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• Last month, World Pulse founder Jensine Larsen attended the Khmer Rouge trials. Read her thoughts and insights in "Butterflies Over the Graves."

• Read World Pulse's previous coverage of Cambodia, survivor and activist Loung Ung's tribute to her homeland.

• Visit the Khmer Rouge Trial Web Portal to get breaking updates on the progress of the trial.

• Learn more about the Khmer Rouge in Time Magazine's photo-rich presentation, "The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge".

• Support The People Improvement Organization, a program that works to educate Cambodia's most at-risk children.

• Watch this short video biography to learn more about Theary Seng's life and work.

World Pulse recommends Daughter of the Killing Fields, Theary Seng's memoir.

Daughter of the Killing Fields

PulseWire Show Your Support: Join the PulseWire group, The Cambodian Cafe to connect with Cambodian women leaders. You'll meet parliamentarian Mu Sochua, young leader Reaksmey Arun, Cambodian-American Sophorn, and many more!

Ushering In Cambodia’s Peace

"We are imprisoned by our past and the Tribunal offers us a way out to freedom."

As Cambodia tries members of the Khmer Rouge for genocide and crimes against humanity, renowned lawyer, activist, and survivor of the killing fields Theary Seng pursues a long-awaited healing for her people.

"At 9 years old, I found myself without my mother and father, displaced in a cold, violent, anarchic, incomprehensible world, without shelter or the security of a home. The Khmer Rouge had shredded my heart."

Theary Seng speaks to villagers in Svay Rieng, Cambodia.

"At last buried truths can begin to surface and our country can move forward."

My life’s journey has been one in passionate pursuit of peace—of mind, of heart, of home. It has been a selfish pursuit, in search of a way to quiet the violent restlessness and turmoil broiling within and without me, to quiet the consuming angst of being born Cambodian.

How to explain my homeland? The trafficking of human beings; the land evictions that strip those already dangerously poor of their homes and their livelihoods? The disdain and neglect of Cambodia’s majority, the poor and vulnerable? How to explain the staggering rates of domestic violence? The culture of corruption and abuse? How to explain Cambodia?

It is not possible to understand these things, to understand our current culture of fear and impunity, without first knowing the destruction wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Now that the Khmer Rouge trials are finally upon us, at last buried truths can begin to surface and our country can move forward. Yet, beyond the courtroom, there are now endless stories emerging, many of courageous women survivors who are channeling their pain to hasten our nation’s healing.

I will tell you mine.

A childhood, bombed

Turmoil awaited me at birth. I experienced the first four years of my life in a Cambodia under siege, a pawn in the Cold War. Under US-President Richard Nixon’s orders, my country was carpeted with over half-a-million tons of bombs. The aim: to root out Vietnamese soldiers taking refuge in a neutral land.

In these early years, I grew up loved by a father who was oftentimes far away from our home in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, commanding his several-thousand-strong military men out in the many battlefields. When she was not visiting her husband on the frontlines my mother shepherded her five young children away from the bombings in the capital city.


I spent the next four years of my life fighting for survival—as much as a toddler of five, six, seven, eight years old could—from the consuming hell of the Khmer Rouge. Immediately after Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, my father “disappeared.” He was violently killed by the black-clad, young peasant boys who the regime had conscripted. This came only days after my mom had cheered these same men with welcoming, exclamatory praise. “Hooray! Peace is at hand,” she had said.

Just three years later, in a prison compound in the heart of the “Eastern Zone,” Khmer Rouge security guards led the prisoners—including my mother, my four brothers, and myself—into the night and executed nearly everyone in nearby fields and bushes. I later learned that nearly 20,000 were executed at this prison compound. That dark night, somehow, inexplicably, my mother managed to untangle herself out of my embrace without waking me. For some reason, they let the children live.


Peace eluded me even after Vietnam invaded and put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979. The three dark years, eight dark months, and twenty dark nights of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror took the lives of my father, my mother, my aunt, and her newlywed husband. They took my home, my childhood, my innocence, and 1.7 million Cambodian countrymen. Every Cambodian who found herself with breath woke up from the “killing fields” (the rice paddies spread across Cambodia) in a stupor, dazed by the killing spree that claimed one-fourth of the country’s population.

At 9 years old, I found myself without my mother and father, displaced in a cold, violent, anarchic, incomprehensible world, without shelter or the security of a home. The Khmer Rouge had shredded my heart and the external sociopolitical confusion mirrored my internal chaos. After several months, my relatives came to the conclusion that it was better to risk an escape across minefields, Khmer Rouge soldiers, commonplace plunderers and robbers, and mountainous terrain to Thailand rather than to remain in a Communist, occupied, drought-stricken homeland.

It was November 1979 when my maternal relatives, my four brothers, and I crossed into Thailand and became the first group of refugees to start Khao-I-Dang camp. We stayed only one year before being called to a third country, some to the United States and some to France, whereas others wilted indefinitely in these squalid camps, some until a United Nations-sponsored repatriation in 1993.


We arrived in the United States as broken refugees, beginning life anew at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. In the US, we experienced the dramatic absence of war. But internally, we were torn apart. The new reality of America did not erase the accumulated trauma and emotional weight of the past; in many instances, they were compounded by adjusting to a new culture, a new language, a new life.

My thoughts—no longer consumed by how to survive—focused on how to live without the angst from within, without the nightmares that terrorized my sleep causing me to act out violently against my grandmother who had the misfortune of sharing a bed with me. I focused on how to mend the fragmented pieces of my heart and spirit, how to purge the demons from within. I didn’t have a road map, and my relatives could not help—they were consumed with the same struggle. . . .


Tanya's picture

My best wishes

Dear Ms Theary Seng,

Your story is heart wrenching to say the least. Thankyou for sharing. I dont know what else to say, except that I wish you peace and healing, in all your quests and endeavours.

Warm Regards,

Tanya Daud

acdadesky's picture

Thank you and Blessings

Dear Mme. Theary Seng,

Of course words cannot touch upon the depth of pain you carry about the past or bring back your loved ones. But your words touch me, touch us and can touch the future, and change it for Cambodia. I will share your letter with my colleagues throughout the world, who encompass human rights and social justice activists, those working in AIDS and public health, and women advocates and men who have taken up the challenge of combatting sexual violence in war. I myself am an activist and journalist, and an author working on issues of gender justice and public health, and am following the cases brought before the international tribunals related to femicide. I launched an HIV program in Rwanda for genocide rape survivors a few years ago, and continue to work with groups there and in Congo, etc. I want to learn more about Cambodia and the issue of sexual war crimes, in particular.

On my end, I hope to visit Cambodia, possibly this summer. I am working to map the response of the global community to sexual war crimes,and hope to spotlight what is known, and remains to be uncovered, about the use of sexual torture as a component of the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps we will have a chance to meet if this trip happens. I have included my coordinates for you, and I have posted to PulseWire, though not that much lately.

An embrace of solidarity from across the waters.

Know that your words will strike a powerful chord and take root around the world.

Peace then,

Anne-christine d'Adesky
skype: acdadesky

Anne-christine d'Adesky
Director of Global Advocacy
3345 22nd street,
San Francisco, CA 94110

Mobilizing Women and Girls to Fight HIV/AIDS

Dear Theary Seng:

My name is Cristina Avila-Zesatti, I am a Mexican journalist, and main editor of the new digital media Corresponsal de Paz (Peace Correspondent) which entire content is dedicated to that called “peace journalism”

I am now part of Pulse Wire web, and that’s where I found your amazing story. I felt really touched for your text, and that’s why now I am writing you to ask for your permission to translate it to Spanish and publish it in our journalistic website (

Unfortunately, now we only have Spanish content, but I am praying to launch soon our English version.

However, i already sent you an e-mail where I am attaching you an entire explanation about “who we are and what we do” in English, and I am attaching you my CV as well, just to let you know my profile.

Of course we will give you all the credits and we will re-send our users to your website

I am crossing my fingers to have a yes from you.

In the meanwhile, please receive all my admiration for your courage and your work.

Regards from Mexico: Xthina " )

Cristina Avila-Zesatti - Journaliste&Productrice
Main Editor:

"Un milagro no es la suspensión de una ley natural, sino la implementación de una ley superior"

Joan Bartos's picture

Thank you for your work

Dear Ms. Seng,

Thank you so much for the work you've done. Thank you also for sharing your very moving personal story.

Having worked with Cambodian refugees in Birmingham Alabama in the early 1980's, I remember well the difficulties of the refugee community.

While I know that your work will provide hope and healing for many in Cambodia and throughout the world, I also pray for your personal healing.

With Sincerity and Warmth,

Joan Bartos
Napa, CA USA

dreaflynn's picture

Thank you!

Thank you for sharing your story with us. I hope it is read by many, many people and that you feel our support!

wanjirumungai's picture

Cambodia.... A land

Dear Theary Seng,

I have enduring memories of Cambodia - many. And your powerful sharing brings tears to my eyes. Even more so, it strengthens me in my journey. If you are shining, I see no reason why myself and other women should not.

And leaves me to say, for I know not what else -

God bless you. Many many blessings to you, and to the people of Cambodia.


giftypearl.abenaab's picture

Your story

Your story is very touching. You continue to fight a god fight for yourself and nation.

Gifty Pearl Abenaab
Greight Foundation

suziey's picture

Dear Theary, You are trully a

Dear Theary,
You are trully a strong woman and your courage is to be emulated. Having visited Cambodia 30 years after the Khmer Rouge and seen the terrible evidence that still exists and hearing some of the stories from the people of how it was back then, all I could do was sympathise but realising that there are strong women like you who are willing to help the people there face up to tomorrow and realise that the future holds much more and that you can move on and make your country a better place other than dwell in the past is very encouraging.

Your country is a good learning ground for how the selfishness of leaders can lead to the suffering of so many a people. Its sad that even in the current time, many a countries still refuse to learn from the past and correct some of this things, but I pray that the future shall judge them. I pray for healing and forgiveness for your country and its people.

Lea's picture

Thank you!

Thank you for sharing such a powerful and moving story. You have shown an impressive amount of resilience in spite of having experienced such trauma and loss. You were able to move forward and were determined to help rebuild a society that is still on the mend and burdened with the consequences of the genocide. You are a true inspiration to us all.

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