Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Sedtha Long saved 20 chil­dren from geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia.

Friday - - Editor's Letter -

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

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