Performance from the hole

Sharing moment: Poet and former gang member Kosal Khiev at Flux Lifeground, Kerobokan, discusses the documentary film on his life, Cambodian Son.

Cambodian poet and tattoo artist Kosal Khiev had many months to rehearse his newly discovered talent during his early years in prison cells.

'€œIn the hole I had a captive audience. We were each in separate cells, but you can hear each other through the air ducts. I started speaking poetry, writing. The spoken word, even though I had never heard that term until I got out of the hole,'€ the 35-year-old artist said.

Kosal nurtured this passion during an 18-month-stint in solitary confinement when he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted murder. Back then, he was only 16 years old.

The poet was in Bali recently for the 2016 Bali International Film Festival (Balinale) pre-event at the Flux Lifeground non-profit organization in Kerobakan to discuss Cambodian Son, a documentary film on his life. The award-winning film was a highlight of the 2015 Balinale, winning the festival'€™s Face of Diversity Award.

Kosal also gave workshops to local schools during his recent Bali tour, guiding teens to discover their best selves.

'€œIn the hole, I started asking the question, '€˜Am I going to die in here?'€™. Inside me was that little kid who held his grandmother'€™s hand,'€ he said.

Kosal was born into the no-man'€™s land of refugee camps dotted along the Cambodian and Thai borders. His parents, brothers and sisters had fled their homeland during the murderous purges of the Khmer Rouge reign. Almost half of Cambodia'€™s 7.5-million population was slain between 1970 and 1980 by the Khmer Rouge, having starved or died in conflict according to R.J. Rummel in one of his book chapters titled '€œStatistics of Cambodian Democide '€” Estimates, Calculations, and Sources'€.

Being born in a refugee camp meant Kosal was stateless, a baby without a country. As an adult, he was to discover exactly what that meant when he was exiled from the US and dumped in Cambodia, a nation he had never known.

'€œWhen I arrived in Cambodia, I was neither a US citizen nor a Cambodian citizen. I had no passport, no ID, no money, just the clothes on my back. I was told '€˜go, survive'€™. The US liaison officer said once we arrived in Cambodia, the US government would no longer be responsible for me,'€ Kosal said.

It was a treatment he received despite from kindergarten through school pledging allegiance to the US flag every morning.

Recognition: Poet and artist Kosal Khiev (left) receives the Balinale 2015 Face of Diversity Award from Balinale film festival founder Deborah Gabinetti (right).

'€œI grew up American. I never knew I was not a US citizen. But there is a nuance growing up American, but being made not to feel American. When I was eight, I was jumped by a gang of Mexicans, simply because I was Cambodian. I realized I was different and this place of home was not a home. So at 13, I joined the earliest Cambodian gangs,'€ says Kosal of the disenfranchisement faced by many refugees in their settlement countries, a powerlessness that drove the formation of gangs.

By the time he was 15, Kosal was placed in the infamous New Bethany Home for Boys in Louisiana almost, 3,000 kilometers from his family in California. The home was founded in the early 1970s by alleged pedophile, Reverend Mack Ford.

'€œThrough church my family found out about the home. I understand why my parents sent me there. I was incorrigible. But what my parents did not know was that the home was run like a slave plantation. We were clearing acres of forestry and fields. We worked sunup to sunset with an overseer guarding us. In a huge dirt field our job was to gather rocks and debris while Mack drove the tractor. We boys were abused, but the girls suffered far worse. Rapes and sexual harassment,'€ Kosal said.

The home was shut down when Kosal was 16. He dreamed of changing his life, getting out of gangs and going back to school. His family'€™s refusal to take him back left the young teen feeling abandoned.

'€œI ran away back to my old friends. They were all I had. They were in a gang war at the time, so when they took me in I said '€˜I'€™ll do whatever you need man'€™,'€ he said.

As a soldier in the gang wars Kosal shot a man. '€œI thank God every day that he didn'€™t die'€. Guns and bullets were readily available to this skinny little kid, whose family had never opened up about what they had suffered in Cambodia, but that suffering informed their daily lives, leaving Kosal feeling unwanted.

'€œThat I had no value. Alone. Since I was incarcerated we began to speak more. My questions were bolder. What happened to them? Tell me your trauma so I can tell you mine'€.

Imprisoned in an isolation cell Kosal began to take back the dignity he had been denied for much of his life.

'€œSomething broke. Something that had held me back was broken. Like that chip in a dam wall. When I took that out the dam within broke and I became a wild river of words. I began to change little things about myself, the way I walked in Nike Cortez. Those shoes represented who I had been.

'€œI was not that person anymore. I peeled away the layers I had taken on; I had been a character, even my gang name, Minor. I had to start reintroducing myself to myself, '€˜I am Kosal'€™'€. After his deportation, Cambodia became a country that warmly embraced its lost son and was the springboard to international fame for Kosal'€™s writings, art work and spoken-word performances. He is still denied entry to the US to visit family.