I Fled the Killing Fields and Found Life

As told by Sam Tan

Fleeing our homeland along with about 2,000 other Cambodians, my family and I finally reached the river that borders Thailand. We managed to squeeze onto one of the small boats carrying people to safety. Just as the last boat pulled away, Khmer Rouge soldiers appeared and shot at us.

MUCH to our relief, we all made it safely across to Thailand. Everyone was happy except us, for we were without my father and my uncle, who had been taken away from us some months earlier. Mother just sat down and wept. But before I continue the story, let me give you some background.

My Early Life as a Buddhist

One of three siblings, I was born in Cambodia in 1960. When I was nine years old, my parents and I decided that I should enter Buddhist temple service, which was not uncommon for boys. A monk begins his day at approximately six in the morning, when he leaves the temple to go from house to house collecting food. I found it difficult to ask some householders for food, for they were obviously very poor. Thereafter, we young monks prepared the meals and served the older monks. We ate afterward.

At six in the evening, the older monks gathered for prayer, using a tongue that few, if any, understood. After two years, I became what we called a small monk and enjoyed some of the privileges of the older monks. I was also allowed to say prayers with them. All the while, I thought that Buddhism was the only religion in the world.

Escape From Cambodia

I was unsatisfied with temple life and returned home at the age of 14. Shortly thereafter, a political leader named Pol Pot came into power. His Khmer Rouge movement, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, forced everyone out of the cities and into the country as part of an effort to make Cambodia a Communist state. Our family too was relocated. Later, Pol Pot’s men took my father and my uncle away. We never saw them again. In fact, under the Khmer Rouge, nearly 1.7 million Cambodians were executed on the so-called killing fields or died as a result of overwork, disease, or starvation.

These conditions prompted the 2,000 of us mentioned at the outset to embark on a dangerous three-day journey over mountainous terrain to the Thai border. We all arrived safely, including a baby boy born en route. Most of us carried money but ended up throwing it away because Cambodian currency was virtually worthless in Thailand at the time.

Life in Thailand

My family moved in with relatives in Thailand, and I found work as a commercial fisherman. Our boat often ventured into  Cambodian waters, where there were more fish​—as well as Khmer Rouge patrol boats. If caught, we would have lost our boat and our lives. In fact, we had two narrow escapes. Others, though, did not fare as well, including my neighbor, who was caught and decapitated. Although his death distressed me, I continued to fish off the coast of Cambodia​—it was that or my family would have starved.

Out of concern for my family and myself, I decided to go into a refugee camp in Thailand, apply to immigrate to another country, and from there send money to my family. When I told my relatives about this, they strongly objected. But I had made up my mind.

English-speaking visitors I met in the refugee camp said they were Christians. That shattered my belief that Buddhism was the only religion. My newly adopted friend, Teng Hann, and I began to associate with the “Christians,” who showed us the Bible and gave us food. I lived in the camp for a year and applied to immigrate to New Zealand.

A New Life in New Zealand

My application was accepted in May 1979, and shortly thereafter I found myself in a refugee camp in Auckland. A kind sponsor arranged for me to go to the city of Wellington to work in a factory. Once there, I worked hard and sent money home as promised.

In my efforts to learn about Christianity, I began to attend two Protestant churches. Little, though, was said about the Bible. Because I wanted to pray properly, a friend taught me what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father. (Matthew 6:9-13) But nobody explained what the prayer actually meant. So just as I had done with Buddhist prayers, I uttered the words over and over without understanding what I was saying.

A Troubled Marriage

I married in 1981. About a year later, my wife and I were both baptized, the minister sprinkling water on our heads. By then, I had two jobs, a fine home, and a comfortable lifestyle​—things I never had in Cambodia. Yet, I was unhappy. Our marriage developed problems, and our attendance at church did not seem to help. Nor did my conduct, for I was gambling, smoking, drinking to excess, and seeing other women. My conscience bothered me, however, and I seriously doubted that I would qualify for heaven, where I was told all good people go when they die.

In 1987, I sponsored my mother and my sister so they could come to New Zealand, and they lived with us for a while. When they left, I did too, the three of us moving to Auckland.

At Last, I Learn the Bible

When leaving a friend’s place, I met two men who were going from house to house. One of them, Bill, asked me, “Where do you hope to go when you die?” “To heaven,” I replied. He then showed me from the Bible that only 144,000 go to heaven, where they will rule as kings over the earth. He also told me that the earth will be inhabited by millions of God-fearing humans and transformed into a paradise. (Revelation 5:9, 10; 14:1, 4; 21:3, 4) Initially, this teaching angered me, for it contradicted what I had been taught earlier. Deep down, though, I was impressed at seeing how well the men knew the Bible and how calm they remained. In fact, I regretted not having asked them for the name of their religion.

A few weeks later, I visited a friend whose children were having a Bible study with a couple named Dick and Stephanie. Their study aid was a brochure entitled Enjoy Life on Earth Forever! I began to read it and found that it made a lot of sense. I also learned that the couple were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then it dawned on me that the two men I had recently met must have been Witnesses too, for what they said harmonized with the brochure.

 Keen to learn more, I invited Dick and Stephanie to my home, where I inundated them with Bible questions. Later, Stephanie asked me if I knew God’s name. She showed me Psalm 83:18, which reads: “That people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” That scripture touched my heart, and I began to have a regular Bible study. La, the Laotian girl with whom I was then living, joined in the study. In the meantime, I also sponsored my brother and his wife. After arriving in New Zealand, they too began to study the Bible with the Witnesses.

Not long thereafter, La and I had to stop our study because we moved to Australia for work. Although we were focused on making money, we began to miss our Bible studies. So one night we earnestly petitioned Jehovah to lead us to his people.

Our Prayer Is Answered

A few days later, I arrived home from shopping to find two Witnesses at my door. I silently thanked Jehovah, and La and I recommenced our study. We also began to attend Christian meetings at the local Kingdom Hall. However, I soon realized that to please God I had to make a number of changes in my life. As a result, I gave up my bad habits and cut my long hair. My old acquaintances teased me, but I managed to control my temper. I also had to address my marital situation, for La and I were not married, and my wife and I were not legally divorced. So in 1990, La and I returned to New Zealand.

Immediately, we telephoned Dick and Stephanie. “Sam, I thought we had lost you!” exclaimed Stephanie. We resumed our Bible study with them, and as soon as my divorce came through, La and I were married with a clean conscience before God. We remained in New Zealand, where we were baptized in symbol of our dedication to God. Eager to share what I had learned, I had the privilege of studying the Bible with a number of Cambodian and Thai people living in Auckland and nearby.

Back to Australia

In May 1996, La and I returned to Australia and settled in Cairns, north Queensland. Here, I have the privilege of coordinating the preaching work among Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai people in the area.

I could never thank Jehovah enough for his blessings, which include my wonderful wife and our three boys​—Daniel, Michael, and Benjamin. I am also deeply thankful that my mother, my sister, my brother, my mother-in-law, and Teng Hann, my friend in the Thai camp, also accepted Bible truth. My family and I still mourn the loss of my father and my uncle, but we are not overly sad. We know that in the resurrection God will so thoroughly undo past injustices that such things “will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.”​—Isaiah 65:17; Acts 24:15.

A few years ago at an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I saw a familiar face. It was Bill, who had called on me many years earlier. “Do you remember me?” I asked.

“Yes!” he replied. “I met you in New Zealand years ago and told you that only 144,000 go to heaven.” After all those years, Bill remembered me. We hugged and reminisced, now as brothers.

[Picture Credit Line on page 21]

Background: AFP/​Getty Images