Face of the Nations: Cambodia

Post by: Maria Hanlin

Cambodia was a beautiful and peaceful country when Sam Om was born in 1949.  For Sam, it was good growing up in Cambodia - until the country was dragged into the Vietnam War. 

On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge told Cambodians that Americans were going to bomb all the cities.  Everyone must leave immediately or be shot.  Thousands of people were evacuated, marching for days.  Those who survived were forced to work in labor camps 12-15 hours a day.  Children were ordered to spy on their parents.  Being loyal to your family became a crime.   Every night young adults, mostly men, were lined up to be killed.

The Khmer Rouge systematically tortured and killed nearly a third of the Cambodian people.  In all, between 2 – 3 million people – educated people, soldiers, lawyers, monks, doctors, any who wore eyeglasses, those who had soft hands, were executed.  Instead of wasting bullets, the Khmer Rouge killed people by beating them with the back of a hoe, bamboo sticks or axes – or slitting their throats.

Sam worked on a rice farm and received one cup of watery rice each day.  Always hungry, Sam learned to eat anything that moved:  rats, snakes, cats, frogs, lizards, spiders, crickets.  There were times Sam was so exhausted, hungry and sick that he didn’t care if he lived.  Often the greatest fear wasn’t dying but how much suffering there would be before he was killed.

After 4 years of slave labor, Sam had no idea if any of his family had survived.  With the fall of Pol Pot in 1979, Sam made his way back to the family house - which had been totally destroyed - to wait and see if any other family members would show up.  After a month, his mom, then his two sisters arrived.  His 6 brothers were all executed, starved or missing. 

Sam knew if he were killed, he wanted to make sure it was not in Cambodia so that he would not be reincarnated (his Buddhist belief) into that hell.  He never wanted to see Cambodia again.  Risking their lives, Sam, his mother and sisters walked through fields laced with deadly mines planted by US soldiers, and finally made it safely to a refugee camp in Thailand. 

In the refugee camp Sam was given a Bible which he used to roll cigarettes.   Sam actually smoked the Bible from Revelation backwards to the Gospel of John.  The first words he truly read were John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world…”  Sam wondered, could there really a God who loves me?   Sam was baptized in a refugee camp in the Philippines in February 1981.

Eventually, Sam came to the US and met Savanny who he later married.   Savanny lost her father, many sisters and brothers in the Cambodian genocide.  Today, Rev. Sam Om a United Methodist pastor here in Charlotte, with 3 beautiful children:  David, Lydia who was married two weeks ago, and Caroline.

Once having sworn he would never return to Cambodia, Rev. Sam now leads many mission trips to help rebuild his country.   Sam often comments how you will not see many men Sam’s age in Cambodia as most were killed.  Their voices must be heard.  It is our responsibility as people of faith to make sure genocide does not happen again as we work to make this world a better place.

Dr. Maria Hanlin is Executive Director of Mecklenburg Ministries -


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