from its Message to name, Tragedy and triumph is rooted in the incredible story of suffering, perseverance and compassion of Sedtha Long and his brother Vudthy
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Sedtha Long is not the kind of man you meet everyday.
As a 16-year-old boy, Sedtha was thrust into the middle of what would become one of the most brutal and devastating mass killings of human history - the Cambodian genocide.
Sedtha lost everything in those years of suffering and came out to find himself without a family, without a home and without a country. He lived as a refugee for more than a decade, and since returning home he has dedicated his life, either through his own volunteer work or now through his own non-profit organization, to helping rebuild what was so brutally destroyed. Sedtha has had his entire life violently torn apart by the persecution of the Khmer Rouge, but he stands today as a man who refuses to linger in this past or let it define him.
His story of suffering is powerful, heartbreaking and overwhelming, but in the end it is ultimately eclipsed by his ability to overcome it and move forward with both practical and spiritual grace to restore his shattered country. In this way Sedtha 's story embodies both the worst and the best of humanity, making it distinct both in its dichotomy and importance; in both it's tragedy and triumph.
“I still remember that we heard the sound of knocking on the door…and my brother telling me to go and open it. As soon as I opened the door I felt shocked and horrified to find standing in front of me a group of soldiers dressed in black uniforms and carrying rifles. They came into the house, aiming their rifles at my family, and told us to leave, to rush, saying ‘the Americans are going to bomb the city. Go now!’ They told us not to take any of our belongings, that we would return home in a few days. We never did.”
This was Sedtha’s first encounter with the communist insurgents known as the “Khmer Rouge”, or the Red Khmers. Under their leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge installed what would become one of the most brutal and repressive communist regimes of the 20th century. Over the next three and a half years this new government of “Democratic Kampuchea” drove the nation into the ground under the guise of Pol Pot’s perverse interpretation of Maoist communism.
That day that Sedtha opened his door to soldiers dressed in black was the 17th of April, 1975, the day that the Khmer Rouge overran the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It was the day that Khmer Rouge declared victory and the day that, in Sedtha’s words, “everything changed”
The Khmer Rouge would march into the city that morning at around 9 or 10 am. It was a Thursday and Vudthy, Sedtha’s younger brother who was 12 years old at the time, remembers his mother dressing him in his school uniform and preparing breakfast while Sedtha recalls the rest of his family going about their morning routines. Sedtha and his family knew that the war had to end soon, but none of them knew when it would happen. In fact, when Sedtha heard three loud knocks on his front door, he’d assumed maybe the neighbors needed some sugar or a friend was stopping by to say hello. Instead, five soldiers barged into the house, guns drawn, and started barking orders at his family. They yelled “The Americans are going to bomb the city!” over and over again while forcing the family out of their home. They had no time to take anything, and within the hour Sedtha, his eight siblings, parents, two cousins and grandmother were all out in the streets with little more than the clothes on their backs. By the time the sun would set that evening, nearly the entire population of Phnom Penh had been forcefully evacuated from the city; all of the city’s three million people would, under gunpoint, march on foot down the highways that connected the city with rural country that it governed.
It took Sedtha a single day to walk away from his entire life and ten days to march into a brutally new one. The world that Sedtha had woken up to that morning was entirely different than the one he fell asleep in. His life had been turned upside down and everything Sedtha did from that day forward would directly or indirectly be influenced by less than 12 hours on the 17th of April 1975.
For the first few days that Sedtha and his family walked down Cambodia’s Highway no. 2, they clung to the hope that the Khmer Rouge would honor their promise and allow them to return home. However, as Sedtha made his way farther and farther from the capital and the promised three days away from home turned into one week and then two weeks, it became increasingly apparent that the life Sedtha had known was gone. What replaced it was be a life of perpetual slavery. Sedtha today describes his life under the Khmer Rouge as that of a “perfect slave”, with every waking minute being dominated by fear, exhaustion and starvation.
‘There is no more family’. Forget your father. Forget your mother. We are now all brothers and sisters and Brother Number One is Pol Pot.
Sedtha’s introduction to what life under the Khmer Rouge was going to be like was as brutal as his introduction to the Khmer Rouge themselves. Two weeks after leaving Phnom Penh, Sedtha’s family was stripped apart. Based on age and sex the Khmer Rouge assigned everyone a different job and then sent them to where they were needed with little regard to family. In fact, the Khmer Rouge would often break up families intentionally in an effort to emphasize the importance of the revolution above everything else. Vudthy, as a twelve-year-old boy, would be initially sent for ‘re-education’, where the Khmer Rouge taught the children of Cambodia “ ‘There is no more family’. Forget your father. Forget your mother. We are now all brothers and sisters and Brother Number One is Pol Pot.” Vudthy described his education with the Khmer Rouge as "brainwashing", but while Vudthy was initially sent to a classroom, Sedtha was sent to work in the fields. From that day forward for the next three and a half years Sedtha was forced, under threat of execution or starvation, to perform backbreaking work 16 hours a day, every day. This was not the return of Sihanouk, this was something tragically different.
After that first time his family was separated in late April of 1975, he would only see them once again later that summer. They would all be shoved into the back of a truck and driven some 300 kilometers to the other side of the country, with no idea where they were going or what to expect once they got there. Along the way they passed through Phnom Penh and for the first time since being forced out, were able to see what had become of the place. The city was a ghost town. The only people they saw were Khmer Rouge soldiers patrolling the empty streets; the entire population of the city had been forced out and nobody had been allowed to return. The site of this to Sedtha was as surreal as it was upsetting. The capital of Cambodia and Sedtha’s home had been reduced to a derelict ruin.
The Khmer Rouge would soon split the family apart again, but this time there would be no reunion. Ten out of the original fourteen family members that Sedtha left Phnom Penh with would join the countless victims of the Khmer Rouge. For many of Sedtha’s siblings, his last memories of them would be of muffled sobbing while driving through the abandoned ruin of what had once been their home. Sedtha himself would eventually end up in Pursat province, and though he would hear rumors for the next ten years, he never found out exactly what happened to his brothers and sisters. As for Sedtha, he would spend the next three years being forced to grow rice while he himself starved.
We were working from the early morning, from 5 or 4:30 and until 11 or 12 without stop and without breakfast, and when you come back to the kitchen you get milk and some liquid rice soup. It doesn’t matter if it was enough, they didn’t care. After thirty minutes we had to go back to the rice field and work none stop until 6 in the evening when we would have dinner and it was the same, rice soup. After dinner we go back and work again until 11 or 12 at night.
Life under the Khmer Rouge was a day-to-day struggle. The food that Sedtha was given to eat was rarely enough to sustain him for the day, and as the days dragged into weeks and months and eventually years, the rations continued to grow smaller and smaller. While in the first few months of working in the fields the Khmer Rouge provided Sedtha and ten others with around a kilogram of rice to share, by 1977, that same rice was divided up amongst 45 people. The rice soup that Sedtha was given every day became little more than water with a few grains of rice. Vegetables were a rarity and meat or fish was practically unheard of. Many thousands of the people who died under the Khmer Rouge died of starvation or disease, and for Sedtha, staying alive became the only thing on his mind. “I couldn’t think about tomorrow or yesterday, I only thought about today. What was I going to eat? How was I going to survive?”
Sedtha’s answer to these questions became an increasingly desperate search for anything edible. He started out by trying to skim off the top of Khmer Rouge food supplies whenever he was in charge of moving them, but after seeing friends that he worked with dragged off to be shot for doing the same thing, he resorted to more primitive means. Whenever Sedtha was working in the fields and found a plant, weed, mushroom or on the rare occasion, a frog or small animal, he would shove it into his mouth before any of his supervisors could see him. While this did keep Sedtha from starving, it also on more than a few occasions made him very sick, and being sick under the Khmer Rouge was often a death sentence. Doctors had been targeted along with the rest of Cambodia’s educated elites, so when Sedtha or anyone else became sick, there was no medical care of any sort available to them. In addition, the Khmer Rouge strongly discriminated against people from Phnom Penh, so there was little sympathy from the Khmer Rouge when people like Sedtha got sick.
If you work slow or you’re sick and spend too much time in bed they sent you for ‘education’. It means that you get killed. We never saw anyone who got sent for education come back.
Sedtha had become enslaved by the Khmer Rouge. His entire existence became obedient service to them on threat of death punctuated by horrific memories of what happened to those who lacked his self control or who the Khmer Rouge decided to purge. On one occasion, while Sedtha was alone out in the fields watching cattle, he would watch one hundred people be lined up and summarily executed in front of his very eyes.
They walked out into the fields and were split into two lines. One for the men, and one for the women. They were told to take off their clothes, and then they just waited there in silence. Soon two men walked up to them, one with a stick and one with a machete. The man with the stick would hit them on the back of the head, and the man with a machete would then slice their throats from the front and let them fall forward and bleed out…Nobody fought it. They just stood there and waited to die, some even begged the Khmer Rouge to kill them first and get it over with.
The Khmer Rouge not only took peoples lives, but take their hope and their will to live. Those that survived would never forget it, the memory of the Khmer Rouge permanently imprinted in their minds, and the scars of the Khmer Rouge often permanently visible on their bodies. Those that didn't survive became nameless corpses in unmarked mass graves, like those that Sedtha watched being executed.
The government of Democratic Kampuchea lasted for three years, eight months and twenty-one days. Almost two million people perished under their watch. A fifth of the population of Cambodia.
Cambodia was liberated by the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge ironically enough by the communist Vietnamese. After years of fiery and racist rhetoric from Pol Pot combined with a purge of ethnic Vietnamese members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in late 1978. The war lasted about as long as it took the Vietnamese to drive their tanks to Phnom Penh, and the country quickly fell apart. In the ensuing chaos, the Khmer Rouge tried to forcefully push the population West away from the Vietnamese army, but with few troops and little cohesion, Sedtha was able to escape. He eventually ended up on the border of Thailand living as a refugee, and though life was far from easy, it was there that Sedtha was able to get his life back together and discover his “purpose”: Rebuilding his country through education.
When Sedtha made a break for it from the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, he had no idea what he was doing or where he was going, but for the first time in almost four years, he was free. He couldn’t travel on roads, he didn’t know who he could trust, he didn’t know what would be waiting for him when he got to his ultimate destination, Thailand, but he was free. And what he chose to do with that freedom as a nineteen-year-old man was another pivotal change in Sedtha’s life, but this time not one forced upon him by a group of deranged communists, but a deliberate choice that was his own. Sedtha chose to help.
In the wake of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was plunged into chaos. Families across Cambodia had been split apart like Sedtha’s had, so when the Khmer Rouge suddenly collapsed, there were many thousands of people who were stuck in the middle. Nobody had any idea what to do or where to go or what was going on, and though the situation was egregious for everyone, it was especially bad for the children. Their parents or any family were either dead or far away, and in the turmoil that the fall of government had brought about, few people had the food or time to spare to help them. They were left to fend for themselves. Sedtha remembers in the first few days after he was able to get away from the Khmer Rouge seeing children sitting together in a village with nothing and nobody to help them.
They were very confused and crying. Crying and crying. I just got shocked when I heard that. I didn’t attempt to take them with me at first, I just went to them to calm them down and ask them what was going on…they were split up from their family like…like everyone. So probably their parents were killed during the Khmer Rogue or maybe they went up to the…you know anywhere. They could be anywhere. And they left them without anybody to care for them and they were confused and horrified. And so I said 'okay, come with me'
This action Sedtha took to sit down and take notice and care for children crying their eyes out was a turning point that took his life in a positive direction as much as the 17th of April had been a turning point that took his life in a negative one. Sedtha has no way of remembering exactly what day that was or even where he was, but sometime in early 1979, when the entire country was collapsing, Sedtha did his part to try and create some stability for a few orphaned children. By the time Sedtha arrived at the Thai border, he had twenty children with him and over the next ten years he came to adopt or care for hundreds.
Life as a refugee was a difficult one, but for Sedtha and the kids he was taking care of, anything was better than the Khmer Rouge. Though the Thais would refuse to allow refugees to enter their country, the UN and Red Cross would soon help set up camps on the border and for the first time in years Sedtha was able to think ahead of what he was going to eat that day. His time had finally become his own, but his choice of what to do with it was selfless. He worked tirelessly in those initial months and years to help the children find surviving family members and to feed those who were left with no one. This service to others would eventually expand into Sedtha volunteering his time as a teacher where he helped to give the children that he had adopted or other children in the camps a shot at having an education, something which Sedtha identified early on as invaluable. This job of Sedtha’s in working as a teacher and emphasizing the importance of education for Cambodia’s children, especially in the face of the Khmer Rouge’s purge of educated Cambodians, would come to define how Sedtha intended to give back. Education was the key.
Over the next couple of years he would find the surviving members of his family, his father, mother and younger brother as well as meet the woman who would soon become his wife. He would volunteer his time as a teacher, and while at same time he was helping teach these children, the UN would sponsor the furthering of his own studies, and in 1989 Sedtha would graduate with a degree in Education. He would expand upon this academic basis to include masters degrees in community development and political science, a set of qualifications that made him uniquely suited to development work in Cambodia when he would eventually return home from the refugee camps.
When Sedtha repatriated back to Cambodia in 1991 he did so with his wife, parents, his own four children and fifteen other children whom he had adopted. They would live in what Sedtha describes as a “shack”, with the entire family having to sleep over each other, but it was a home. Sedtha, being a rarely qualified Cambodian in the early 90s, would immediately volunteer himself to work for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which was overseeing elections following the withdrawal of the Vietnamese Occupation. The elections would take two years, but Sedtha would continue to work with the UN and a number of other international NGOs in Cambodia for years to come. This work in management, education and community development for non-profit organizations would lead perfectly into what would become the culmination of Sedtha’s life’s work, the Build Your Future Today Center (BFT).
Though Sedtha worked full time from practically the day that he arrived back in Cambodia in 1991, he still found time to continue his own charity work. After finally being able to build a real home in 2003, he went on to turn it into a community education and childcare center, where Sedtha both took in orphaned children and provided free classes in English for whomever wanted to take them. This wasn’t an NGO or a school, but it was the only place in the city that children who had no hope at a formal education could come to learn. In 2006, Sedtha founded BFT, and in the almost ten years since, BFT would grow from Sedtha’s home in Siem Reap to today help 50,000 people in 33 different villages.
The focus behind BFT, even before it was incorporated as an official NGO, is education. One of the longest lasting impacts of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia is how the country has since been left with almost no doctors, intellectuals or teachers. This created an educational crisis for Cambodia’s young generations, a problem which persists today. Sedtha’s life’s work, from his days as a teacher in the refugee camps to now the director of his own NGO has been to help rectify that and rebuild Cambodia through education.
BFT’s guiding principle is that “Knowledge is Hope; Peace is Development”, a slogan that embodies not only Sedtha’s philanthropic work, but also his personal struggle to overcome the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and move forward.
When you ask Sedtha about how he has been able to reconcile himself with what happened under the Khmer Rouge and how he has been able to do what he has done after losing so much, his answer is almost poetic.
I don’t really know how I changed my behavior or my mindset. I used to be the one who would always think about hatred, or wanting to find revenge…it made me so depressed and sad…I used to be disappointed, not only to the Khmer Rouge. Where is the Buddha? He sleeps too much! Enjoy too much by himself while we suffer…But when I started seeing the children, I found the younger children were suffering more than me. When I met them, they felt horrified and confused and they didn’t have any hope. And compared to myself, they didn’t have anything… Eventually I thought “I have to help these kids rather than keep this hatred in mind”
Probably that was the point that I changed my life.
Sedtha’s life has been one marked by the overwhelmingly tragic horrors of the Khmer Rouge, something that will stay with him until the day he dies. However, the most defining and powerful part of Sedtha’s life has been not in what was taken away from him, but rather in what he has given back. Sedtha has refused to be defined or defeated by the tragedy that was the Khmer Rouge, and with every breath he takes and every child he lifts out of poverty, he declares his triumph over them.