1. Archive


Published Sep. 13, 2005

Horror followed horror, as in an endless nightmare.

Bun Hap Prak, a young Cambodian in a terrorized land, watched his brothers marched to execution. As his father died of exhaustion, Prak lay next to him in the grip of malaria.

Working at forced labor up to 20 hours a day, Prak once bent to a pond, scooping water with his hand, grasping at floating plants to get a little more food.

He felt something round in the mud under his foot. He thought it might be a soldier's helmet.

"I used my toe to kick it up. There, a half a skull! I was traumatized that day. I couldn't sleep though I'd worked hard all day. I couldn't eat, though I was starving," Prak recalled last week.

The abundant aquatic plants, he realized, must have been fed by a human body.

Prak, now director of the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center, is one of perhaps 2,000 Cambodians in St. Petersburg. Most lived in Cambodia from 1975-79 during the bloody regime of Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge guerrillas caused up to 2-million deaths _ as many as one in five of the nation's men, women and children.

Pol Pot was reported to have died April 15. His death recalled the Democratic Kampuchea era to those who survived it.

"I didn't know whether to celebrate, to condemn, or cuss him out," said Prak, 43.

But he noted that he is Buddhist, a religion that teaches all humans are linked in suffering and that one's deeds in this life will influence what happens in the next.

The center Prak manages at 689 M.L. King (Ninth) St. N helps solve problems for a growing St. Petersburg Asian community that includes an estimated 15,000 people from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, China, the Philippines and Japan.

Many are war refugees from Southeast Asia. Social service organizations and churches helped establish many refugees in the United States.

After a jungle escape odyssey, Prak and some family members arrived in Gainesville in 1980, helped by a World Relief resettlement agency and the Episcopal church. Prak moved to St. Petersburg in 1982.

The genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot has been compared to the Jewish Holocaust, the purges of Stalin and the Rwanda massacres of 1994.

"It is very rare to meet a Cambodian who doesn't know someone who was killed," Prak said.

Years later, reminders bring pain.

"I traveled back in time when I saw Schindler's List. My heart was wrenched," Prak said of the film about the Holocaust. "The same with Killing Fields," which portrayed the Cambodian terror years.

"But I sat and watched. I rehabilitated myself."

Prak sees another reminder daily. A dramatic painting hangs on his office wall. Done in Cambodia, it portrays a specific "killing field" Prak used to pass on a road he traveled. He recalls hearing the gunfire of a mass execution at the site, which had been a duck farm.

The painting shows people, many of them soldiers, roped together and being led from a train car. A Khmer Rouge guerrilla waits with a gun. Bodies sprawl on the ground. There is a trench. A bulldozer waits to push bodies into it.

"People were shot while they walked. The killing was non-stop for three days."

A cousin, Prak said, was executed there and shoved into the pit. An attache case, like one the cousin used to carry, is shown in a corner of the painting.

With a high school education and ambitions to attend law school, Prak was considered an intellectual and as such, a Khmer Rouge target.

Two of his brothers had worked for the old government. They, too, were enemies of the new regime.

In 1975, Prak and members of his family, including his parents, were taken to a village. One day, while several hundred people squatted in the mud, a man in black pajamas and carrying a pistol, began calling out names and separating people.

Two were Prak's brothers, Huon Prak and Hiang Prak. Soldiers marched them away.

"We could not even bid farewell to each other. We had to look at each blankly. We were told if we cried, we would be taken away, too," Prak said.

"We knew they were executed two nights after they were walked away."

Prak blamed himself. His brothers had wanted to try to escape. Huon Prak hid rifles and grenades in a banana grove. Bun Hap Prak said he was hesitant. "We were told if we escaped, our families would be eradicated, even distant relatives.

"I was blaming myself for a year after they took my brothers away. If we had gone, we could have survived, and come back and rescued the family."

Prak said he sometimes played dumb to survive. A person who could read was automatically considered an enemy. A village chief once saved his life by changing a biography that had made him appear too educated. That chief later was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Prak got another chance to escape in 1978.

He made up a pack of salt and rice and began walking west toward Thailand.

"If you stay, you die. If you run, you die. You might as well keep running."

He headed toward the Thai town of Aranyaprathet but got lost. He decided that when he had the chance, he would go south toward the Gulf of Thailand.

Prak's father was in his 70s, his mother in her 60s. But both were willing to walk to freedom. After a series of separations, Prak reunited with his parents. With a group of about 30 that included children, they began a trek they hoped would distance them from the killing.

Resting during the day, moving at night, they covered about 60 miles in a week along the Cambodian-Thai border. Sometimes villagers hid them. Other times they begged the Thai frontier police not to send them back to Cambodia. Always, the Khmer Rouge lurked nearby.

Finally, the frontier police arrested them. They slept on the ground for a month in a prison camp before being taken to another place they were told was a United Nations refugee camp.

It turned out to be another holding camp on the site of a temple. They were given plastic sheets to keep the rain off. What little food they had was given to three children and a pregnant woman.

After three months there, Prak's father and brother-in-law died of exhaustion and malnutrition.

"My old mother was strong as a bull," he said.

Eventually, they made it to a camp at Trat in Thailand. They migrated to the United States where Prak's mother, Nem Nou, died in St. Petersburg in 1995. She was 81.

"My mom, she lived through sadness all those years."

Prak remains skeptical that Pol Pot is dead. "He was such a mysterious man, tricky."

Prak also believes it is ironic that Pol Pot died so close to the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's takeover. And he thinks it is convenient the death came just as talk was renewed about bringing Pol Pot before an international war crimes tribunal, where he could implicate others.

Prak doesn't want to see an end to government interest in Pol Pot and his underlings. "If you can't get Hitler, maybe you can get Himmler," Prak said, referring to the Nazi leaders.

He has sent pictures of his late brothers to their widows, who remain in Cambodia and have remarried. "They begged us to send pictures so the children would know what their fathers looked like. I have a niece. When they took her father away, she was still in her mother's womb."

Prak also has a younger brother who remained in Southeast Asia. The family didn't hear from him until 1989. One day the brother managed to get to a phone in Thailand and call.

"My mom, she had always assumed he was dead."

The presence of family in Southeast Asia is another reason Prak would like to see someone bring the remaining guerrilla leaders to trial.

"It would make that part of the world more peaceful," he said.

Prak grew thoughtful. Almost a minute of silence passed.

Finally he spoke. "Twenty-three years past . . . just terrible."

Tears filled his eyes.