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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Running for their lives - talking about Khmer Rouge

By JILL WING, The Saratogian

BALLSTON SPA - We do not know terrorism. We think we do. Not to diminish the tragedy of terror at the World Trade Center, but most of us were only peripherally impacted. Now, we are implored to "never forget." We are reminded every year on the anniversary of that day - Sept. 11, 2001. We are in fear of terrorism, but we don't live it. Sien and Sopphan Sam of Ballston Spa did. And they will never forget. They are survivors of the Cambodian Holocaust perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge and the communist regime in the 1970s that resulted in the mass murder of more than 2 million of their countrymen.

They lived in fear, in refugee camps, in work camps in the mosquito and leech-infested jungles and marshes of Cambodia for years, not knowing from day to day if they'd live to see another.

Tuesday, March 27, marks the 25th anniversary of Sien's and Sopphan's escape from the horror, the death, the brutality of their tormentors and the overwhelming sadness of what was lost. At the hands of the maniacal communist dictator Pol Pot, their middle class families were torn apart - mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters sent away to different labor camps.

Sien, a law student in Cambodia at the time of the communist takeover, survived by acting dumb. In the beginning, all the young men and women, some still children like Sopphan, were grouped by age. Sien said that if you wore glasses, or even had indentations across the bridge of your nose or on the side of your head indicating that you did, you would be executed by the new regime. The goal of Khmer Rouge was to evacuate all citizens from Cambodia's major cities and from villages and put them in labor camps, where they toiled in inhumane, squalid conditions for the good of the regime.

They were left with only the clothes on their backs and what little money wasn't stolen from them when they were forced from their homes. Sien's clothes literally rotted from his body in the stifling heat and humidity of the jungle. He said he wore the same pair of pants for three years, washing them nightly after spending a long, hot day working in the fields or building infrastructure for the communists. He was shot twice and suffered unspeakable torture as he fought to survive.

The humiliation he suffered, having to cow-tow to the communists for his survival, forced a formerly peaceful, academic young man to become a hardened, arrogant leader of a rebel militia. Sopphan, a shy and quiet woman, finds it hard to talk about her experiences. She lived through years of unimaginable terror with her mother and three sisters. Women had little value.

The strong ones were worked to the bone; the young ones were at the mercy of Khmer Rouge. Many were killed or suffered such severe injuries or sickness in their attempts to escape or even to survive oppression that they died unknown and unnamed in the thick jungles or marshes - the killing fields of Cambodia.

Sopphan recalls happy days of working the rice fields with the family's oxen and enjoying the refreshing pond and lilies at her ancestral home. It was a bucolic, peaceful existence until the day the soldiers came. There was no hope of the cavalry coming to save them. The United States had broken all ties with Cambodia. The communists, supported by China, had no boundaries. Even the Cambodians' beloved king became complicit in the slaughter and oppression.

Sien and Sopphan, and millions of their countrymen, were on there own to survive and to reach their goal to escape a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border. It was a trek that cost money, which few had. Many more died before reaching what they thought was safe shelter. And even when they reached the so-called refugee camp of nearly 50,000 on the border, they weren't safe. The Thai army took advantage of the refugees' vulnerability, robbing them of what few values they still possessed, and often killing them in the process. Things got so violent in the camp, called 007, that the Red Cross and U.N. support diminished, leaving the Cambodians to fend for themselves. Many trying to escape the teeming, criminal camp were killed.

Sien and Sopphan and their families swapped one horror for another.Both were single when they arrived at 007, though they had met very briefly before. While on the run in Cambodia, Sien was sheltered by Sopphan's family. It was a favor for which the family would have been killed if caught. Having risen to a high rank as leader of a rebel militia in camp 007, protecting his people from brutal Thai soldiers, a formerly gentle Sien became a hardened soldier, willing to kill to protect his own. Marriage was far from his mind, until one of his militia men suggested he wedd. Surprisingly, given his stature as a soldier, Sien thought seriously of his friend's suggestion.

He recalled the family who sheltered him - there were four sisters. Sopphan stood out in his mind."She was the prettiest," he said, smiling. "I didn't even like him," Sopphan responded. "He was arrogant."Cambodian marriages are traditionally arranged. But life in the refugee camp was hardly traditional. So, they married, more out of convenience at the time, Sien said. But their marriage and bond has survived unfathomable tragedy and horror and, finally, love and happiness. It was not easy going, even after they married. Right up to the day they boarded a plane for freedom to the Philippines, the couple was fearful they'd be caught and killed.

Sien had earned a reputation as a strong combatant against the communists. He wouldn't stand next to his wife as they waited on the tarmac for the plane. He feared for Sopphan's life and wouldn't jeopardize his wife and their baby son, Dara, by making them a target. Even when seated on the plane, their fears did not go away until they were in the air.

After living nearly a decade of horror, they could breathe without repercussion. Sien still cannot travel freely in Cambodia. He has paid for protection the few times he's returned. He documented his ordeal in a book, "The land of the Red Prince." It is the story of his life, in sometimes gruesome detail, from 1972 to 1982, when he and Sopphan came to the United States. Sopphan, who has had difficulty telling her story, is working through her experiences at Literacy Volunteers at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. Her goal is to write a narrative, like her husband's, but more about what life in a peaceful Cambodia was like before Pol Pot's obscene genocide. She wants her children, both raised and schooled in the United States, to understand their ancestral country.

So far, Sopphan, has penned a beautifully descriptive and painfully sad memoir. Literacy volunteer Martha Wilson helped Sopphan write a draft of her story; now volunteer Nancy Holzman is helping Sopphan fill in the blanks.

"I am very proud of my wife," Sien said, understanding how hard it is for Sopphan to tell her story in her own language, much less one that is foreign to her."I'm her teacher, she's my teacher," Holzman said of her relationship with Sopphan. Sien is a retired engineer. Their children, and an orphan taken in at the refugee camp, are successful businessmen. Their daughter attends college.

Tuesday marks a 25-year milestone in their lives - escape and freedom. They will never return permanently to their homeland, where they each still have family. It is not safe. For more information about Literacy Volunteers, or to become a tutor, call Director Sue Hensley-Cushing, 583-1232. Read more!