February 24, 2010

We Were Rockin’ in the Free World – Chapter 10

Chapter Ten                         We Were Rockin’ in the Free World

1979–Heng Samrin , Hun Sen, Chea Sim 

On January 7th, Vietnamese forces and the revolutionary army of the National Front for Solidarity and Liberation of Cambodia defeated the Khmer Rouge regime and proclaimed the country as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and later the State of Cambodia in 1989. The Khmer Rouge forces soon regrouped in the thick jungles near the Thai border. The PRK (Peoples Republic of Kampuchea) is installed as the government of Cambodia. Cambodia’s seat in the UN was still recognized by the USA and the rest of the world as belonging to DK (Democratic Kampuchea) and the newly installed PRK was largely ignored or seen as illegitimate.

          Some estimates are that six hundred thousand to a million Cambodians died of starvation during the first year of the Vietnam occupation as Pol Pot torched everything as the Khmer Rouge fled to their mountain and forest sanctuaries. Pastor Seang Ang returned from Kampuchea Krom (the Mekong Delta area belonging to Vietnam) which contained close to 10 million Cambodians at that time, only to find that close to thirtyfive of his fellow Takhmau Bible College students were martyred. He and only one other pastor, Ngov Vorn had survived the genocide inside Cambodia. Of the all students British OMF missionary Alice Compain taught at the Takhmau Bible College, only one survived who later went to the US and died there.



          Also, early in this year, intense fighting began in mid February around the Chinese-Vietnamese border as Chinese forces invaded northern Vietnam to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia. Twenty thousand Chinese died during the first month of fighting as the Vietnamese resistance proved quite fierce. Although the war continued into the eighties, there was never given any estimate of Vietnamese casualties. The war finally ended with a substantial loss of life, and in a stalemate.



          Pastor Yorng Soth returned from Kompong Thom to Phnom Penh on February 2nd, with his family and began to support his family by doing community farming which they called “Krom Samaki” (cooperative farming group).

          [1]“World Vision had been praying for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, for the people and for opportunities to see the door to open once again. World Vision was aware of the situation of the boat people fleeing from Vietnam and Cambodian refugees seeking safety in Thailand. World Vision appealed to the UN to respond to the plight of the boat people. World Vision also wanted badly to minister to those who had survived Pol Pot’s revolution.  Since Hanoi did not recognize the United States, appeals to Vietnam were made through World Vision Australia to the Cambodian ambassador in Australia. The ambassador wanted to see World Vision return to Cambodia and he produced entry visas. Australian Roger Walker and American Stan Mooneyham, President of World Vision International, flew a plane load of supplies into Phnom Penh. Mooneyham was greeted by a security guard who remembered him preaching at the stadium. He told Mooneyham they had been hoping he would return. After some delay, they were finally able to enter Cambodia and they met with Cambodia’s Foreign Minister, Hun Sen.”


          Jai Sankar Sarma recalls the story of how Stan Mooneyham took out a pocket knife and sliced his own arm until it bled. Mooneyham explained that although his skin was white, the color of his blood was the same as the color of the blood of the Cambodian people.  This impressed Hun Sen enough that an agreement was made for World Vision to resume work once again in Cambodia. In January of 1980, permission was given to repair the World Vision National Pediatric Hospital that had been used as a barracks for Khmer Rouge soldiers. Jean Clavaud also returned under the auspices of the World Council of Churches.



          During the factional fighting of July 5-6, 1997, Hen Sen’s soldiers stormed into World Vision’s office on street 360 in Phnom Penh (now the home of Open Gate Church) and were about to loot the place which had dozens of computers, equipment, and payroll cash in the safe. When the soldiers broke through the doors on their looting spree (a reward for defeating Rannaridh’s troops), they were confronted with a large framed photograph of World Vision Country Director, Jai Sankar Sarma, shaking hands with Hun Sen. The CPP soldiers quickly backed out, shut the doors and went on there way. The commander posted guards at the door of World Vision’s main support office.



          From 1979 to 1993, Hun Sen held various positions both in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and then in the State of Cambodia. He served as Foreign Minister in 1979 when he greeted Stan Mooneyham, and then as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from 1981 to 1985, and then as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from 1985 to 1991.



          A celebration sponsored by the Royal Government of Cambodia was held in the year 2000 for organizations; World Vision, Mennonite Central Committee, Church World Service, World Council of Churches, ICRC UNICEF, AFSC, OXFAM, COER, and Lutheran World Service, appreciating them for their 20 years in serving Cambodia and as the first NGOs in country after the liberation of Cambodian on Prampi Makara, 1979.[2] Hun Sen was the keynote speaker who told those in attendance of his unforgettable encounter with World Vision’s Dr. Stanley Mooneyham in 1979.



          On October 5th, the first aid donations arrive on the Cambodian-Thai border in response to the mass exodus of Cambodian refugees and on October 14th, Cambodia received its first International airlifts of relief supplies to Phnom Penh.  On the 22nd, Thailand announced the opening of Khao I Dang holding camp as a base for resettling Cambodians to third countries.



          Mennonite Central Committee, like World Vision, was one of the first Christian NGOs back in the country. MCC contributed $50,000 for seeds and tools through OXFAM, bought a thousand dollars worth of vegetable seeds and provided 11 tons of canned meat which was delivered by plane to Cambodia at the end of November 1979. The cargo flight was arranged by American Friends Service Committee. MCC decided to send relief through some of these agencies during the post-invasion famine while they began to explore possibilities of putting some people on the ground in Cambodia on a permanent basis.

          Meanwhile, with refugees flooding into the camps, Khao I Dang Camp, the largest of all the border camps at the time, saw a revival where thousands came to Christ through the witness of Christian relief workers and Cambodian refugees who shared their faith with their countrymen.

          Toward the end of 1979, Dr. Jerry Falwell[3] made a trip to Thailand and visited Khao I. Dang refugee camp and met with the Rev. Chan Hom. Rev. Falwell made a short video of how Pastor Chan had wrapped up his three Bibles in plastic or cloth, and hid them under the earth or in the roof of his thatch hut. Falwell broadcasted the video and raised about $100,000 for Cambodian Bibles to be distributed in the camps. Rev. Cliff Westergren also raised an additional $70,000 from other sources.  With this money, Cambodian Bibles were printed in Korea and mostly used in the camps but some made their way around the world to wherever the Cambodian Diaspora were scattered.[4]

          Vietnamese Catholics created Wat Champa in efforts to show the international community that the new regime tolerated religious freedom. This openness was short-lived and the persecution of both Catholics and evangelicals Christians began. Pastor Jean Clavaud worked to unify them in the underground church.



          There were very few actual church buildings prior to 1975. In the Heng Samrin period, the remains of a Seventh Day Adventist church were removed. The Catholic Cathedral was removed, stone by stone. The building of the Bethel Church on Kampuchea Krom is still recognizable, it was a Vietnamese church pre-1970, and the Bethany church still stands in Phnom Penh today.

Biography of Ruth Ellison


          I remember hearing that Ruth Ellison, the granddaughter of C&MA missionary to Cambodia, David Ellison, was coming to work for World Vision Cambodia. She was going to oversee the Finance Department at World Vision. I assumed she was a younger woman just out of college with a few years of experience under her belt. Why wouldn’t she have been serving with the C&MA here in the early nineties like other C&MA families with histories in Indochina like the Westergren, Ens and Drummond families?



          When Ruth was introduced in World Vision’s chapel service, I was surprised to see that she was my age or my senior by a few years. I wondered then, why she hadn’t come to Cambodia much earlier and why I hadn’t ever run across her name before. I introduced myself to her; we talked briefly, and maybe once after that. Since I was trying to compile some information about church history, someone suggested that I interview Ruth. I filed the suggestion away in my mind until one day I caught Ruth manning (or womaning?) the receptionist desk during a Friday chapel. She must have really wanted to get out of chapel, I thought but before I could ask, she said, “I’m giving the receptionist a chance to attend chapel,” as if she could read my mind. Coming back from chapel, I caught her on the rebound and told her I had been corresponding with her uncle Paul Ellison who had written some papers on Cambodian Church History. I asked her a few questions that clued her in to my ignorance of her family history.  I told her I was doing some research on history and she threw me out a bone.



          “Did you ever hear of Dith Pran?” she asked.  Who hasn’t, I thought but answered, “Yeah, I saw The Killing Fields, read articles in the NY Times about him, and I even heard him speak at my high school years after I graduated.  Why?”



          Come to find out, Ruth Ellison, born in 1950, was a bit older than I had thought. Ruth gave the appearance of someone who was aloof, yet very confident. I sensed her experience as an “MK” was not a “let’s just praise the Lord” kind of experience. When Ruth spoke, her piercing eyes seemed to say, “I’ll tell you if you really want to know, but don’t waste my time with trivialities.”



          Ruth was the oldest of four, born to John Ellison[M1] , son of David Ellison, who was born in Cambodia. She has three younger brothers, one of which is a fighter pilot, a colonel in the US Air Force, stationed in Germany. Her other brothers are living near Wheaton, Illinois. Ruth comes from a long line of missionaries. Not [M2] only did her grandfather, father, and Uncle Paul serve in Cambodia, but she also has an aunt and uncle, Ralph and Helen Ellenberger, now in their seventies, who were missionaries to Irian Jaya. Ralph retired as a professor at the Alliance Seminary in Nyack (in New York).  . .  Helen are now are now serving the Lord once again in Indonesia.[5]



          Ruth was born 90 miles outside of Omaha, Nebraska, while her father was doing his two-year pre-missionary service, preparing to serve in Cambodia. He had studied at Nyack College and was commissioned to do church planting and translation work in Cambodia.



          When Ruth’s mother went into labor, they drove the 90 miles over bumpy roads to get to Omaha where Ruth was born via ‘C’ section.  The Ellisons lived off ‘gift in kind’ and their house was a converted chicken coop. The church wasn’t much better: it was an underground basement, like a bunker of sorts, where the members met each Sunday.



          By the time John Ellison finished his mandatory pre-assignment posting, Cambodia was closed to Western missionaries.  He waited expectantly for another six months while fulfilling his obligatory service, living in the chicken coop with his family and leading his ‘flock’ who met in the underground bunker.  After those six months, it was proposed that the Ellisons serve the Khmer Surin in Thailand, so the family relocated to Surin, the capital city of Surin Province, when ‘baby Ruth’ was eight months old.  Just after they set up shop, Cambodia re-opened the door to Western missionaries. John, who grew up in Cambodia and spoke fluent Khmer, had to re-learn when he got to Surin. The language of the Khmer in Surin had evolved with some Thai words and it was about 35% different from the Khmer spoken inside Cambodia.

          When Ruth was 10 months old, she suddenly became ill. She apparently came down with a rare Asian disease that was extremely fatal. Her mother, who had a nursing background called the only doctor in Surin but he had gone to Bangkok. They had no choice but to call the veterinarian who suggested Ruth be treated with penicillin. The vet took out a nasty old needle, most likely used on horses and pigs, and prepared to administer the penicillin.  Ruth’s mother was horrified at the sight of the used needle and told the doctor to wait as she went upstairs to get a new syringe. Apparently the doctor didn’t understand or he just simply ignored her and plunged ahead with the used needle and ended up getting a three-headed boil at the area of the injection and became deathly ill. Her parents did not think she would survive but decided to pray and fast over Ruth. The next day her father had to leave for a conference in Bangkok. While Ruth’s mom was new to Thailand and was very hesitant about John leaving, John believed that God was telling him Ruth would be healed and he was free to go and attend the conference. As soon as John left, Ruth began an immediate and miraculous recovery. She had lost a lot of weight and had not been eating, but now she began to eat and gained back her weight almost overnight. John returned three weeks later, not having received any word about his daughter, to find Ruth totally healed and healthy.

          Ruth grew up with her father away from home much of the time doing church planting in faraway villages, but she had both Thai and Cambodian playmates in her neighborhood. All three of her brothers were born in the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Bangkok. The family [M3] maid was Cambodian but also helped her father with his translation work. John sent the maid’s husband to bible school and their oldest daughter worked with World Vision in Bangkok for 27 years.

          Life in Surin was basic during the fifties and for the first fifteen years, there was no electricity at all. After that, everything—lamps, stoves, and generators—were fueled by kerosene. They had to carry water in buckets up to the roof to fill the water tank. Then they modified a system to collect rainwater but in the dry season, it was back to lugging the buckets. Ruth remembers a fire in Surin that almost burned the whole town. They watched the inferno creep closer and closer to their section of the city, threatening to immolate everything in its path until it was brought under control a few blocks from their house.

          One day John brought the family to Elephant Round-Up Festival where he set up a booth to sell books and gospel tracts. After he escorted the family back home, he locked them in and returned to the festival.  Later that evening, thieves cut the locks on the gate and door to the house as they believed the whole family was still at the Elephant Round-Up. When Ruth and her mother discovered thieves were in the house, the made a huge commotion and chased them out. Ruth remembers wanting to chase after them and bring them to justice.

          Ruth attended first grade in the US during the Ellisons’ first furlough, and when they returned to Surin, Ruth was being prepared to start second grade at Dalat School in Vietnam. Her mother talked about it frequently, so she was excited to go. She didn’t realize what an ordeal the actual trip would be for a seven year old.  Her parents put her on a plane in Bangkok destined for Saigon, but the contact from the C&MA guesthouse that was to meet her in Saigon and escort her to a connecting flight to Dalat, did not show up. A confused and frightened seven-year-old Ruth found herself orphaned at the airport. It was 1957 and the United States had a limited presence in Vietnam at that time, but God brought Ruth to the attention of an American soldier, who just happened to be a Christian and knew where the C&MA guesthouse was. He delivered Ruth to the guesthouse where she was helped to get on her connecting flight to Dalat, but, no one met her there either. This time a Vietnamese man, who knew of the school, delivered Ruth safely on Dalat School’s doorstep. During [M4] her tour of duty at Dalat, one of her contemporaries was David Fitzstevens, who later served with the C&MA as a missionary in Vietnam and then started with World Vision Thailand in the early nineties.

          Ruth spent long Christmas vacations and short summer vacations with her parents in Surin.  In 1962, her missionary grandfather, David Ellison, died in Cambodia. He was buried in the village of Byte Chan, Kompol Commune in Kompong Speu, just off of Route 4.  Ruth recently [M5] visited his grave at that cemetery in mid-2003.

          In 1964, the Dalat School received orders from the US military to prepare for evacuation on Easter day. The students had prepared for an Easter Sunrise cantata so the teachers, rather than inform the students the night before, simply let them get up early for the sunrise service.  After the service was over, they were given the news and sent to their rooms to pack. They could take only one bag with them. Each older student was assigned to take care of and escort a younger student on their trip to Saigon. They were transported to the airport on APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) [M6] and other armored vehicles.  Four C-123 cargo planes were waiting on the runway like pregnant seals to evacuate the students, school equipment, and some military equipment as well.  The bellies of the C-123s were full of equipment wrapped in cargo nets and the students sat in hammock benches, looking through the large open hatch in the back at the view of the ground and the other C-123s in formation. The combined noise of the groaning C-123s added to the apprehension of the students.

          Ruth’s younger brother Steve, the middle one who was only in first grade, was quite unsettled by the whole experience. Another Steve, red-haired and tall for his age, was in the same class but thought it was the best thing that could happen to him-but not so with Steve Ellison. He was separated from Ruth, who at the time was in eighth or ninth grade.  They put Ruth in contact with him and she spoke with him through the headsets provided by the airman. Ruth pretended that she was his mother, speaking to him from Bangkok. With all the noise in the background, it was not hard to pull it off and she was able to calm the boy down. Today, this little brother is an Air Force Colonel flying F-16s. They landed safely at Than San Nhut Airport and flew on to Bangkok where Steve was reunited with his mother, thanking her for coaching him through the ordeal. Ruth’s mother, puzzled at first, saw Ruth giving her a knowing look, then played along with the ruse.

          Ruth finished her senior year in 1968, completing one semester in Bangkok and the other in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, where the Dalat School had relocated in 1966 before moving to Penang, Malaysia.  Ruth then went on to attend John Brown College in Arkansas until she was injured and traumatized in a serious car accident. She dropped out of John Brown and went to live with an uncle who was teaching at Wheaton. After many years, she earned two degrees from Elmhurst College in Accounting and Business Administration, working at the Sears Tower while she pursued her studies.

          Meanwhile, John was still doing church planting and translation work in Surin. He was making progress on translating the scriptures into the spoken language of the Khmer-Surin, which thus far lacked a written language. He used Khmer script to phonetically reproduce the spoken language of the Khmer-Surin people. Eventually he turned that work over to the Thompsons of Wycliffe Bible Translators when he was forced to deal with the influx of refugees in 1975, immediately after the fall of Phnom Penh.

          During that summer of 1975, Ruth took a month vacation to visit her folks in Surin, who were up to their elbows in Cambodian refugees when she arrived.  Her father John was doing it all, helping to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the refugees under his care. Andrew Bishop, a C&MA missionary before 1975, ,,, , was raising substantial funds to support John’s relief work. Without the help of Ruth’s mother, who set up a system of accounting, administration and management, John soon would have been lost in paper work and unable to account for all the large expenditures that were necessary for helping the refugees survive.  John was beginning to show signs of strain as he was inundated with the needs of all the arriving refugees. The mission was expecting him to continue with his church planting and translations efforts but he was seeing many more conversions through his efforts in relief work. There was a constant tug of war between John’s desire to continue in relief work and the mission’s desire for him to return to his original focus of church planting, which had seen little quantifiable fruit, and his half-finished translation work. He finally wrote a letter to the mission, officially requesting to be released from his commission for church planting in order to do relief work in Surin with the Cambodian refugees. The mission relented and he was seconded to a new part of the C&MA called CAMA Services, which Reg Reimer and Andy Bishop had a hand in creating.



          Reg, a native of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada, went to Vietnam as a missionary, with his young family in 1966. They served in that war-torn country until the fall of Vietnam to communism in 1975. Reg has returned to Vietnam frequently since 1980 to encourage the suffering church.  He advocates for the persecuted Vietnamese church in the international arena and is considered an authority on Christianity in that country.  He was invited to the Clinton White House to brief the president before his visit to Vietnam in November of 2000.

          From Vietnam, the Reimers went to Thailand in 1976, where Reg and Donna directed Indochina refugee ministries and development work for World Relief US throughout Southeast Asia until 1983. Reg served as president of World Relief Canada for the next 10 years, directing Christian relief and development projects with churches in more than 30 countries.

          In 1994, he joined World Evangelical Fellowship, serving as director of the Department of Church and Society. In this capacity he ministered in the area of healing and reconciliation in post-war and post-genocide situations, such as in the Indochina countries and Rwanda.

          Reg, who has a long commitment to Christian collaboration, joined Interdev in 1998 as partnership advisor for Mainland Southeast Asia, and served with Interdev Partnership Associates. His objective was to help facilitate strategic church and mission partnerships for the 11 major, Unreached People Groups there. He also served on the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Religious Liberty Commission and Persecuted Church Track.

          During his first post-war trip to Vietnam in 1980, Reg was called by church leaders to “raise our voice in the outside world – because we cannot speak for ourselves.”  Since then advocacy for the persecuted church in Vietnam had been a major vocation. Reg has completed more than 90 missions to Vietnam since then and is one of the most prolific documenter of religious freedom abuses of Protestants in Vietnam. Fluent in spoken and written Vietnamese, Reg has acquired and translated many key documents on the subject. His findings are regularly released by Christian and secular organizations, and his advice is sought by governments.

          In August 1975, Ruth was initiated into the work of refugee care as she handed out blankets and other supplies. This brief experience led her to pursue a long-term goal of doing relief work. When she returned to the US, she quit her job at the Sears Tower and went back to Elmhurst College full time, completing an A.A.S. in accounting.

          In September of 1976, Ban Thai Samart, also known as the Aranyaprathet (camp 15) opens to accommodate Cambodian refugees crossing the border into Thailand since the spring of 1975.

          Ruth applied with the C&MA to return and help her parents with Cambodian refugees, but she was required to complete a two-year pre-service assignment, just like her father had done thirty years before. She began to help a Native American Christian    who published a journal for Native Americans in his basement, and she learned some of the ins and outs of publishing. She worked with him until she went to study in Israel for nine weeks with the Institute of Holy Land Studies. Upon her return, she continued with home service, working on Christian Life Magazine, until World Relief called her to help with Cambodian refugees in 1979.  World Relief was not yet set up in the border camps and they offered to cover her expenses if she worked for them under the C&MA. At the same time, Ruth received an urgent call from the mission, giving her the green light to help her father in Surin, so she spent her first year serving the refugees in Surin with CAMA services and her second year with World Relief. When Ruth first arrived in Surin, there were close to [M7] ten thousand refugees. Her father was already in a Bangkok hospital due to a breakdown and her mom was overwhelmed, having been left to carry the load by herself.

          In 1975, John Ellison basically started what was now called the Lamphut camp under some school buildings.  When Ruth arrived in 1979, she did not recognize the camp she had known in 1975. Lamphut held up to 10,000 Cambodian refugees in 1979 as many more refugees fled Cambodia after the Pol Pot reign.  She worked in Lamphut from July of 1979 to May of 1980 when Reg Reimer approached her. At that time he was facilitating the World Relief/CAMA Services partnership. He invited Ruth to help them set up a system to accompany medical teams coming from TearFund, ZOA, and the Salvation Army, and to minister to the refugees in Sakeo and Kao I Dang refugee camps. Ruth accepted the offer and relocated to the Aranyaprathet area.  She recalls befriending a fiery old Dutch woman, Major Eva Den Hartog, who commandeered Ruth as her personal attendant and bodyguard and would often talk Ruth into making across-the-border forays into Cambodia just for the thrill of it. Ruth might have appreciated a little diversion in her life as logistics coordinator of the program, which included handling the visiting medical teams’ transportation, lodging, food, laundry, schedule and shift changes; translating for the doctors; giving out medicine; and purchasing medicine; medical supplies, and equipment. She also set up accounts all over town for the quick and easy purchase of supplies. During the night hours she did all the accounting.  I really began to wonder about Ruth when she told me it was the most fun she ever had.

          By July of 1980, her father still had not recovered from his breakdown, so Ruth accompanied him back to the US. While in the US caring for her father, Ruth set up an accounting system under World Relief that would be applied to all the relief work in the Asian region. She went back to do relief work from Bangkok with Reg Reimer, but in 1982 was transferred back to the US where she worked in the World Relief home office. She spent 15 years with World Relief before going to work in Surin for Catholic Relief Services where she oversaw a million dollar micro-enterprise development program. Ruth’s mother passed away in 1991 and Ruth took her father to Surin, but he got back into his pattern of working too hard and had to return to the States as his workload took a toll on his health. Ruth put her brothers in charge of John’s care in Wheaton and left for Surin to finish her contract with CRS. Toward the end of her contract, she came back to the US and finished out her contract there.  She and her brothers provided their father with 24-hour care until he passed away in October of 1997.

          Ruth worked for the World Evangelical Fellowship [M8] and did other small accounting jobs until she started her own accounting business, [M9] which was very successful. A voice kept calling her back, though, to an overseas experience. She sold her accounting business but continued to work for the company that bought it, working herself out bit by bit until her friend Brian Truman called her attention to a job opening with World Vision Cambodia, where she begin to oversee the finance program there until she was promoted to do regional work.

          So what about Dith Pran?  According to Sydney Schanberg’s account in his New York Times Magazine article (January 20, 1980), Pran, who was from the city of Siem Reap, spent most of the Khmer Rouge period in Dam Dek village, 20 miles east of Siem Reap. When it became dangerous for him in Dam Dek, he finagled a way to Bat Dangkor, a friendlier village about six or seven kilometers north.  There Pran cultivated a friendship with his commune chief who was not such a hardliner. Once a week, the chief would invite four or five people, including Pran, to his house to listen to the radio. They followed the intense fighting that was going on along the Vietnamese border in 1978 by listening to the Voice of America, and few months later, on January 7th, 1979, they learned via the Voice of America that Vietnam had taken Phnom Penh.  Pran watched and waited. Three days later the Vietnamese took his village, meeting no resistance. When he was convinced that the Vietnamese were not executing civilians he walked to Siem Reap to reunite with his family. Pran found that only his mother, a sister, and some nephews and nieces were still alive. As he roamed around Siem Reap, investigating the aftermath, he found many mass graves and bones filling wells and forests.

          The villagers who knew Pran told the Vietnamese about his abilities, and he was soon the acting mayor of Siem Reap charged with the care of 10,000 people. The Vietnamese were satisfied with his efforts but he was eventually turned in for his ties with the west, and on July 15th an election was held to replace him. Increasingly nervous about being labeled by the Vietnamese, he finally made a move that he had been planning since April 17th, 1975.  He sneaked quietly out of town and made his way toward Phum Trom, over 50 kilometers to the north and west, because he heard freedom fighters there were helping people escape. Pran and eleven others bushwhacked their way over 60 miles of terrain, trying to avoid malaria, mines, booby traps, Khmer Rouge, and wild animals.  Four days later they reached the Thai border but the refugee camp was still 15 miles away. He waited 17 days on the Cambodian border looking for an opportunity to cross over the hostile border. He crossed the border wearing a freedom fighter uniform so as not to alarm the Thais. On October 13th, 1979, Dith Pran entered Lumphut refugee camp and immediately sought out the American official in charge of the camp.

          The official in charge just happened to be Ruth Ellison, who was working in the camp with the C&MA and World Relief when Pran entered. Before 1975, Pran had worked for New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, who later wrote up Pran’s story of being left behind in Cambodia when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over. The story of Schanberg and Pran was later made into the movie, The Killing Fields.

          Dith Pran approached Ruth and asked her to help him get in touch with the New York Times in New York City. Ruth promised to help but in those days they did not have directories available in the camp and it took hours to place an overseas call.  Pran was anxiously waiting for Ruth the next morning but Ruth had not done anything because many Cambodians came to meet her with similar stories.  She told him how difficult it was to contact the outside, but promised to contact the American Embassy in Bangkok and did so. The embassy got back to Ruth and said they had a thick file on Dith Pran. A few days later, Sydney Schanberg arrived by train with all the papers to get Pran released.  He met with Ruth in her living room but did not have the papers to get him admitted to the camp. After Ruth helped him secure the papers, they entered the camp, and as Ruth describes the reunion, “When Pran saw Sydney he ran and jumped into the air, embracing Sydney with his legs wrapped around his waist and arms around his neck.  Both were weeping with joy at seeing each other after 5 years.”

          On January 20th 1980, Schanberg published Pran’s story in the New York Times, entitled, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, in which Ruth’s encounter with Dith Pran is mentioned. Schanberg was a correspondent in Asia from 1969 to 1975, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his reporting from Cambodia.


Capps, Walter, The Unfinished War. Boston, Beacon Press, 1982

Del Vecchio, John M.  For the Sake of All Living Things, New York, Bantam Books, 1991

Ellison, Ruth. Personal Interview at Garden Café. Phnom Penh. 2005

Irvine, Graham. The Best Things in the Worst of Times, Book Partners Incorporated, Wilsonville, Oregon.

Schanberg, Sydney A. Article, The Death and Life of Dith Pran. New York Times Magazine. January 1980.

Written by: Cambodianchristian.Com

Filed Under: Chapter 10

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