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My Cambodian translator escapes the killing fields

Today my son, daughter and parents are all either in or near Cambodia, a country whose fate has intersected that of my family for years (see my last two blogs). It reminded me of my experience there 27 years ago with Mate Saly. Mate Saly was my translator when I worked in a Cambodian refugee …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Today my son, daughter and parents are all either in or near Cambodia, a country whose fate has intersected that of my family for years (see my last two blogs). It reminded me of my experience there 27 years ago with Mate Saly.

Mate Saly was my translator when I worked in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border in early 1980. Mate was a high school student when the Khmer
Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. To talk to Mate you would never suspect the
horrors that he has come through.

doesn’t bear any physical scars from the experience and seems to be emotionally
healthy. His English was good enough
that he was able to serve as my translator.
One day we talked about what he’d left behind in Cambodia.

“My father is a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor like him,” he told
me. “But Pol Pot wanted to kill all the students and educated people,
so I threw away my degree. I used to speak English and French better,
but I had to stop speaking any language other than Khmer or I would
have been killed. I was very afraid and knew that if I didn’t get out
of there, I would die.

“We had seen them cut the necks of about 25
people. So, I fled into the forest, barely escaping with my life. In
1976 Pol Pot forced everyone out of the capital of Phnom Phenn. My
family all went to the town of Kamponham. People were being killed all
over the place. I didn’t know what had happened to my family. Later I
found out that all of them were shot.

I must
have been in a state of shock most of the time.
There were ten of us in the forest.
We lived off of the bamboo shoots, bananas, and coconuts that we were
able to scrounge. Eventually we made our
way to a village where we hoped to find food.

“This was a very dangerous time.
The Khmer Rouge accused me of being a student. To answer them would have meant certain
death, so in a moment of inspiration, I pretended to be crazy.

“I began laughing, singing, and running
around. They didn’t know what to do with
me. I took off all my clothes and ran
around naked.

“I wouldn’t sleep in a bed,
instead sleeping under the stilt-house in the sand with dogs. Knowing that my life hung in the balance, I
was willing to do anything.

“Every day they would wake us up at gunpoint and send us to the rice
fields. After a year and a half, I got malaria. A friend found a
Canhkina tree in the forest and made some medicine which saved my life.

“Then in
1978, Viet
Nam attacked.
My friend and I knew that this was the best chance we might have to
escape, so at midnight one night, we slipped out of the village and made our way
to Battanbong.

From there we fled into
the jungle. It was hot and dense and
hard to walk through.

“We walked about a
hundred miles in 32 days. We were very
hungry when at last we came to a camp along the border, but at that point we
knew we were going to live.”

Saly has looked death in the face and lived to tell about it. He was driven by a powerful survival
instinct. Do we have that same drive in
serving the Lord? Imagine what an army
of young people with that kind of drive could do to win the world to

Comments (5)

  • Wow – this is radical living..if only young believers could see that radical living isn’t wearing Christ on the back of your t-shirt & calling yourself a “Jesus Freak” but better yet proclaiming his name in lands where it just might get you killed! yes yes yes!!

  • Hats off to Mate Saly i am sure his story will give inspire courage to a lot of many people to face life smiling and help those in need.

  • My family escaped from Cambodia in the early 70’s and were in Thai refugee camps for over a year. Thank God my grandparents and my father made it to the United States, and I thank God that He saved so many other lives at this tragic time. We had teachers and nurses in our family who were murdered and some who had to act illiterate and crazy as well in order to survive. God is so amazing. My aunt should not have survived but by God’s grace, He sent her an angel that helped her escape one night when the Khmer Rouge invaded her home. She called out to the Lord that night, and He heard and answered her cry. She and her brother are the only ones left out of nine siblings, two parents and many other family members. She credits it to the Lord her savior because He saved her when noone else could.

  • Dear Seth,
    Our youth need to be biblicaly literate and historically literate.Both Christian history,and world(political history)What happened in the killing fields can happen again.
    Yet they(not to mention thier parents)seem to be addicted to clap happy worship(which seldom resembles the reality of where most of the people of the world are living), They worship the god of ‘what works’= success in ministry=(nickles and noses)Rather than a biblical incarnatonal faith in Christ.
    If its stimulating ,exciting,egocentic(even though they think its Christ centered–because It ‘FEELS’ so awsome) It is far from christocentic..
    This is not the Faith that sustains.This is not the faith of our fathers,but something new ,novel.
    Keep up the good work for which you have been called.
    Fr. Mike Brecht.
    Yes–even priests can proclaim the good news of Christ Crucified! LOL

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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