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Sunday, May 17, 2009

North Hunterdon Students Raise Money To Build Cambodia Schools

by Hunterdon County Democrat

North Hunterdon High School students have raised about half the money needed to build a school in rural Cambodia.

Through the community service project Schools Building Schools, the English Department raised $6,066 for the American Assistance for Cambodia organization.

During spring recess in April, students were encouraged to read books, magazine and newspapers, and gather pledges for every minute of reading they did while out of school.The 221 participating students read for 1,840 hours. Lauren Sheldon's period 5-6 class earned a bagel breakfast for raising the highest number of pledges.

All of the money raised goes to American Assistance's Rural Schools Project program, which has led to the construction of more than 300 primary and lower secondary schools -- with matching funds from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank -- in rural Cambodia. Each school is sponsored by a donor to provide improvements, such as English/computer teachers, Internet connections and access to clean water.Information on the Rural Schools Project can be found at Read more!

Survivors Shed Light on Dark Days of Khmer Rouge

Chum Mey, a mechanic, was spared because he was needed to make repairs. The two men are to testify against their torturer.
Bou Meng was singled out during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia to produce portraits of the group’s leader.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Looking across the courtroom where he is on trial for crimes against humanity, the chief Khmer Rouge torturer cannot avoid seeing an artist and a mechanic who sit watching him but mostly avoid his gaze.

One short and forceful, his feet dangling just above the floor, the other melancholy and drooping a bit, they are rare survivors of Tuol Sleng prison, where at least 14,000 people were sent to their deaths three decades ago.

In the weeks ahead, the two survivors will take the stand to testify against their torturer, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who commanded the prison, and both have stories to tell about a place of horror from which almost no one emerged alive.

Bou Meng, 68, the short one, survived because he was a painter and was singled out from a row of shackled prisoners to produce portraits of the Khmer Rouge chief, Pol Pot.

The other, Chum Mey, 78, was a mechanic and was spared because the torturers needed him to repair machines, including the typewriters used to record the confessions — very often false — that they extracted from prisoners like himself.

Duch (pronounced DOIK), 66, is the first of five arrested Khmer Rouge figures to go on trial in the United Nations-backed tribunal here. His case began in February and is expected to last several more months.

Mr. Bou Meng and Mr. Chum Mey are living exhibits — like a third survivor, Vann Nath — from the darkest core of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. They are tangible evidence, like the skulls that have been preserved at some killing fields, or like hundreds of portraits of their fellow prisoners that are displayed on the walls of Tuol Sleng.

The photographs were taken as detainees were delivered to the prison, before they were stripped and fettered and tortured and sent to a killing field.

Those ordered killed at Tuol Sleng are among 1.7 million people who died during the Communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979 from starvation, disease and overwork, as well as from torture and execution.

Duch is accused of ordering the kinds of beatings, whippings, electric shocks and removal of toenails that Mr. Bou Meng and Mr. Chum Mey describe; indeed, he admitted in the courtroom to ordering the beating of Mr. Chum Mey.

Both men endured torture that continued for days, and Mr. Chum Mey said, “At that time I wished I could die rather than survive.”

But both men did survive, and in interviews they now describe scenes that almost none of their fellow prisoners lived to recount. “Every night I looked out at the moon,” Mr. Bou Meng recalled. “I heard people crying and sighing around the building. I heard people calling out, ‘Mother, help me! Mother, help me!’ ”

It was at night that prisoners were trucked out to a killing field, and every night, he said, he feared that his moment had come. “But by midnight or 1 a.m. I realized that I would live another day.”

Though many Cambodians have tried to bury their traumatic memories, Mr. Bou Meng and Mr. Chum Mey have continued to return to the scene of their imprisonment and torture as if their souls remained trapped there together with the souls of the dead.

During the first few years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Bou Meng returned to work in an office at Tuol Sleng, which was converted into a museum of genocide. Now he uses it as a rest stop, spending the night there on a cot when he visits the capital, Phnom Penh, from the countryside, where he paints Buddhist murals in temples.

Mr. Chum Mey, retired now from his work as a mechanic, spends much of his time wandering among the portraits, telling and retelling his story to tourists, as if one of the victims on the walls had come to life.

An eager and passionate storyteller, he will show a visitor how he was shoved, blindfolded, into his cell during 12 days of torture, and he will drop to the floor inside a small brick cubicle where he was held in chains.

“As you can see, this was my condition,” he said recently as he sat on the hard concrete floor, holding up a metal ammunition box that was used as a toilet. “It upsets me to see Duch sitting in the courtroom talking with his lawyers as if he were a guest of the court.”

Like many other Khmer Rouge victims, both men say they have no idea why they were selected for arrest or why they were tortured to admit to unknown crimes. Both men lost their wives and children in the Khmer Rouge years, and although both have rebuilt their families, the past still holds them in its grip.

Mr. Bou Meng does not wander like his friend among the Tuol Sleng pictures, but he does keep one in his wallet: a snapshot-size reproduction of the prison portrait of his wife, Ma Yoeun, who was arrested with him but did not survive.

“Sometimes when I sit at home I look at the picture and everything seems fresh,” he said. “I think of the suffering she endured, and I wonder how long she stayed alive.”

Mr. Bou Meng has since remarried twice, but he remains shackled to his memories. “I know I should forget her,” he said, “but I can’t.”

She visits him, he said, in visions that are something more than dreams, looking just as she did when he last saw her — still 28 years old, leaving Mr. Bou Meng to live on and grow old without her.

Sometimes she appears with the spirits of others who were killed, he said. They stand together, a crowd of ghosts in black, and she tells him, “Only you, Bou Meng, can find justice for us.”

Mr. Bou Meng said he hoped that testifying against Duch and seeing him convicted would free him from the restless ghosts and let him live what is left of his life in peace.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” he said. “I want to be like everybody else, a normal person.”

But he said he knew that this might be asking too much of life.

“Maybe not completely normal,” Mr. Bou Meng said. “But at least 50 percent.”

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Hennessy: An amazing story of an odyssey from the Killing Fields to the White House

Life dangled from a precipice. Your best chance of survival was to pass yourself off as an illiterate peasant.

If you were educated, you might die. If you wore glasses, suggesting you were educated, you might die. If you were seen foraging for food, even grass or insects, you might die.

It was Cambodia, 1976. A year earlier, the Khmer Rouge had taken power. Now they were determined to establish a primitive society, one easily ruled. When the decade ended, they were gone. But up to 2 million people were dead.

Or so it is thought. No one can make an accurate count.

But Sichan Siv, 27 years old, resourceful and brave, had survived. He was especially vulnerable, having once worked for the humanitarian group CARE and having helped refugees from the Vietnam War, which, if revealed, would have meant certain death.

Siv escaped Cambodia by walking 500 harrowing miles past land mines, Khmer Rouge patrols, decomposed bodies, wild jungle animals and booby traps. It took him almost a year to reach neighboring Thailand.

Separated from his family by the Khmer Rouge, he never saw his loved ones again, but he survived in part by recalling his mother's words: "No matter what happens, never give up hope."
It was a message that would carry him to the United States, the White House and the United Nations.

Coming to Long Beach

Sichan Siv will tell his remarkable story Tuesday in Long Beach as a guest of the Long Beach Library Foundation.

Meanwhile, I have interviewed him from his home in San Antonio, Texas, where he now lives and has written his story in a book called "Golden Bones."

Q: What is meant by "Golden Bones?"

A: Cambodians call somebody who is extremely blessed and lucky a person of golden bones.

Q: And you were extremely lucky to have escaped Cambodia. Why did you leave?

A: The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a land of blood and tears. It was an enormous slave labor camp where people toiled for 18 hours a day with only one meal. It was deepest hell. I was sentenced to death twice, for trying to escape and for damaging a truck.

Q: Your life under the Khmer Rouge and while trying to flee Cambodia was nightmarish. Do you still dream about those days?

A: Not anymore. I used to have nightmares for a long while. As I woke up, I felt very relieved when I realized that I was in America.

Q: How did you escape Cambodia?

A: On Feb. 13, 1976, I jumped off a logging truck in northwest Cambodia and ran across the jungle for three days having nothing to eat or drink. I fell into a booby trap and was severely wounded. In Thailand, I was jailed for illegal entry before being transferred to a refugee camp. I spent a few months teaching English to fellow refugees and being ordained a Buddhist monk. I arrived in Connecticut on June 4, one month before the Bicentennial.

To the White House

Q: After being sponsored by a Connecticut family, you assimilated very quickly. How did you manage that?

A: I felt I had to adapt to be adopted. So I did everything that came my way to the best of my ability, from picking apples to driving a taxi. I got a scholarship to graduate school at Columbia. I worked on Wall Street and other places until 1988 when I volunteered in the (George H. W.) Bush campaign. I was one of the lucky few to be asked to serve at the White House in 1989.

Q: That's a remarkable career.

A: I was at the right place at the right time. The Bush transition was looking for someone to handle the communications aspects of our national security. I was born in a poor country, spoke several languages, and was familiar with international relations. When President Bush left the White House in 1993, I returned to the private sector and continued to work on global issues. This experience also helped me when George W. Bush nominated me to be a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 2001. I was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

Q: What do you consider the achievements of the Bush presidents?

A: It's hard to describe them in a few sentences. At the White House, first among equals was President George (H.W.) Bush's decision to extend Most Favored Nation trading status to China and to receive the Dalai Lama. Then you have to give high marks on his management of the post-Cold War world. At the U.N., George W. Bush was the first president to increase foreign assistance by 50 percent since JFK, and the first head of state to bring human trafficking to the world's attention. I feel very privileged to have served two presidents, and through them the American people.

Q: In 1992, you returned to Cambodia as a member of the highest-level mission to that country since 1975. Describe what it was like to go back.

A: It was an emotional return. I had left 16 years before, on foot through the jungle. I returned as a presidential assistant in a U.S. government aircraft. I did not recognize anything. For a few hours, I was numb.

Q: Soldiers returning to their old battlefields sometimes say it is therapeutic to see them at peace. Has that been the case for you in returning to Cambodia?

A: It is therapeutic. I try to take my wife there once a year to reconnect and to show her new places. (Siv's wife, Martha, is Texan.) In November 2008, we went to Ratanakiri (a province) in the Northeast, a remote wild and mountainous region. I was there with my older sister 40 years ago. It brought back fond memories, as well as sad ones.

Q: What does Cambodia need to do at this point in its history?

A: Cambodia needs to address domestic issues such as injustice, crime and corruption. When these are resolved, it can be a politically mature nation.

Q: You travel often to American cities with large Cambodian populations. Why?

A: It's part of carrying my mother's wisdom of never giving up hope, as I describe in "Golden Bones," and encouraging others to continue to work hard, do great things, and lead a good life. I also try to connect all these communities so that they can compare and build upon their experiences.

Cambodia to Texas

Q: You now live in Texas, a far cry from life in Cambodia. How is that working for you?

A: I love Texas. While growing up in Cambodia, I enjoyed watching Western movies in French and was amazed at the "can-do" attitude of Texans. As we usually say, "I was not born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could." I also love California. Each time I am here, I say to myself, "I'll be back."

Last month, Siv was honored for his service by being given the George H.W. Bush Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association's Award. The award came with a letter from the former president, who wrote, in part: "When we think of you, we think about an outstanding leader and public servant; we think about honor, decency, and integrity....Well done, my friend and well deserved."

Tom Hennessy's column appears on the first and third Sundays of the month. He can be reached at 562-499-1270 or by e-mail at


Former Ambassador Sichan Siv will speak from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Long Beach's Main Library, 101 Pacific Ave.

Admission: $30 benefiting the Long Beach Library Foundation. For reservations, call 562-628-2441.

The book: Barnes & Noble will sell copies of "Golden Bones."
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