Writer
Long Beach Press Telegram (California, USA)
LONG BEACH - Many years ago, April was a happy month for Chantara Nop. Now it comes with shadows.
The Cambodian New Year in the middle of the month with its spring blossoms and spirit of renewal has forever become colored by the memories of April 17, 1975, for Nop and many other Cambodians.
That was the last day Nop saw his five brothers alive. That was the day darkness came to his home with the onset of the Killing Fields genocide, that would leave millions dead in less than four years under the brutal Khmer Rouge reign.
Nop, a small, thin, unimposing man, is one of the pre-eminent poets of his country. And every April 17, he pours out his soul and his tears onto the page as he remembers.
The small, frail survivor of the atrocities of 34 years ago recited one of his newest poems, titled simply "April 17, 2009," to a gathering of fellow Khmer Rouge victims and younger Cambodian-Americans on Friday night.
The event, in its fifth year, is an annual occurrence started by the Killing Fields Memorial Center to commemorate the dead, remember the past and teach the young about the darkness that enveloped Cambodia.
At Wat Vipassanaram, where Friday's event was held, monks prayed for the dead, with the venerable Kruy Nop, no relation to Chantara, reciting the requiem.
Kruy Nop, who recently returned to the temple, said the memorial prayers are important.
"This is a problem we all share," Kruy Nop said of survivors, including himself. "It's something we have to do because a lot of people died in this regime."
By praying and doing good deeds, Kruy Nop said the living can send good wishes to the lost souls of family members and other victims.
In addition to the prayers, there were testimonials by victims and a candlelight vigil.
While the memorial was held, the United Cambodian Community was staging its first commemorative day with a dinner, prayers and talks.
Sara Pol-Lim, executive director of UCC, also invited a number of members of the Jewish community to her event to highlight their shared histories with holocausts.
This week also marks Yom HaShoah, when Jews remember the Nazi holocaust.
Deborah Goldfarb, executive director of the Jewish Federation in Long Beach, said it is important for communities that have experienced genocide to have dialogue, "so we can learn from each other and heal together."
For Chantara Nop, who has written more than 4,000 poems and has been published and translated worldwide, the process of "throwing my feelings onto paper" as he calls it, is not without cost.
"Most of the time in April I'm sad," Chantara Nop says. "It used to be fun - the New Year, spring. Now it's really mixed."
In his newest poem, Nop writes about April 17 being written into his heart and the hearts of all Cambodians and about "the darkness, the devilish darkness" it brings.
In the poem he remembers how Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, killed people with any implement he could find. Nop remembers the screams of his people at dusk when the killings occurred, of mountains of bones and not being allowed to cry, of becoming a human ox who had to carry a cart around town and of an all-encompassing hunger.
The tale is all the more harrowing because it is true. Chantara Nop says it is vital that young people understand what their forbears endured and to never forget.
Rabbi John Borak of Amud Ha-Schachar looked to the future when he spoke at the UCC event.
"What matters most is what we do with our freedom," Borak said, adding that it is important not to live in the past or let it dictate a course. "Once we are free of tyranny, who do we become?"