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Hope rises from the Killing Fields

14 June 2013

Chomno In risked death to escape from the Khmer Rouge. Now he leads an organisation that helps children who are at risk of being trafficked. Madeleine Davies  met him on a visit to Horsham


Field work: Chomno In

Field work: Chomno In

Sue Ward was a young dentistry student in Birmingham from 1975 to 1979. Six thousand miles away, in Cambodia, Chomno In was imprisoned in a labour camp run by the Khmer Rouge.

Now, at Brighton Road Baptist Church, Horsham, in Sussex, Mrs Ward tells him, face to face: "When I was learning to put people back together again, people in your country were being blown apart. We saw the most terrible images here, and it affected me profoundly."

The genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is one of the horrors of modern history. About 20,000 sites of mass graves, known as the "Killing Fields", have been discovered in the country. They contain at least 1.3 million victims of execution. It is estimated that up to 2.5 million Cambodians died under the regime, out of a population, in 1979, of eight million - victims of violence, starvation, and disease. At the Choeung Ek killing fields, a Buddhist stupa (monument), filled with more than 5000 human skulls, stands as a grim memorial.

When the Baptist church, which Mrs Ward attends, had originally proposed Cambodia as the focus of its overseas mission, her instant reaction had been: "That's probably the one place on earth I don't think I can possibly face, because of that instant emotional reaction; because I hadn't faced it down in myself. But, within a month, God had turned me round."


MR IN, now a health-care professional, visited Britain this month to meet churches that support his work in Cambodia. Sitting in the chapel on Brighton Road, he tells the story of how he survived imprisonment, disease, hunger, and isolation, before he discovered God in a Thai refugee camp, and went on to set up the Cambodian Hope Organisation, in one of the country's most notorious cities.

He knows the exact amount of time he spent in a labour camp under the regime: three years, eight months, and 20 days.

"In 1975, I felt no hope, because thousands of people were at the labour camp. Every day, people died because they made some mistake. In the morning, they took us, and we worked hard. And every night, we slept on the ground under trees. I could not meet my parents during that whole time. I caught malaria, and there was no medicine, just herbs.

"In 1979, I was sent back to the forest to the army labour camp, and they tried to send me to be a youth soldier. Fifty people were sent out, and only 30 people came back; they died because they did not understand how to carry guns. We moved close to the Thai border, and everyone tried to escape from the labour camp, and every night someone stepped on a landmine. Nine out of ten died.

"One day, there was very heavy rain, and on that night I and other friends decided to escape. Two of them died. I spent two months in the forest. Everything I ate was raw. When I got back to my home village, my parents did not recognise me because my hair was so long, my face was very old, and I was skinny. My parents said: 'If you stay in the village, they will send you out to fight, and you will die.'"


IN 1984, Mr In fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he found work at the hospital, and met a doctor who shared his Christian faith. Mr In studied English at a church, and at a Buddhist temple near by. Eventually, he felt the need to choose between the two faiths.

"The pastor asked if anybody wanted to receive baptism," he says. "But, at the same time, the monk at the temple said that, in two weeks, they would prepare me to be a monk. They bought robes for me. I started to pray to Buddha, and to Jesus. I kept praying for a whole week.

"One night . . . when I slept, I saw that the Buddhist temple looked very dark, and that the church looked very bright. My dream made my decision. When I woke up, I went straight to the church and asked the pastor if I could receive baptism the next week."

On learning of this decision, the monk threw Mr In out of the temple. But, back at the hospital, the doctor was "very excited" to have a partner to pray with. Mr In trained alongside him - he has medical experience, but is not a doctor. In 1992, when the refugee camp closed, he returned to Cambodia with his wife, Kim, whom he had met at the camp.

He found work, and enjoyed success in Phnom Penh, but it was not long before he was to confront the legacy of the civil war. On a work trip to Poipet, a city on the border with Thailand, he discovered a place that was in need of intervention.

"Every day, adults and children were crossing the border. A lot of young children and women were raped. Nobody seemed to care. Nobody trusted each other. No one shared with other people."

He remembers urging the army to help a young woman who was being washed downstream as she struggled to carry her child and her possessions across the river. "I stood and kept praying to the Lord: 'How can I help?'"


A SEARCH on Google for the town of Poipet generates depressing results. The travel guide Lonely Planet describes it as "the armpit of Cambodia, notorious for its squalor, scams, and sleaze"; and a contributor to the website TripAdvisor says that "in a land rated globally as one of the most corrupt on our planet, little national effort is made to clean up this border town."

This bleak picture, however, is now mitigated by the presence, and by the work, of Mr In. When he returned to Phnom Penh, convinced that God had told him to move to Poipet, he faced the challenge of persuading his wife to leave the good life that they had built for a town characterised by crime, trafficking, and gang rape. Eventually, however, she agreed, and the couple sold their house and moved.

The family found themselves living alongside both former Khmer Rouge soldiers, living civilian lives, and refugees. Mr In's prescription was "hope". "They need to know about forgiveness," he says. "When people ask about a ministry with these people, I tell them: 'Who can do it? The Lord.'"

At the time of the move, the Christian relief and development agency Tearfund had an office in Cambodia, and, after a visit to Poipet, gave the fledgling NGO its first grant: $12,000. Mr In still remembers his trepidation at filling in the "paper proposal", and the stonewalling he initially received from the government officials responsible for issuing NGO licences.

Today, he is sought out by officials, who seek his strategic advice on everything from the care of HIV patients to city planning. The Cambodian Hope Organization (CHO) has grown from a staff of two, in 2002, to 57, all of whom share a vision to equip vulnerable groups to become self-sufficient, and capable of leading development in their communities.

Central to that vision is the local church. From the outset, development has gone hand in hand with evangelism and church-planting. Water-pumps and other facilities are branded "a gift from Jesus", prompting beneficiaries to ask questions about the source. Every year, 100 church leaders gather at the CHO offices for training.


"SIXTY years ago, before the Khmer Rouge, the Buddhist temple's role was there to help the community," Mr In says. "The idea is to see the church respond to issues in the community."

A priority at the CHO is working with children who are at risk of being trafficked. Children run away, he explains, or are sold to traffickers by their parents, who do not realise the intent of the traffickers. Once sold, they may be used to smuggle drugs across the border in Thailand.

The CHO works in schools to educate children and teachers, and raises awareness about a telephone hotline for children who fear they are at risk. Once the children are recovered by the CHO, they may be reunited with their family, but only once the charity is confident that they will be safe.

Another priority is supporting families affected by HIV/AIDS. The condition still has a significant stigma in Cambodia, and the CHO works to deliver care in people's homes, and public-health education. "We try to act as a bridge, because some communities are very isolated from the government," Mr In says. "We try to fill the gaps, and when we do, then the government takes over."

The organisation is supported by several churches through Connected Church, a Tearfund initiative designed to link churches in the UK with those "working to bring transformation to their local communities around the world". Christians in the UK choose a project, and then support it through prayer and donations, making a commitment of at least one year.

One of the deacons at Brighton Road Baptist Church, Graham Ward, believes that Connected Church has enabled the congregation to form a "much closer relationship" with an overseas project. "As this relationship has developed, CHO feels part of us," he tells Mr In. "You are part of our extended family."

One of the six members of the congregation who visited the CHO in 2011, Maria Grainger, says: "Another element is the mutuality. It recognises that we are not above the people we are working with: we are their brothers, we are their sisters. And it is so humbling to hear from CHO when they pray for us, because we are equal - that is the way that mission should be."

The visit, she emphasises, was a turning point. "One of the tricky things about being on the team that went out there, is trying to get a sense of the love we have for Cambodia across to the church."  Mrs Ward, was agreeably surprised at the skills and opportunities that people in the UK were prepared to offer. Before setting out in 2011, she found that a dentistry colleague was able to offer all of the educational materials she needed, in the correct language, on a memory stick. Other members of the team worked in construction, education, and preaching.

"It's not all about the money," the church's minister, Dr Tim Carter, says. "It's the opportunity for people to go and contribute at a personal level, and to form a prayer partnership."

Mr In approves of Tearfund's approach. "Tearfund is not the boss," he concludes, gesturing a top-down movement with his hands. "It comes like a sister, or a friend." And he clasps his two hands together.




1953: Cambodia wins its independence from France, and becomes the Kingdom of Cambodia.

1970: The Prime Minister, Lon Nol, stages a coup, and proclaims the Khmer Republic.

1975: Lon Nol is overthrown as the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, occupy Phnom Penh. In "Year Zero", all city dwellers are for-cibly moved to the countryside to become agricultural workers. Money becomes worthless, basic freedoms are curtailed, and religion is banned. Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-class are tortured and executed in special centres. Others starve, or die from disease or exhaustion.

1978: Vietnamese forces invade Cambodia.

1979: The Vietnamese take the city of Phnom Penh. Pol Pot, and Khmer Rouge forces flee to the border region with Thailand.

1991: A peace agreement is signed in Paris.

1997: The Khmer Rouge put Pol Pot on trial, and sentence him to life imprisonment.

1998: Pol Pot dies in his jungle hideout.

2007: UN-backed tribunals begin questioning Khmer Rouge suspects about allegations of genocide.

2010: The former Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch is found guilty of crimes against humanity, and given a 35-year prison sentence (later extended to life).

Source: BBC


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