Mute Tree | Y-Dang Troeung | Granta

Mute Tree

Y-Dang Troeung

Cambodians have a phrase to describe the loss of language in what is known as ‘Pol Pot time’. It is dam-doeum-kor, which translates to planting the kapok tree or mute tree. The emphasis on planting and rooting suggests that when language abandoned us, when words were no longer capable of making meaning of our world, Cambodians still nurtured the seed of rebirth and regeneration, believing that, from the void within, the kapok tree would one day re-emerge. Silence during Pol Pot time carried an intentionality, a planting of something for an imagined future that was not yet visible.

In the case of many Cambodian women like my mother, this seed was human life itself, nurtured in the womb and long afterwards. The kapok tree, the refugee child who would one day speak for herself, is like the lotus flower that grows out of the mud. It symbolizes the capacity for the renewal of life, for rebirth of spirit and pralung (soul) in the darkest places.


When I was growing up, my father often told me about the kapok tree. As a child, he loved the dry season in Cambodia when the kapok tree pods would ripen, turning from bright green to brown and growing to the size of corn husks. He remembers the large piles of harvested brown pods at his father’s trading business in Kampong Thom, where workers removed the white cotton fibres from these pods. To him, the tree was like magic, its fluffy cotton the material of all the pillows and cushions that lined his household. The kapok tree grew everywhere, belonged to no one, and provided for everyone.

In Khmer, the word kor means both kapok and mute. It is said that when the wind blows in Cambodia, the leaves of doeum-kor, the kapok tree, make no sound; therefore, the kapok tree is like a person who is mute, or, rather, a person who is mute is like the ancient kapok tree.

During Pol Pot time, Cambodian people recited the proverb to plant a kapok tree (dam-doeum-kor) to each other as a word of wisdom from one Cambodian person to another about how to survive the genocide. To plant a kapok tree, then, exists as a way of knowing, being and surviving.


The kapok tree is a source of livelihood for Cambodian people: its silky fibres are used for textile production and cushion stuffing; its plants and seed pods are eaten as snacks; and its bark can be used medicinally to treat illnesses.

The Floral Hole ink drawing by Visoth Kakvei draws us into a space of paradox that confounds and unsettles so much of what we know or think we know about trauma, loss and survival. When we enter into that space, we delve into a spiral of infinite darkness, but we also swirl into a field of life: a lifeworld, a meditative, repetitious space of beauty, creativity and regeneration.

The aftermaths of war and displacement are a lifelong process of finding the shape of living and healing. Knowledge of sources of living, and the means to stay silent, make life in blocked passages habitable, viable and sometimes even beautiful.


One day, when my father is away on assignment with a men’s work brigade, he comes across a field of kapok trees.

He knows that the Khmer Rouge regime has now forbidden Cambodian people to forage for food or to plant vegetables of their own. All the resources of the land that provided for Cambodian people for centuries – the trees, the water, the plants – are now the sole property of the state. People are given only two bowls of rice gruel each day. ‘Stealing’ food is punishable by death. And so, many people starve, and watch their loved ones starve, even as the natural abundance of the land flourishes all around them.

On this day, in front of the kapok tree, my father weighs the risks and benefits of defying the regime to feed himself and his family, as he will do hundreds of times over the course of the next four years. This time, he takes the risk. He picks a few pods from the tree, cracks them open and savours their black delicious seeds under the cool shade of the quiet branches. For this brief moment, the kapok tree quells his hunger and reminds him of the old days, the happy times, before the war.


Sometimes, like the silent branches of the kapok tree, life makes no sound. At other times, life finds a way of speaking through silence, speechlessness and laboured speaking.

In my family’s stories I have searched for ways to listen to and read this difficult ground, to hear its accounts of worlds destroyed and remade. My search has led to my own silence, my own yearning not to see myself – my refugee image – but only to hear myself speak. Why is it so hard for me to speak?

I have yet to meet a Cambodian survivor from my mother and father’s generation who is not familiar with the proverb of the kapok tree. Perhaps it is one of the darkest ironies of the Cambodian genocide that those who did survive had to learn to tell their story, and to do so often, for whoever wanted to know. Perhaps that is why we have had to become, to some extent, like the kapok tree.

It was called ‘Planting a Kapok Tree’ in Cambodia . . . It was more than just keeping one’s mouth shut, seeing and hearing nothing; it also meant ‘don’t stand out.’ Avoid the Khmer Rouge soldiers as interaction breeds emotion and gets one noticed, taken away and never seen again. This logic was used to survive in Pol Pot’s new world, his return to year zero, where everything, including emotion and feeling, was extinguished as wrong.

– Karl Levy, Sinarth: A Dedication to Life

The word sanction once gave honour, permission, authority. But when Cambodian people were given a sanction, it only imposed a cruel penalty on its people.

Like many countries today that disintegrate under the weight of disease and starvation, Cambodia in the 1980s was relinquished to a devastating famine. During Pol Pot time, Cambodian people like my family lived off two bowls of watery rice gruel a day for almost four years, stunting their capacity for resistance. After the Vietnamese army (America’s greatest enemy during this era) invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the West imposed a sanction on foreign aid to Cambodia. No food arrived in Cambodia. No medicine. Nothing.

We didn’t have enough of anything, my mother once told me about this time of total insufficiency. The sanctions of war propelled a spiralling exodus of refugees. Some wanted to leave Cambodia forever; others just walked toward the borders in search of food.

What emerged from sanctions was the Cambodian land bridge – a human flow of Cambodian people over land from the north-western regions of Cambodia to the refugee camps at the Thai border. The term land bridge comes from the field of biogeography and refers to a strip of land that forms across an expanse of water, linking two previously unconnected land masses. The formation of a land bridge allows for a new circuit of migration to take shape.

From 1979 to 1980, Cambodian men, women and children walked for days to pick up rice, seeds and tools that had been stockpiled at the border camps. They carried heavy bags of rations on their heads, traversing dangerous paths of land mines, warring militias, checkpoints, dehydration and the hazards of the jungle. How many women, like my mother, were carrying food on their backs and new life in their wombs as they walked?

In the image of the land bridge, the ingenuity of refugee survival is laid bare alongside the scourge of permanent war. Backward from Cambodia to Laos, Vietnam and Korea, and forward to Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen – how far can this bridge wind on?


One of the most common injuries suffered by people in war zones is called a concussive wave. When a bomb hits the earth, it sends a shock wave through the air that radiates outward. The effects of these waves on the body and mind are not well studied, but doctors speak of blast-associated traumatic brain injuries. Blast traumas, tear connections, shock waves. This is the vocabulary of invisible wounding.

In 1974, concussive waves rippled across Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh during a deadly battle at the end of the dry season. With fury in their hearts after years of living under aerial bombardments, the Khmer Rouge guerrillas blasted the city using American 105mm Howitzers, guns they had acquired on the black market. In retaliation, the US-backed Lon Nol army fought back with their American-made T-28 bomber jets. In the wake of the fighting, the fires came. They blazed through every street, every school and every home in the city’s north-eastern residential district, not far from where my parents and two older brothers lived.

I think of Phnom Penh today, in 2021, as another era of war is being called to an end. In 2001, Afghanistan became a new battleground of conflict that burned under the fires of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, an occupation that continued for twenty years and is said to have now ended. As in Cambodia, the war in Afghanistan has left a legacy of invisible wounds and unspeakable grief: one of the largest amputee populations in the world, a collapsed infrastructure, an ongoing refugee exodus.

From 1863 to 1953, Cambodia was a colony of France. War came in 1946, and besides some brief moments of stillness, did not end until the early 1990s, when the Vietnamese armies finally left the country. By then, war had been present for over forty years. In Afghanistan, too, war has been unceasing, besides a moment of stillness here and there, since 1978, over forty years. Forty years of wave upon wave of bombs and battles and death. Entire generations, submerged.

The long wars wear down a population, slowly, like water corroding a cracked surface. The long wars engulf the lives of soldiers who return home in states of depression, memory loss, PTSD and shell shock. But these soldiers only spend months, or perhaps a few years in these waves, and they are always far from home. What can we say about the brain health of people whose sense of war is one of permanence, whose home is war itself?


In Cambodia, my parents called bombs kro bike, which literally meant broken seed.

Bombs break nature apart. They pound and pummel the earth far outside the natural cycles of life. Ending lives and maiming bodies, bombs are the antithesis to what the seed embodies – life, growth and regeneration. Bombs crater and deform the land. They bend and truncate trees. They make the water, air and homes of human and non-human life uninhabitable for generations to come.

From 1970 to 1973, Cambodia, once known as an Island of Peace, wanted no part in the Vietnam War. But the bombs kept arriving, all 2.7 million tons of them, dropped by US airplanes. These broken seeds transformed Cambodia’s lush, tropical landscape into a scarred surface, freckled with hollowed-out spots.

Not all the bombs would detonate right away. Some would lay dormant for years, some for decades, just beneath the earth’s skin. They would begin to fragment, one by one, triggered by feet foraging for food, or small hands searching for toys.

Today, fifty years later, broken seeds still sprout from the ground. They add to the ticker of body counts and maimings. In the watery craters that Cambodian people today call ‘bomb ponds’, fragile little ecosystems grow.


Courtesy of Colin Grafton

Courtesy of Vandy Rattana


A photograph of a scorched landscape outside of Phnom Penh captures the early destruction wrought by US bombs. With its monochrome palette of a lone survivor, ruined landscape and darkened skies, the photo evokes the tones and composition of an apocalyptic death-world.

These reflections call attention to the sonic violence of concussive waves and its tormenting effect. The waves would create madness out of anger, desolation and despair, which would harden into a militarized collectivity of rebellion that would relentlessly seek its revenge on the imperialists and landowners in the years to come.

Madness is featured in the photo’s landscape, a surreal and awe-inspiring combination of beauty and terror. The broken seeds create broken infertility. The lone person walking through it does not stand tall against a scarred and sublime landscape, but is, as are all refugees, conjoined with it.


The atrocities that have rippled across Cambodia to our shores evade calculation. We speak of the deaths as countless, the violence as inconceivable, the event itself as outside of our beliefs in reality, in mankind.

Yet as I write this in 2021, the US is still demanding that the debt from the early 1970s – money spent on war munitions and to keep alive the army fighting the Khmer Rouge – must be repaid. It was $278 million in the 1970s; today the debt to the US stands at more than US $700 million.

In February 2017, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt insisted at a press conference in Phnom Penh that ‘it’s in Cambodia’s interest not to look at the past, but to look at how to solve this [debt] because it’s important to Cambodia’s future’.

What does it mean to be asked to pay this debt? How do we understand our own pain caused by US bombs as incalculable, yet the deaths caused by those bombs as payable debts?

The US bombing of Cambodia devastated the country’s civilian and agricultural infrastructure and contributed to a massive food shortage that paved the way for the United States to step in with a loan to Cambodia in the form of agricultural commodities. The loan was made to the Lon Nol government, a regime seen by many as coming to power illegitimately through a US-backed coup in 1970.

The lender rarely needs the money they lent. What they need is the debt to be permanent, to be, in many senses of the word, outstanding – to stand out so much that it covers up any question of reparations, of covert intervention and secret war. Debt masks culpability.

Many Cambodians view debt not as an evasive tool, but as a moral obligation to each other. Our debt means we must redress the harms of the past. Debt connects us to the US, who bombed us, because our shared moral debt creates a relation, a future of working together, a means of healing and repair (thus the word reparations).

On Qingming, the annual festival to honour the dead, Cambodian streets fill with small fires that burn fake money or gold in remembrance of our ancestors, transferring commodities that are of the most value to the afterlife. Today, the Cambodian riel remains devalued as a national currency. Instead, piles of fake US dollars are set alight.


Idyllic and tranquil, Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds photo series (2009) shows the former bomb craters overgrown with fecund foliage in Cambodia’s eastern provinces.

I feel an articulation of collective wounds in Rattana’s photos, an illegibility turned deeply material. I feel the threat that lurks just beneath nature’s tranquil surface, those grotesque broken seeds, brought here by a crusade of vested interests.

In one photo, the landscape traces human interaction, both in the bomb that created the crevice, and in the agricultural grid of the rice field that grows around it. The bomb pond remakes land, creates the conditions for new growth. This growth is neither tragic nor optimistic. The muddiness of the pond is reflected in the muddy sky, and trees stand far off, like onlookers. I feel the photo’s silence, arriving long after concussive waves have rippled out. It is my own loss of speech that comes from telling one’s story of war and trauma again and again and again.

Though silent, the ripples never end. They come in the belated arrival of toxicity and early deaths. They travel to far-reaching rural spaces, the offshored, off-the-grid coordinates where they can never be traced back to a particular source. When we dare do the tracing ourselves, denial meets us at every turn.

When our testimonies are repeatedly invalidated, we must turn to the earth itself as evidence. The ponds that resemble war’s continual presence.


When and where does the crisis of war begin and end?

Decades of war in Cambodia, we are told, belong to the dark history of a dark nation. War, then or now, can never belong to a single place, time, or people. War is a concussive wave whose ripples never end, though they might go silent. War is the broken seeds that recreate the land, and in turn, those who live and travel upon the land, for as long as that land exists. War is the land bridge that connects us to the faraway places, where war is repeatedly sanctioned anew.


Feature photograph © The Camvelleys / Shutterstock, A kapok tree, Cambodia

Y-Dang Troeung

Y-Dang Troeung was a researcher, writer and assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She was the author of Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia, and she co-directed the short film Easter Epic and organised the exhibition Remembering Cambodian Border Camps, 40 Years Later at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Center. She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-two. ‘Mute Tree’ is an excerpt from her memoir Landbridge, forthcoming from Allen Lane in the UK and Knopf in Canada.

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