Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Yuong speaks on his survival in Cambodian Killing Fields

“When there is life, there is hope,” said Robert Yuong as he opened his presentation on his childhood spent clinging to both life and hope in Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Yuong’s talk, “Surviving the Killing Fields through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy,” recounted his personal story of enduring the brutal and deadly regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.

During the control of the Khmer Rouge, some two million Cambodians, about 30 percent of Cambodia’s population, were killed or starved to death.   According to Yuong, another 200,000 children were orphaned and 140,000 people lost legs or arms during the regime.

“The Killing Fields,” the 1984 Academy Award-winning film about the Khmer Rouge regime, coined the now generally accepted name for the tragedy.

Yuong came to the United States in 1980 as a teenager where he completed school and now teaches high school math and computer science in Tacoma, Wash.

Geoffrey Liu, who had Yuong as a teacher, was inspired by Yuong’s story and the grace, humility and honesty with which Yuong recounts his tale for others.

“I think nowadays we don’t hear enough first-hand accounts of atrocities,” said Liu.   “His presentation is as personal as it gets.   How he lectures is how he is when you talk to him one on one.   Nothing is scripted and everything is from his heart,” added Liu by e-mail.

As a 10-year-old, Yuong’s family was broken up and he was forced into intensive farm labor.   Over the next three years, eight months and nine days Yuong endured near-starvation, overworking, beatings, land mines and seeing thousands of others die around him.

“A lot of times [the Khmer Rouge] didn’t want to waste the bullet on you.   They’d strangle you with a plastic bag or bury you alive,” said Yuong.

The tireless monotony and seemingly endless depravation were perhaps what stuck with Yuong the most.
“You know they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun.’   Well, what happens when you’re in hell?” said Yuong.   “Time just stood still.   When you’re starving, when you’re hungry, when you’re in pain, it’s like it’s eternal.”

“We throw out all these statistics and numbers and we become desensitized and forget the stories of real people,” said first-year Liz Sieng, whose parents are also survivors of the Killing Fields.   “I think it’s really important to seek out stories, especially eyewitness accounts…you really can’t completely understand it from the textbook point of view.”

“There are so many sides and innocent people got stepped on,” said Yuong, who repeatedly expressed his desire to let his story speak for itself and avoid all politics.

“We tend to try and fix things when they’re already broken; we don’t do preventative things.   Until you’ve gone through one of those things you can’t know the true cost,” said Yuong.

“When you hear the first-person story and you multiply it by the millions of other people who had different but similar experiences, it made me think of [the more recent] ‘Hotel Rwanda,'” said first-year Gabby Brandt.   “We don’t really know about these things and we don’t really learn from history.”

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