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My Cambodian translator escapes the killing fields

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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 ca…
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.

cambodiansMate 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.

He
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.

killing fields

“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.

skulls“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.”

Mate
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
Christ.

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