November 4, 1979. What do you remember about that day?
The major event that day was the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran being overrun by student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's fundamentalist revolutionaries. Ninety hostages were captured and fifty-two of them would remain in captivity for the next 444 days. It was the turning point in U.S. and Iran diplomatic relations.
For me, it was the day I and fellow journalist, Joel Brinkley, left for the Thailand/Cambodia border where thousands of Cambodian refugees were crossing into Thailand to escape the war between the North Vietnamese and the crumbling Khmer Rouge regime. Our efforts there were centered around a Louisville, Kentucky physician, Dr. Kenneth Rasmussen, who was on the front line of treatment for the sick and starving who survived weeks, if not months, of perilous overland travel to the safety of the camps.
This past summer Joel and I made a return trip to Cambodia, thirty years after the "Living the Cambodian Nightmare" project. We wanted to see firsthand how life for the rural population, 80% of the 13.7 million citizens of Cambodia are faring.
Frankly, all is not well. In many respects Cambodia is much as it was prior to the Khmer Rouge era, 1975-1979. Old methods of rice production are still used, the infrastructure is minimal, education is not mandatory, corruption exits at every level of life and hope is a rare commodity.
While the world centers it's attention on the Middle East, Africa and other regions of conflict, Cambodia barely registers on anyone's radar. It has become the forgotten country.
I offer the two audiovisual shows below. The first is from our 1979 journey and has been expanded from the original version to include additional photographs of Cambodians in transit to the United States and several of a family that had been sponsored by Dr. Rasmussen and his wife. The last photograph is of Sot Oung, the father, in an English language class. He is looking over his shoulder out a window to see snow falling for the first time in his life. Ironically, a sentence on the blackboard being used as an example of tenses, says "How often do you go back home?" There are several responses to use. The first is "I never go back home."
I have reconnected with Dr. Rasmussen, now retired and living in Tennessee. He remained in contact with the family for a few years. They moved to Indianapolis where Sot worked for Lear Jet and Saot, his wife, became a dental technician. The couple divorced and Dr. Rasmussen hasn't heard from anyone in the family in over ten years.
The world has witnessed additional human tragedy, genocide and despair in the past thirty years. The legacy of Khmer Rouge debacle, Cambodians killing 1.7 million fellow Cambodians, has had little effect on the country's ability to redefine itself in the 21st. century.