Making a difference
Sedtha Long saved 20 children from genocide in Cambodia.
W ake up,” Sedtha Long whispered urgently to the boy he shared a floor mat with every night. “Get up. We can’t be late!” When he didn’t stir, Sedtha, just 17 at the time, repeated the call more urgently, “Wake up!”
Nothing. There was no movement, no sound. Sedtha gently nudged him, anxious not to be even a minute late.
“Wake up,” he hissed this time, trying to ignore the fearful sensation that was slowly creeping over him. He looked at his friend lying eerily still by his side, his skeletal frame and sunken features obvious even under the fading moonlight.
Gingerly reaching out with his bony fingers, Sedtha felt for a sign of life, an action he seemed to have done so many times over the past year. The cold, rigid body that greeted his touch confirmed Sedha’s worst fears. Mustering what scant energy he had left, he rose, impassively informed the Khmer Rouge guards of the boy’s demise, and shuffled back to the water-logged rice paddy in which he had toiled just a few hours earlier. He knew better than to be late for duty.
“The four years I was held as a slave by the Khmer Rouge were more
than a nightmare,” recalls Professor Sedtha, now 60, from his armchair in a Dubai hotel lobby. “I saw a lot of people in my team working until they died. It was sheer slavery, there was no complaining, no day off, little food, and if you became sick they would send you to the Education Centre, which meant you were killed, or imprisoned and tortured.”
Sedtha, who runs an organisation in Cambodia called The Build Your Future Today Centre (BFT) – to help ensure his country never repeats the mistakes of its past – is a survivor of one of the most brutal events of modern history, the Cambodian Genocide. It was between 1975 and 1979 that a total disregard for human life saw the slaughter of more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Two million people, predominantly from the educated classes, perished under the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. It was a ruthless regime led by Pol Pot, a man whose mantras included, “To keep you is no benefit – to destroy you no loss,” and whose tyrannical rule saw the country transformed into a detention centre and mass graveyard.
Over four years, the entire population was forced into slave labour under a system that was implemented via execution, torture, starvation and subsequent disease.
In their endeavour to impose a communist regime, the Khmer Rouge systematically wiped out the educated, banned money, confiscated private property and converted schools, hospitals and government buildings into horrifying prisons and barbaric re-education camps. Just a few days into power, Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated the inhabitants of the capital city, Phnom Penh, to the countryside where they were kept as slave labourers in agricultural camps, and were forced to work day and night to reach the regime’s utopic vision of a farm-based economy.
“The Khmer Rouge soldiers knocked at our door with guns,’’
‘Iwas 16 so they sent me to work in the labour camps – I never sawmost of my family again’
Sedtha remembers of his time in Phnom Penh. “They told us the US forces were going to bomb the capital so everyone had to leave immediately.
“We were terrified but we followed orders. We walked for seven days until we reached a spot where they told us to stop. Then came the biggest shock, they started to split families. My father was asked to go in one direction and my mother another. My siblings and I were separated. I was 16 so they sent me to work in the labour camps and I had no idea where they took my family – most of them I never saw again.”
Sedtha was to spend the next torturous four years as a slave, moving from one killing field to the next, where millions of Cambodians perished and were thrown like waste into mass graves across the country.
It was four years of hell with a silver lining, however, for as an educated and compassionate survivor, Sedtha’s experiences would sculpt the man he became, one who escaped to the Thai border, collecting desolate, distraught and orphaned children along the way, and in so doing would come to realise his calling. A calling to help move Cambodia out of its black and bloody past by empowering and educating the young, a calling that he has followed religiously,
fear because that is how I had felt so I decided to take them along with me and to look after them.
“It was myself and 20 children and we walked for over 15 days. We had no food, we had to hide in the jungle during the day and then continue at nightfall. They were so brave, they didn’t cry, they didn’t complain. They were so strong even though most of them were just six or seven years old.”
S oon after, Sedtha reached the border where camps would be set up within months by the UNHCR, and where he’d be reunited with his parents and youngest brother. This is where he would marry his wife, Samseek, and spend years voluntarily teaching under the guidance of the UN, who sent him for training and eventually his higher education.
Before that, however, he carried out an array of tasks to provide for orphans under his care. “We chopped
‘We just saw misery… children were begging, there were disabled people everywhere’
wood, cut grass, did anything to support the family and the children.”
For the next 12 years, Sedtha, Samseek, the surviving family and the orphaned children, lived on next to nothing before the civil war officially ended and it was safe enough to return to whatever was left of their homes.
“We had hoped living conditions would be much better outside the camps,” he remembers. “But across the country we just saw misery, children were begging in the streets, there were disabled people everywhere, those who had lost their hands and their legs during the years of conflict. There was no food; there were huge healthcare problems.”
It was then that Sedtha began to take in more orphaned and poor children, turning the family’s house into an orphanage and small school, inadvertently laying the groundwork for the BFT Centre. They cared for up to 30 children at a time, providing them with food, shelter and education, relying on his work as a teacher with the United Nations and donations from family and friends.
“I was lucky that the UN gave me a job and my family and I put all our resources into the children. We realised there were so many kids living in terrible conditions so we just took on more and more until we became an official organisation and started to receive funding. Then we were really able to expand.”
Now Sedtha runs a highly committed, efficient organisation that provides both intellectual and economic tools for those living in poverty with the aim of moving villages to self-sufficiency.
“We had a child support centre and learning centre initially but we soon realised that people were walking up to 10km to reach us, so we started to build schools in their areas. We gave kids stationery and uniforms and trained teachers, we made sure street kids were brought into the school.
“But we also realised that some of them were not motivated and it was because they were not healthy, they were hungry and lethargic, so we started to assess the kids and realised that 95 per cent of them were underweight. That’s when we set up the committee for health and nutrition. We introduced clean water, toilets, nutritious food every morning and delivered health awareness and vitamin supplements.”
BFT is reaching out across the province to help people fulfil their potential, raising awareness of the importance of education for children and adults, teaching life skills for self-reliance, and helping with micro finance forms so people could start their own businesses and start to value education. “We have made some remarkable changes,” Sedtha says. “And we believe that education equality will help those people to walk out from poverty.”
T he Khmer Rouge regime was one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century and its effects are still obvious. The mass murder of the educated left the country glaringly lacking in professionals and crippled with illiteracy, while two million murders left a high number of orphans and widows unable to fend for themselves.
Its physical scars are ever present, with landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge still killing and maiming today. Not so perceptible yet undoubtedly prevalent is the fact that the regime intrinsically damaged the Cambodian people’s morale.
Sedtha and his team at BFT are working tirelessly to educate the young, nurture the masses and elevate the esteem of all so that Cambodia’s next generation shakes off the shackles of their past.
“I called the organisation Build Your Future Today, because Cambodia cannot wait,” Sedtha says. “The children and people of Cambodia live from day to day due to lack of education. They have no hope and they have no joy. We want to bring about change and we want the children to start their futures from now, because knowledge is hope and peace is development.”
And for the 17-year-old Dubai expat who is educated, healthy and on-track for success, a far cry from the life Sedtha faced at the same age, the importance of BFT’s work can’t be overemphasised. “Sedtha was 16 when the Khmer Rouge came knocking and I was 16 when I was volunteering in Cambodia and it is just unimaginable being in that kind of situation,” Chad says.
The organisation is helping children to fulfil their potential
Sedtha was invited to Dubai by Chad to spread the word
Hungry children are demotivated children, so there is a focus on nutrition
Sedtha believes educational equality will help people walk away from poverty
MAKING A DIFFERENCE Volunteers from within Cambodia and abroad help BFT build a school