Accordion Saved Man's Life -- Cambodian's Musical Ability Spared Him In Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields

The question was simple enough: "How did you survive?"

Cambodian refugee Daran Kravanh has been thinking about the answer for two years, and only one thing is clear - his survival through one of history's most horrific episodes had less to do with strength or cunning and more to do with a beat-up old accordion.

No question it's a curious thing to be saved by - a boxy apparatus, half-bellows and half-piano, identified with cornball and sap and things obsolete - but Kravanh speaks of it with reverence because he would have ended up in a mass grave, like his parents and seven siblings, without it.

It seemed the Khmer Rouge, who in the mid-1970s ruled Cambodia and butchered 2 million of its people, had a soft spot for certain forms of music. Kravanh was spared because a few Khmer Rouge soldiers liked his playing.

That barbarous men can enjoy music as much as good men is a mystery that Kravanh lives with, and doesn't try to figure out.

He now lives in Tacoma. He is 40, with the skin of a 20-year-old and the long-suffering eyes of an 80-year-old. He smiles a lot. He's very busy. He's a husband and father, social worker, full-time student, part-time soccer referee, musician and, lately, a storyteller.

For the past two years, he has been telling his story to Bree Lefreniere, who heads the refugee assistance program for Catholic Community Services in Tacoma, where Kravanh also works as a youth program coordinator. Lefreniere has written a book about Kravanh, titled, "The Accordion."

The story recounts how Kravanh first discovers the accordion at age 6 and realizes he is good at it. He grows up in a happy family that is eventually scattered and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Kravanh spends a year in the forests with 10 other men, all of whom eventually die.

The rest of the book chronicles his time as a worker under the Khmer Rouge, when he is brought time and again to the brink of death to be saved, uncannily, by someone who wants to hear his music.

His salvation begins one day while he is walking in the forest as part of a Khmer Rouge logging crew. He is exhausted from starvation and overwork, on the verge of final collapse. That's how many workers died: quietly, while working.

He happens upon an accordion on a tree stump. He begins to play it but soon is discovered by its owner, a Khmer Rouge soldier.

During its 3 1/2-year reign, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed government leaders, teachers, professionals, artists and musicians - anyone with education or training who might threaten the Khmer Rouge world view. But instead of killing Kravanh, the soldier asks if he knows how to play.

Kravanh plays for him. Before long he is playing for an audience of Khmer Rouge soliders, one of whom arranges for Kravanh to get his own accordion.

For a time, he is separated from the other workers to become part of a musicians group, assigned to perform for Khmer Rouge gatherings where only Khmer Rouge songs are permitted.

The musicians are granted special favors, such as extra food, while other workers are dying by the thousands. Those who do not starve to death succumb to disease. Many are executed for working too slowly, asking a wrong question or expressing grief.

In one incident, an executioner is sent to kill Kravanh for playing songs considered unpatriotic to the Khmer Rouge. Kravanh is playing when the soldier enters his house:

He (the soldier) listened until the end of the song. Then the most extraordinary thing happened. This brutal man looked into my eyes and . . . said to me, "I am a Khmer Rouge soldier. I am trained to kill my own parents if I am ordered to, so why can't I kill you?"

The just-completed manuscript has been accepted by a literary agent, Elizabeth Wales, who said it was "one of the more moving manuscripts I've ever read." Wales said she's confident the manuscript will be accepted by a major publisher.

"The story reminds us that we have some commonness as human beings," shown in this case when "the victim gets through to the humanity of the torturer through music," Wales said. One of the messages is that "it's not science, not law, not policy that saves us. It's art, beauty, truth."

The story probably would not have been told had Lefreniere not asked Kravanh one autumn day in 1992, "How did you survive?" Neither knew at the time that the question, asked innocently over lunch, would start a two-year process of question-and-answer, of remembering and purging and crying and, sometimes, a little screaming. Lefreniere took notes.

"The first time I met Bree, I didn't have a plan to say, `Oh, I will tell this to her,' " Kravanh said. "She just asked me. I said it was a long story; are you sure you want to know? She said, `I love to write,' and I said, `I love to tell.' "

Kravanh is still teaching music, this time to Southeast Asian refugee kids in the Tacoma area, many of whom carry in their lives the legacies of war and genocide as Kravanh does. The nightmares, the flashbacks, the grief for his family - they will always be there for him.

Among his plans: to finish up at Tacoma Community College, study political science at The Evergreen State College, work as an activist and advocate for the refugee community.

And maybe, someday, he will read his own story. He hasn't been able to do that so far.

"When I read it, everything still sticks in my eyes. I want to cry out and shout," he said. "I can't read and read and read. When I get to a very sad paragraph, I just stop. `How can I do this?' I need to have control over my emotions. Then I can read it."