Rehabilitation not revenge

Rehabilitation not revenge

15 November 2009 Marshall Kim

It’s too late for revenge. The UN and foreign governments should learn to intervene when a country is suffering, not three decades later.

I was born and raised in Kampot province in Cambodia. I was about 10 years old when Cambodia’s civil war began. I heard the sound of guns, rockets and airplanes and saw someone getting shot or dying almost every day. Some days and nights we hid in a bunker to escape the rockets. In 1972 my family and I went to Phnom Penh.

In early 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and emptied the entire city in three days. We returned to our hometown. In the next four years my mother and father, my brothers, aunts, uncles and friends became some of the KR’s 1.7m victims.

We lived on mice, rats and lizards. My 8-year-old niece starved to death before my eyes. I cried until I had no more tears. I prayed for someone to stop the slavery and the killings. No one came to the rescue.

To save my life I learned to cut the hair of the KR cadre leaders and make bamboo baskets that the older people used to carry away the dirt they dug from irrigation canals. In 1979, alone and desperate, I escaped to a Thai refugee camp. Sponsors helped me gain passage to New York City in 1982. I spoke no English, had no money and knew almost no one.

Today, I own a hair salon in Manhattan. I live with my wife and two children in Scarsdale, a suburb in the north of the city. We have enough to eat and get medical attention. I can also donate money to, and help raise funds for the Angkor Hospital for Children and a Khmer study centre. So, I feel blessed.

I want to use my experience as a survivor to be a role model to help others. I want to help Cambodia with projects that teach people “to fish and not just give them fish.” My philosophy is “feed the cows to produce the milk so that they may feed the babies.”

I marvel at the journey I have taken, a voyage from hell to heaven. I didn’t realize how bad my life was until I experienced how good life can be. With what I know now, I’m not sure if I could survive the same experience again. When my clients ask me how I’m doing I always answer, “Couldn’t be better”, even though if I wrote down my complaints and those of my clients each day, I would have enough to fill a book.

I had to learn how to survive in the Killing Fields, when people had nothing. Now I have had to learn how to live in a time and place where people have and consume too much. The longer I live here, the more I like it. I enjoy being part of one the world’s “melting pot” cities.

Now I read about the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, the commander of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. I read the witnesses’ accounts of torture and murder. And I find myself asking, what sort of justice is possible now? This trial will not bring peace to Cambodia. We, who were lucky enough to survive, used to look forward to there being a trial, but that was 30 years ago. Too long ago for us to want to waste our energy seeking revenge. It will only cause more anger and hatred. After ignoring our suffering when action might have saved our country, what does the UN expect this trial to do for Cambodia now?

Only time will heal the survivors of the Killing Fields. Cambodians must make their own peace. They must work hard to provide for a new generation, and that will take a lot of money and effort. Why waste it on this trial? Any money the world has to spend on Cambodia should go toward unifying and rebuilding the country. Seventy percent of Cambodia’s population is under 30 years old. They didn’t experience the Killing Fields, and they face enough challenges in their daily struggle to make ends meet.

If the world’s democracies want to prevent illegal and cruel acts by other governments, they must act early when the harm is being done. Punishment must swiftly follow the crime. Of course, we must have justice, but how do we find justice in this case? It seems to me it’s too little too late. The sooner we move on, the better off Cambodians will be. I am not saying we should forget. Let the horrors be documented in books and films and let the truth be recorded for the entire world to see. But not through this trial, which will do nothing to improve the lives of Cambodians.

Instead of dwelling in the past and spending money on the trial, the UN should rehabilitate the Cambodian legal system so that a new generation can have laws and feel safe. I hope the UN has learned the most important lesson of the Killing Fields: act before it’s too late. By helping the Khmers to help themselves and rebuild Cambodia, the world would be making the best investment.

To bring smiles to the faces of the Cambodians of today would be the sweetest way to answer the cruelty of the Killing Fields.

Marshall Kim left Cambodia as a refugee and began a new life in the US. He now has a hairdressing salon in Manhattan. He is the founder of the Cambodian-American Foundation for Education (CAFFE), which strives to help Cambodians through education. His foundation funds training programs and provides tuition fees for Cambodia’s young people. It also provides micro-credit loans to help Cambodian entrepreneurs establish and expand their businesses. For more information: www.


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