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Part 1
A father finds his way

Part 2
'He saves lives'

Part 3
'Heaven sent' in Badlands

Part 4
The healing touch

Part 5
AIDS is nun's calling

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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region / Everyday Heroes
A five-part series
  ARN CHORN POND (center), who counsels gang members, praying with inmates and the Venerable Sao Khon (left), a Buddhist monk, at the Billerica House of Correction. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

'He saves lives'
Traumatic lessons put to good use

By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff, 6/19/2000

OWELL - In the Killing Fields of Cambodia, he used to help undress the children and hold their hands while the Khmer Rouge chopped their skulls open with a makeshift pickax.

''It sounded like splitting coconuts,'' says Arn Chorn Pond, now a youth program coordinator for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, a community outreach group here. ''If you showed any emotion, they'd kill you,'' says Pond. ''You had to be numb.''

AT LOWELL CITY HALL, Arn lobbying for funding for one of his programs. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

The Khmer Rouge killed between 1.5 million and 1.8 million Cambodian peasants during a state-sponsored massacre between 1975-'79. Pond was only 9 years old when he lost his family in a Khmer Rouge death camp set up in the Buddhist temple where his family used to pray. He was one of 500 children forced into the Watt Aik camp. Only 60 survived.

But today he is anything but numb. Pond preaches peace between Laotian and Cambodian gangs in Lowell, and also returns each year to Cambodia to work with children. This slim, humble man is always laughing, passionate and caring. He has won a slew of awards, including the prestigious Reebok Human Rights Award.

''He saves lives one by one, sometimes at great risk to himself,'' says US District Judge Mark Wolf, a friend of Pond's. ''Arn is almost beyond heroic. He's endured horrible hardships to get to this country, and instead of being embittered, he's developed tremendous compassion and remarkable insights into solutions.''

On a recent morning, Pond and a Buddhist monk visit the Billerica House of Correction for a religious service and some private counseling of prisoners. The service is in Cambodian and Pond translates. At one point he puts his arm around a prisoner that he recognizes from his work on the streets and quietly offers encouragement.

Later, he explains why he works with gangs. ''The reward is so great when you are able to save a life from the vicious cycle of gang violence that kills so many of our youths,'' he says. ''I'm willing to risk anything, even my own life.''

In Lowell, Pond is living amidst a population that knows the trauma of war. Here, one of every three people is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.

But living in a totally alien culture, Pond says, brings new risks for both parents and children. ''The food, the religion - everything is different. The parents are working 12-15 hours a day and the kids are in isolation.

"I WANT TO HELP THE KIDS," says Arn, pictured here outside the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell. "The politicians say kids are our future, but more kids are facing prison than rehabilitation." (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

''Last year four Cambodians were either shot or stabbed to death in Lowell. They were 13-14 years old. They were my kids. I have their pictures on my walls. There are problems between Latinos and Cambodians over territory, not over drugs.

''I want to help the kids. My salary is [expletive]. We get shot at, we get stoned, all for $10 an hour and we are not valued. The politicians say kids are our future, but more kids are facing prison than rehabilitation.''

He may be on the other side of the world from Cambodia, but Pond is still haunted by the Killing Fields.

''I have a lot of headaches. It's hard in a way, my neck aches and my stomach aches. I remember the blood and the [expletive] and the dirt mixing, and the sound of the small special ax that they hit people with in the cerebellum because they didn't want to waste bullets.

''Every day, four times a day for two years, I heard it. And the bayonets, they chop the spleen, and I heard that. I was very close. The sound of the bayonet ripping into the rib cage. I still hear that and smell that, even now.''

Pond was eventually forced by the Khmer Rouge to fight the Vietnamese in the jungle. He deserted and wandered through the jungle, surviving by eating monkeys and insects. When he reached the Thai border, the 5-foot-6-inch Pond had malaria and says he only weighed 50 pounds. He was adopted by an American missionary who trained him not in religion, but in conflict resolution.

The missionary trained him well. Today, Pond is as comfortable testifying at congressional hearings as he is sharing soup bones with street children in Phnom Penh. He founded Children of War, an organization that teaches the skills necessary to survive trauma in the world's worst flash points, including inner cities in the United States. He won the Kohl International Peace Prize in 1993 and the Anne Frank Human Spirit award in 1996.

Pond also cofounded the Southeast Asian Big Brother/Big Sister Association in Providence, founded Peace Makers for troubled teens in Providence, received an Amnesty International Human Rights Award in 1991, and in 1993 returned to Cambodia and founded the Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development. His scrapbook is filled with photos: Pond and Jimmy Carter. Pond and Nelson Mandela. Pond and Bruce Springsteen. Pond and Peter Gabriel. The pop musician has asked Pond, an accomplished flutist, to perform at human rights events.

Pond also teaches his students to express themselves with music. In early April, at a Cambodian New Year's celebration at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, the dance troupe he teaches performed in front of several thousand people.

But for Pond music is more than a hobby. He says it saved his life.

''They [the Khmer Rouge] asked me to play in the middle of this killing,'' he recalls. ''In the middle of this starvation, they said, `OK, we're gonna start a group of music and dancers to perform for the leaders.' People were starving. I thought to myself, `These people are crazy, man.' We were so weak we couldn't jump, we couldn't perform. So I was smart. I said I would play music. An old man taught five kids. Then they killed the old guy, but he saved us.''

Pond was given more food.

''They asked me to look after two cows and a horse during the day and in the evening, the Khmer Rouge leaders would come and I would perform for them. When I practiced my flute I would feel like I was in a different world. I would forget I was hungry or that the Khmer Rouge might kill me now. That was life or death for me.

''Now I use music here, but it's a different culture. Rap. Break dancing. Some people want me to push only the traditional Cambodian music, but we do both. They are in both worlds and we have produced some CDs and the kids like them.''

As a peacemaker, Pond sometimes gets grief from both sides.

''My kids say, `Arn, you agree too much with the police' and they spit on my face and say `I don't need your help.' Then the police say, `Arn, you're on the gangs' side. We should throw them in jail and toss away the key.' And it hurts me.

''But being the middle is being the bridge. It takes two hands to clap and very clearly I hold my stance.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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