BY TONY Ellis
In 1973, as the Vietnam War spilled over its borders, Cambodiaplunged into political, economic, and social chaos. In the resulting vacuum,the extreme Marxist forces of Pol Pot seized control of the country. Underthe guise of returning Cambodia to an agrarian economy, his Khmer Rouge forcesbegan a systematic campaign of intimidation and slaughter against the wholepopulation. Millions of people were forced into labor camps; many died in theinfamous Killing Fields, their lives not even worth the price of a bullet—mostwere bludgeoned to death with farm hoes. To wear eyeglasses or to have softhands was a sign of higher education and a sentence of death. Children weretrained to inform on their parents, condemning them almost certainly to execution.
Up to a quarter of the country’s 10 million population was murdered.Imagine 50 or 60 million Americans, including all the teachers, artists, administrators,and intellectuals, slaughtered in a few short years. Imagine the effect thatwould have on the collective psyche of the people. That is what happened toCambodia.
Oni’s Harrowing Story
As a baby, Oni Vitandham was hidden away in a jungle cave, cared for byfoster parents and a mysterious holy man named Mahari Sei, while her father,a prince in the Cambodian royal family, fought the Khmer Rouge. But in1975, when Oni was three, her surrogate mother was captured and shot todeath before her eyes. For the next seven years Oni was passed from onework camp to another. Many of those who cared for her died horribly; sheherself narrowly escaped death on several occasions by only the grace ofGod. She spent time in a Vietnamese prison camp and for a while lived alonein the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor Wat.
Even when she escaped to America, via a Thai refugee camp, at the ageof 11, Oni’s suffering was not over. Abused and abandoned by herfoster family, she lived on the streets of Long Beach, putting herselfthrough high school by doing odd jobs. She survived to become a passionateadvocate for human rights in Cambodia, especially those of its children.She is the founder of the PUAA Foundation for Cambodia and speaks in Washington,DC, and cities around the country.
Remembering Her Childhood
I first met Oni in 1999. In the course of our conversation I mentionedan Australian friend who ran a charter school in Cambodia for MaharishiMahesh Yogi’s organization. We exchanged phone numbers and I puther in touch with my Australian contact. A few months later, I got a surprisephone call from Oni asking for help publishing her story. She came to Iowaand along with a writer friend of mine, Nynke Passi, we began to piecetogether what happened. There were many gaps in her memory. The truth emergedslowly. Oni was pulling teeth from her soul. At times, she broke into tearsat the painful memories.
In 2001, I was invited to a conference in Iowa City organized by ChivySok, then working at the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights andherself a survivor of the genocide. The conference was in honor of thevisit of another survivor of the Killing Fields, Luong Ung. Chivy askedme to say a few words about Oni’s story. As I began to speak, tearsflooded my eyes and I cried too.
Sweetness Under Shadow
It is impossible to understand the deep wounds such violence causes. Ihad a brief glimpse when I visited the Cambodian community in Long Beachwith Oni. Fear and suspicion are widespread. Former Khmer Rouge soldierslive alongside the families of their victims. The natural sweetness ofthe Cambodian people is under a shadow. Oni herself is a chameleon betweenlight and dark—at times a royal princess, at others a tough streeturchin. She is an incredible example of the ability of the human spiritto survive even the most tragic circumstances. Oni is determined to preventwhat happened to her from being repeated for future generations of Cambodianchildren.
Oni’s book, On the Wings of a White Horse, was publishedin April 2006. The title comes from a Cambodian legend that saysin times of greatest need, help will come to the country in the formof a winged white horse. Oni has put all her heart into producingthis book, even selling her jewelry to pay for the launch party inWashington. She is hoping it will bring much-needed attention to the plightof her people.
Telling the story is only part of the healing process. It is equally importantthat we listen. Cambodia was a victim of “collateral damage”—perhapsthe most cynical of political spin terms ever devised—a by-productof America’s ill-conceived military venture into Southeast Asia.Imperial powers have a bad track record of clearing up the mess after thingsgo wrong. Iraq may well prove to be the most recent example of this.
Cambodia today struggles to recover from a war that everyone inthe West would rather forget. It is one of the poorest countriesin the world, littered with land mines and ravaged by AIDS. Manyof its children are forced to work in sweatshops and the sex trade.Next time you buy a pair of cheap sneakers or a sweatshirt, checkthe country of origin. It could very well be Cambodia.
A couple of years ago, I was driving with my wife across South Dakota.In the town of Mitchell we stopped for lunch at what we thought was a Chineserestaurant. On the counter I noticed a collection jar for a Cambodian charity.The waitress said the restaurant was actually Cambodian. I mentioned helpingOni with her book. A few minutes later, the owner came over. He insistedlunch was on the house and wanted to be informed when the book was available.The look of gratitude on his face that anyone should take an interest inwhat happened to his people was worth a million dollars.
To learn more about On the Wings of a WhiteHorse: A Cambodian Princess’s Story of Surviving the KhmerRouge Genocide, visit www.onistory.com.
Tony Ellis is a Fairfield-based writer and poet. See www.tonyellis.com.