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Greg Schneider/Genesis

Giving voice to sorrow and hope

Cambodia | A Cambodian refugee turns her tale of survival under the Khmer Rouge into an audio ministry reaching thousands in her homeland

Issue: "Another dark day in America," Jan. 12, 2013

LONG BEACH, Calif.—Maly is eating a plate of Mee Ka Tang—wide rice noodle, Chinese broccoli, straw mushroom, and shrimp dripping with gravy sauce—at a Cambodian restaurant in southern California. With jet black hair, a small frame, and eyes that easily crinkle to a smile, she shows me photos of her grandchildren. It’s hard to believe where the 68-year-old Maly has been in her lifetime: She moved in the highest echelons of Cambodian society, worked in fields under the Khmer Rouge, traversed Cambodia’s jungle with two young children in tow, was captured in a Thai prison separated from her children, and was exiled to Long Beach as a refugee. 

Now Maly (WORLD changed her name to protect her identity) is working to create the only audio recording of the Bible in Khmer. She began the project because she found it comforting to read Scripture out loud and record it for later listening. Now she uses the recordings to help illiterate Cambodians hear the gospel.

The Khmer Rouge killed most of Cambodia’s educated class—nearly 2 million between 1975 and 1979—and Maly knows her life has been spared for a purpose: “I never thought I’d survive Communism and survive persecution and escaping to Thailand. ... God keep me alive because He loves those people, He kept me alive for my people who can’t read.”

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Born in the southern city of Kampot and reared a Buddhist like most Cambodians, Maly was sent to live with an aunt, who gave her little to eat and treated her like a maid. In desperate hunger, Maly would sometimes eat the food she was supposed to feed to her 2-year-old cousin. She felt guilty but told herself that once she went back to live with her mother, she would spoil her cousin. Before she could do that, her cousin died. Maly felt that she had to do good works to pay penance and started studying to ease her guilt. But a college scholarship and two years at an administration and financial institute—as only the third woman in Cambodia to reach that level of education—didn’t ease that guilt.

She went to work for the government in Phnom Penh for 10 years and learned to enjoy the good life—married with kids, a house, and a car, a luxury owned by few Cambodians. Then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, pushing people in the cities out to the countryside to create a new agrarian society. The regime suspected anyone with an education of “involvement in free-market activities” and killed 2 million professionals, intellectuals, minorities, and even people within their own party suspected of being traitors. 

Maly and her family moved to the northwestern mountains to clear the jungle for agricultural fields. The Khmer Rouge fed them one spoonful of rice a day and rounded up Maly’s husband for a work camp, where he died, she would eventually learn. Maly also discovered later that the Khmer Rouge shot her sister after a former student identified her as a school teacher. Maly said one of the most heart-breaking experiences was watching as her mother starved to death, her body emaciated and skin breaking apart.

Maly survived. She pretended to be uneducated, quietly working in the fields and taking care of two small children. As the years passed, infighting among Khmer Rouge groups led to less oversight of the people, and Maly tried escaping with her sons. Soldiers caught her and sent her to the village chief for interrogation. 

“I said at the time I thought maybe my ancestor’s spirit helped or [it was] good luck, but actually God spared my life,” Maly said. “I couldn’t have saved myself from the situation, the chief of the village almost killed the three of us, but He interfered.”

Less than a year later she escaped along with her young sons, though one could not yet walk and the other was barely able to stumble along. They trudged through jungle and fields, away from a main road to avoid detection. Maly scavenged for food in the jungle and hid when soldiers were close by. She searched for other family members and almost drowned crossing Cambodia’s great lake Tonlé Sap, a muddy swamp during the dry season.

She found her brother, who helped carry her sons to her mother-in-law’s house. An attempt to sell her gold jewelry to buy food at the Thai border led to her arrest, but she was released after a month. She knew she had to get out of the country. By now, food in Cambodia had become so scarce that many refugees were heading to the Thai border to find food. It was safe to walk along the road and talk to others and discover what had happened to loved ones. 

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