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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Haunted by the 'killing fields'

Survivors of Khmer Rouge slaughter in Cambodia speak out about the ghosts that still torment them

Joe Mozingo

LONG BEACH, Calif. – At night, the old woman hears the voices of her children crying out for her. She knows they will never stop.

Um Sath is 89, and three decades have passed since the Khmer Rouge laid waste to Cambodia. She shuts her eyes and taps her temples to show where the genocidal regime still rules with impunity. "We miss you, Mama," the voices cry.

Sath spends much of her day in silence. For years, she rarely left her clapboard house in Long Beach. Although she now finds peace chatting with the other haunted figures at a seniors centre, she has kept the echoes of the "killing fields" sealed tightly inside her head.

Recently, she joined dozens of survivors at a recreation centre in Long Beach to face their memories. They longed to see a reckoning for perpetrators of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Since February, a United Nations-backed tribunal in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh has put on trial the first of five Khmer Rouge leaders charged with crimes against humanity, for the brutal experiment in communism that took at least 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979.

Activists in the United States want refugees outside Cambodia to submit testimonies to the tribunal in an effort to spur a judicial process beset by delays, limited funds and allegations of corruption. They hope, along the way, to relieve the emotional torture of survivors who rarely speak about what happened.

"I'm hoping it will allow them to tell the world what happened 34 years ago," said Leakhena Nou, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach who is leading the outreach effort in Southern California, home of the world's largest Cambodian refugee community. "The Khmer Rouge leaders are getting old; the victims are getting old. This is their chance to have their voices be heard before it's too late."

Sath stands up. Her eyes crinkle before she speaks.

Sath and her husband were farmers and merchants in the rich land along the Mekong River, south of Phnom Penh. In the middle class, with enough money to own a modest brick house, they were targets when the Khmer Rouge swept into power in 1975, brutally turning the country into a collective society of farm peasants. Intellectuals, teachers, doctors, businessmen, government bureaucrats and army soldiers were executed en masse.

Khmer Rouge soldiers showed up at Sath's home with rifles, took her husband and told her to walk with her eight children.

For days they wandered, following orders. Anyone who complained or asked questions was dismissed with a bullet to the head.

The soldiers barked questions about her husband: Why did he travel to Phnom Penh so often? Did he work for the national police?

Sath told them they were just poor people, doing nothing.

They let Sath and her children return to where she had lived. The family reunited with her husband and stayed for a month. Their house had been burned to the ground – just a pile of bricks and the skeleton of a stairway. They slept on the ground. There was no food, and they nearly starved, eating only watery rice soup.

The soldiers forced them back on the road, this time to a work camp near Pursat, where they lived in a straw hut with a dirt floor. The family worked to exhaustion in the rice fields day after day.

One day, soldiers locked Sath in chains and took her husband. Days later, she overheard soldiers mention his execution.

Soldiers came again to the rice paddy. This time they took her three sons.

Some time later, Sath heard that other villagers had seen the boys' clothes in the plowed-up field where bodies were routinely buried. Soldiers came for Sath next. They took her to the same field and beat her unconscious. She woke up naked, amid decaying bodies and the smell that, decades later, could bring the horror back to life.

She made it back to her hut, surviving several more near-death moments before Vietnamese soldiers ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

"I lost my sons, my grandson. They took my husband away right in front of me. They killed my husband. They took my brothers and sisters away. They were all killed by the Khmer Rouge," she said.

The anguish in Sath's face reveals the loss. Women choke back sobs. Sath thanks everyone for listening.

Born Pach takes the microphone next. Now 40, Pach was a child when the black-clad soldiers came for her parents to be "re-educated."

They sent Pach to a camp in the province of Battambang to cut rice. She begged to see her parents. But she would not see them again.

One day, the guards accused her of stealing a rooster and beat her. Another time, when she was ill, they accused her of being lazy and sliced the top and side of her head with a knife, then stuck a burning piece of metal in her rectum.

She saw other children have their throats cut or get clubbed to death.

Pach, who survived the Khmer Rouge and made it to Long Beach in 1989, has nightmares that she is being burned alive. She wants her torturers to go to prison.

The stories pour out. One woman gets paper towels to hand around to wipe the tears. When they get to the government forms, 21 people fill them out. No one remembers dates. Only one victim names an alleged perpetrator. The rest do not remember their tormentors' names, never knew them or are still scared.

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Trio’s health-care agency focuses on Southeast Asians

By Karen Lee Ziner

Journal Staff Writer


Pain often robbed Seth Svay’s sleep and cloudy vision troubled her days. Like many elderly survivors of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” — a genocide that left up to 2 million dead in her country — Svay suffered lingering emotional trauma. She rarely left the house, not even to visit the doctor.

But then Svay learned of a new home health-care agency, Independence Health Services, started in Providence by a Cambodian refugee, a Gulf War veteran and his mother, a nurse.

Their core clientele are Southeast Asians, who for cultural reasons and language barriers, often go without proper medical care. Yet national studies reflect disproportionate rates of post-traumatic stress, diabetes and other chronic conditions in that population.

The agency’s outreach coordinator, Marc “Poe” Harrison (who Anglicized his name), was tortured during the 1975-79 genocide in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge soldiers killed his father, and his brother died from suspected defoliant poisoning. Colin Hanrahan, who devotes his nights and weekends to the agency, served with the National Guard in Saudi Arabia and is a fraud investigator with the state Department of Labor. The nursing director, Joan Hanrahan, Colin’s mother, is an associate director of nursing at Rhode Island Hospital.

The three have pooled more than $70,000 of their money toward the agency, located at One Richmond Square. Harrison said he is grateful to this country for helping him and other Cambodian refugees survive, and “I want to give back.”

Harrison said that as traditional extended families disappear, many elders “are very, very isolated when their children get married and move away.” They also may ignore health issues until the situation is dire enough to call 911. Often, they retreat to the Cambodian temple — a traditional community center — rather than seek medical care. For some, “it’s too late,” he said.

HARRISON, who formerly worked as a quality-control engineer, was inspired by a cousin who started a similar agency in Ohio. But Harrison couldn’t do it alone.

Several years earlier, he met Colin Hanrahan at an art exhibit about Cambodian refugees at Brown University. As a National Guardsman, Colin Hanrahan had helped run a POW camp in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war. “It was kind of like a refugee mission. There were 13-year-old kids to 80-year-old men,” said Colin Hanrahan. “That’s what kind of got me interested” in attending the art exhibit.

Intrigued by Cambodian culture and sympathetic to Harrison’s story, Colin Hanrahan stepped in to help.

Harrison and the Hanrahans obtained a state operating license last October. They accept Medicaid patients and have applied for Medicare certification.

Victoria Almeida, vice chairwoman of the Rhode Island Health Services Council, said, “What we looked at and what our criteria are, is their competence, their character and their standing in the community.”

She added: “They made a point of saying sometimes the only health care available is to call 911, when a person is already ill or very ill. It seems obvious to me, that sometimes emergent treatment is too late. Or if it’s not too late, it’s expensive.”

“I think reasonable minds,” she said, “can’t differ on the premise that preventative health care is not only good for the person from a medical and holistic point of view, but it is also financially prudent for the community and for health-care systems.”Building on that, Harrison and Colin Hanrahan last fall assisted Brown University medical student Margaret Chang with a six-month study of barriers to health-care access in Rhode Island’s Southeast Asian community. They organized Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian focus groups.

The study followed a 2007 conference at Brown aimed at informing the public about “the health emergency affecting Cambodian refugees in the United States.” The conference, sponsored by Khmer Health Advocates in Hartford and Brown Medical School, underscored that population’s escalating needs, even as funding shortages were forcing Cambodian community-based organizations to close their doors.

Chang said that although there are at least 20,000 Southeast Asians living in Rhode Island, health-care providers who regularly treat them in emergency rooms and primary care clinics “don’t know how to interact with them, and don’t know their problems.”

Chang cited her own experience with an elderly Cambodian patient at a local clinic.

“He had probably one of the most grotesque looking wounds I’ve ever seen. He had uncontrolled diabetes. He’d had surgery to clean out his wound once. There was no follow-up plan, no transportation to the wound clinic,” said Chang. “In the meantime, he was just sitting at home, and the wound was getting worse.”

Chang said, “This should not have happened. The problem is there aren’t enough health-care services to make sure this gentleman kept his follow-up appointments. The Southeast Asian population is particularly marginalized. That’s something that particularly haunts me.”

Chang said the study’s findings will soon be circulated to health-care providers across the state. It recommends that the state do more to increase the number of certified Southeast Asian interpreters in Rhode Island, and encourage the start-up of home health agencies to provide care for Southeast Asians, particularly elderly patients.

The Independence Health Services, which has about eight employees in all, has recently hired two Cambodian certified nursing assistants, and plans to hire more Southeast Asians — including Hmong and Laotians, to match them with elderly from their home countries. Colin Hanrahan said they plan to hire more people within the next year. At present, they care for about a dozen patients.

The agency provides interpreter services in Cambodian, and calls on local language banks as needed for Spanish and other languages.

SVAY, who is in her late 60s, is one of the agency’s newest patients. She lives in the West End of Providence in the heart of a Cambodian settlement community that originated in the early 1980s.

With Harrison interpreting, Svay said her husband and many other family members were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers during the holocaust. She endured forced labor. “We had to build a road and carry all the dirt. That’s why I have so much pain,” she said.

Svay said she has been so tired “that sometimes I don’t have the strength to cook at all,” and leaves the house only to walk to the grocery store or visit the Buddhist temple on the next street.

Svay is being treated for several medical conditions, including depression stemming from post-traumatic stress. A home health aid visits weekly to help with Svay’s personal needs and to ensure she takes her medications properly.

She said, “I’m very, very happy” with the treatment. “I’m feeling better.”

Independence Health Services can be reached at (401) 437-8337 or by e-mail at

Rhode Island’s

top 4 Southeast Asian populations

•Cambodian, 4,747

•Laotian, 3,334

•Vietnamese, 1,342

•Hmong, 740

Source: U.S. Census Bureau,

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Asia Society calls for strategy to avert water crisis

Washington (IANS): Warning that decreased access to a safe, stable water supply in Asia "will have a profound impact on security throughout the region", the Asia Society has sought a strategy to avert a crisis in countries like India.

The cascading set of consequences reduced access to fresh water will trigger include impaired food production, the loss of livelihood security, large-scale migration within and across borders, and increased economic and geopolitical tensions and instabilities, said a task force report of the Asia Society released in New York Friday.

The Asia Society is an international organisation dedicated to strengthening relationships and deepening understanding among the peoples of Asia and the US.

The task force on "Asia's Next Challenge: Securing the Region's Water Future" was chaired by Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum Tommy Koh. It included among its members Rajendra K. Pachauri, Indian chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Ajit Gulabchand of Hindustan Construction.

The task force report highlights the fact that although Asia is home to more than half of the world's population, the region has less freshwater per capita than any continent other than Antarctica.

It maintains that while solutions are well within reach, they will require high-level political will and significant investments. Governments need to develop policies that can address multiple problems simultaneously, with the aim of reducing security risks and vulnerabilities and providing economic benefits such as investments in infrastructure for water conservation and management.

Asian countries should forge a regional approach in which governments and other key stakeholders, including nongovernmental organisations, civil society groups, and businesses, work together to clarify responsibilities and coordination mechanisms to address water security concerns.

For instance, looking beyond India's national borders, the transboundary river systems that cut across India will drive hydropolitics in the region as India's water consumption rates continue to climb, the report suggests.

India's control of water flow along the Ganges River compromises Bangladesh's ability to monitor and predict floods, the report suggests noting that "for Bangladesh, the Ganges may be the largest and most critical source of wate, but it is only one of more than 50 rivers entering the country from India".

"While the Joint Ganges River Commission facilitates information sharing between the two nations, Bangladesh continues to demand greater cooperation."

More data - including rainfall data from farther upstream - would help Bangladesh prepare vulnerable downstream populations and improve models used to predict extreme events, the report says.

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This week’s travel dream: Cambodia’s long-lost city

Angkor was long an unknown “wonder of the world,” said Ellen Creager in the Detroit Free Press. The mysterious complex of ruins outside modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia, is as stunning as the “pyramids of Egypt or the temples of Maya” and as prodigiously complex as Mexico’s Chichen Itza or Peru’s Machu Picchu. More than 70 temples are scattered across the 1,000-square-mile sprawl. But the onetime capital of the Khmer empire, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, for centuries remained a secret from the rest of the world.

Angkor’s rise and fall is “dramatic enough to fill 10 history books.” Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the Khmer empire spread to encompass what are now the countries of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. But in the 15th century, the Khmers were forced to abandon their capital, after a series of Siamese attacks left the land ravaged. For the next five centuries, the ancient city lay hidden under the wild jungles of central Cambodia. “While nations rose and fell, while America was built,” Angkor stood forgotten. Only in the late 19th century did French archaeologists uncover it and begin to restore many of the tumbledown ruins.

Cambodia’s prime tourist attraction is Angkor Wat, an imperial structure built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu. Constructed with “porous clay foundations and sandstone exteriors,” its five towers are “stacked like a Jenga puzzle, each piece fitting atop the other.” Nearby sits another temple, Bayon, built a few decades later by King Jayavarman VII. Its 49 towers have been adorned with “200 or more” smiling stone faces. Yet another temple, Ta Prohm, looks much as it did when it was unearthed in the 1900s: “Giant kapok tree roots winding through the doors and windows” make it seem less a work of man than a “part of the natural landscape.” Angkor may have been forgotten for centuries, but treasures like these will ensure it is celebrated for generations to come.
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