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Cambodian-Americans Seek Healing in Tribunal

When Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Ronnie Yimsut was 13 years old. Almost four years later, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rogue, Yimsut lost nine of 12 family members.

Now a landscape architect and a father of two in Oregon, Yimsut should not be alive. The Khmer Rouge attempted to kill him along with his family by smashing his head over and over with the butt of a Chinese AK-47. They left him to die but he survived.

Though his physical wounds healed a long time ago, Yimsut told VOA Khmer recently, emotional wounds remain. He has written an autobiography titled "Journey to Freedom" to describe his ordeals.

Yimsut is organizing a two-day public forum in Portland, Ore., April 27 and April 28 to help survivors share their experiences and heal the emotional wounds they have carried for three decades. Another goal for the forum is to inform the Cambodian-American community about the foundering UN-assisted Khmer Rouge tribunal.

What he wants is not revenge—because revenge would only bring more suffering. What Yimsut wants is the truth about what happened during the Khmer Rouge period, to name those responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodians.

A claim of responsibility is the key to justice and healing, he said.

Chea Vannath, former director of the Center for Social Development, said the forum is a great place for Cambodians to exchange ideas about the tribunal.

Dr. William H. Sack, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Oregon Health and Science University, worked with hundreds of Cambodian youths in Oregon in the 1980s and 1990s, many of whom had post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Khmer Rouge trial could help survivors heal emotional wounds, he said, and he was happy to see the trial might take place after all these years.

Sack's research assistant, Chanrithy Him, also a Khmer Rouge survivor, lost both her parents and five siblings to the regime.

"Once the tribunal is finished, it would help the whole nation heal," she said. "It's time to move on."

Her feelings have been echoed by Catherine Fillox, a well-known US playwright, who has penned several plays about Cambodian genocide over the years.

"Genocide destroys culture like fire destroys the house," she said. "And the kind of destruction that genocide does is pervasive."

For that reason, Fillox says it was important to look forward to the tribunal.

But the UN-assisted tribunal has stalled repeatedly, as foreign and Cambodia judges are at loggerheads over internal rules and fees for Cambodian lawyers.

None of the former Khmer Rouge leaders has been indicted.