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‘Art as Witness’ Aims To Heal Survivor Trauma

Mr. Peter Ouch, a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, takes part in an art project that is designed to help survivors deal with trauma, in Santa Ana, California on April 28, 2011.

“I don’t want to talk about, or recall, the memories of the Khmer Rouge,” says one survivor. “I always cry.”

“My mother died,” says another. “My brother died.”

“My husband passed away,” says another, “and what were left were my three children and myself.”

These are Khmer Rouge survivors who hope that art can help them heal. They were participants of a workshop called “Art as Witness,” held last week in Santa Ana, Calif. In it, US-Cambodians still trying to cope with the trauma of the regime gathered to paint, draw, sing and dance.

“We want to empower them, make their voices heard,” said Nou Leakhena, executive director for the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, which hosted the event. “In everything that they draw, we want them to know that they have the power and a voice; because if they keep quiet, the trauma that they incurred from the Khmer Rouge and have been keeping inside will build up.”

The first part of the workshop was dedicated to drawing and painting. Survivors were invited to draw what they could remember of the Khmer Rouge, from torture to lost family members or anyone else they could recall.

Some 50 pictures were drawn at the April 28 gathering, added to another 100 drawn in other workshops. Nou Leakhena said she hopes to create an art gallery in Cambodia to showcase the pictures and other works of survivors.

Lach Chea, a survivor who has filed a complaint with the UN-backed tribunal, said she is still frightened of the Khmer Rouge. She takes medication to keep for from thinking of the regime and remain calm, she said.

“I drew a picture of myself going to work and having nothing to eat,” she said. “So I was crying, and this is my child following me. And we were sad. This is my body with the skeleton sticking out. I was extremely skinny. I was very much starving.”

The second part focused on singing and dancing. Ok Promsodun, artist-in-residence of the institute, took the lead and showed participants classical dance movements and their meaning.

Ok Prumsodun said he wanted to include the arts in such healing processes, but the therapy workshop was still in development.

“I am still not sure if I’ve already gotten them close to finding peace and harmony of mind,” he said. “But for thousands of years, art and classical dance were ways to reach peace and harmony. And these survivors do not have a way to communicate their sorrow and trauma, so art is a way to help them communicate with us.”

Nou Leakhena, who came to the US when she was three but did not experience the Khmer Rouge, said she nevertheless feels a duty to help survivors, through these kinds of workshops and by helping them engage with the Khmer Rouge trials underway in Phnom Penh.

So far, the tribunal has accepted 170 complaints from the institute, including 41 civil party complainants for an upcoming case against jailed Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith.

The Applied Social Research Institute is “a social study institute,” Nou Leakhena said. “And I am a sociologist. I wanted to use the [education] and skills of a sociologist to help educate this society and especially help heal its trauma.”