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Refugees still fear telling stories of the 'killing fields'

A Long Beach panel urges Cambodians in the U.S. to take part in a war crimes tribunal underway back home.

March 30, 2008|From the Associated Press

The Cambodian genocide that claimed 1.7 million lives a generation ago continues to cast a shadow on both survivors and their American-born children, panelists in Long Beach said Saturday.

About 100 people attended a daylong workshop at Cal State Long Beach on the effects of the 1975-79 slaughter under the Khmer Rouge. Nearly a quarter of the population died from disease, overwork, starvation and execution in the notorious "killing fields."

The workshop was one of the first U.S. events to target Cambodian Americans and solicit their participation in an international war crimes tribunal underway in their homeland.

Panels of experts discussed psychological and other aspects of the genocide.

Lakhena Nget, 24, was on a youth panel. A child of Cambodian refugees, the Cal State Long Beach junior said she only learned of her parents' past in high school, when she interviewed them as part of a history project.

Nget said she grew up in American culture and didn't understand her parents. Cambodian culture had called for them not to express their emotions over their experiences, she said.

She learned that her grandparents had starved to death, several uncles with government ties had been executed and her father had been imprisoned on suspicion of being in the despised educated class.

Her mother walked to a refugee camp, carrying her children.

"It broke my heart," Nget said.

The genocide can affect generations of Cambodian Americans who know nothing about it, Nget said. Parents haunted by their experiences may drink or find other ways of dulling their pain, or their perceived coldness may leave their children disaffected.

"I see how the pain and the struggles are still perpetuated in the community," Nget said. "There's a lot of young people that do not do well in school. They join gangs. . . . I believe that a lot of it comes from broken communication in the home."

One of the workshop organizers was Leakhena Nou, a Cambodian American and sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach.

Before the workshop, she said many survivors are still afraid to get involved in the tribunal by sharing their stories. Organizers urged attendees to apply for formal victim and civil party status and volunteer as translators or witnesses.

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