- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

CHICAGO (AP) — For years, Leon Lim didn’t want to talk about what he saw in the killing fields of Cambodia. He wanted to focus on his new life in America, not the torture endured under the Khmer Rouge and the loved ones he lost.

Now, Mr. Lim and fellow survivors have a forum for helping heal their emotional scars, for preserving their past and for educating others of the atrocities that can be perpetrated by an unbridled communist regime.

That place is Chicago’s new Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, which the project’s organizers say is the only public memorial in the United States that honors victims of the Khmer Rouge.

“About 2 million people died — and it’s just too much,” said Mr. Lim, a former refugee camp medic.

Dary Mien’s starkest memory is being 6 years old and walking through rice fields littered with bodies.

“The Cambodian community has just been so silent about its pain. But when it comes to this museum, that reminds them of their sense of culture, identity — and perhaps there’s a way for us to connect better with each other,” said Miss Mien, associate director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois.

The association developed the museum and memorial, which opened last month, as a healing mechanism.

The museum is filled with items donated by survivors of the killing fields — everything from shackles used by the Khmer Rouge to Mr. Lim’s medical equipment to decades-old books of Buddhist teachings made with pressed palm leaves.

The glass memorial consists of 80 panes, each at least 6 feet tall, that represent those who died when the Khmer Rouge ruled in the late 1970s. Names of the dead are etched into the panes in the Khmer language.

Many in the Cambodian community, though, didn’t want the memorial built at first, organizers said.

“We are trying to bring up the past that speaks about a genocide that some feel should be forgotten,” Miss Mien said. “Their concern was that, ‘I don’t want to hear about it because it brings up such pain, and it’ll cause the community to be chaotic again.’”

It took patience and persistence, but Cambodian-Americans began to support the museum, said Kompha Seth, the association’s founder.

The Cambodian communist group began a large-scale insurgency in 1970 and overthrew the Cambodian government five years later. It evacuated cities, closed schools and factories, and forced the population into labor camps, where hundreds of thousands died from starvation, disease, overwork and execution.

Mr. Lim was a medical student in the capital of Phnom Penh at the time. On April 17, 1975, he was forced from his home and into a labor camp, where he stayed until 1979.

Then the Vietnamese invaded, essentially ending Khmer Rouge rule. Mr. Lim, his wife and her family walked for six weeks to the border with Thailand, and Mr. Lim spent the next three years in refugee camps working as a medic.

The family moved to the United States in 1981, and Mr. Lim now teaches at Northside College Preparatory High School.

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