Brit nurse reunited with woman she saved aged 14 from Pol Pot's Killing Fields

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They met 40 years ago on a desolate frontier between a terrifying nightmare and a dangerous kind of freedom.

A starving and broken 14-year-old girl fleeing the killing fields of Cambodia’s evil Khmer Rouge regime which had seen her beloved dad slaughtered, her and her sisters tortured.

And a 38-year-old British nurse in a Thailand refugee camp whose gentleness and kindness she would never forget.

Together Vichuta Ly and Anne Watts forged an unbreakable bond that not only saved Vichuta’s life, but also the lives of thousands of others driven from their homeland during dictator Pol Pot’s four-year reign of terror.

And the talisman of their exploits and friendship became a much-thumbed blue dictionary.

It was bought by Anne to help the courageous teenager become a spy in the 42,000-strong unmanageable refugee camp in the relative safety of Thailand, uncovering a horrifying secret.

Forty years on, the two were reunited last week as part of Save the Children’s 100th anniversary celebrations.

“We met on the platform at St Pancras station in London,” says Anne, now 78.

A blue dictionary became the talisman of their exploits and friendship

 

“Vich was holding the blue dictionary in the air. I saw it before I saw her. I couldn’t believe she’d kept it. There were lots of tears.”

And Vichuta, now 54, says: “Anne saved my life, but she also gave me a reason to go on.”

Yet the forlorn, malnourished little girl who melted Anne’s heart when she stumbled across the Cambodian border into the Sa Kaeo refugee camp in 1979 then believed she had little left to live for.

Vichuta’s father had been a justice minister in the Cambodian government but was killed almost as soon as warped dictator Pol Pot took over.

“My dad was one of the first to die – but whole families died,” she says.

“In the morning, we’d help each other to bury the bodies. Three members of my family died within two months.

“They gave us one small portion of rice to last a whole family for two weeks.

“We lived like animals, eating what we could in the wild. People died from malaria and diarrhoea.”

Vicious Khmer Rouge soldiers unsure of Vichuta’s family’s links to the previous regime tried to torture the truth out of her – but she told them nothing.

Anne is credited with giving orphaned child refugees a reason to go on

 

She says: “My mum told me, ‘If you tell the truth, your whole family will die’. Every hour, they’d wake me up and ask the same story.”

By the time she, her mum and surviving sister Solina escaped and fled to the Thai border, around 35 members of their wider family had been killed.

Vichuta recalls: “They gave me a glass of milk at the border. I hadn’t had milk for so long.”

Meanwhile nurse Anne, who had previously nursed victims of the Vietnam war, had arrived at what would become the sprawling Sa Kaeo camp 125 miles from Bangkok with other Save the Children workers.

They were horrified by the conditions. “Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were pouring across the border,” says Anne who grew up in north Wales and also trained as a nurse and midwife.

“There was no camp at that stage – I was just dropped at the side of a road. As I walked across, I could see a huge area of black land. The first thing I saw was lots of people lying on the ground. It was only when I saw an arm coming up that I realised they were human beings.

“It paralyses you with shock. There were 42,000 people, all in a hell of a state. Girls were being raped and sold to brothels in Bangkok.

Young Vichuta’s father was killed almost as soon as warped dictator Pol Pot took over

Then somehow, in the middle of all this chaos, I met Vich. She was so skinny and vulnerable.

“Her growth was stunted because of everything that she’d gone through. At first, I felt like I was holding her body and soul together. But then I could see that she was bright, and survived by her wits. 

“And even though she was so little and vulnerable, she really wanted to help us.” Vichuta spoke French and a little English, so Anne travelled to Bangkok to buy a dictionary that would allow the teenager to tell them what was going on among her fellow refugees.

Vichuta says: “When Anne gave the dictionary to me, it felt like a sign from my father to keep on reading and learning.

“He’d always wanted us to have a good education.” The information she came back with each day proved to be explosive and invaluable.

“She was great at sniffing out gossip among the other refugees,” says Anne,of Banbury, Oxfordshire. “Slowly, we became aware there were Khmer Rouge actually in the camp. There were killings going which we weren’t aware of. Some of the killers were teenagers.”

Now aware that thousands of refugees – including Vichuta and her family – were in danger from this creeping slaughter, the Save the Children workers had them bussed to camps further into Thailand for their own safety.

Anne is now 78 and Vichuta is 54

The family eventually sought asylum in Canada – and Anne waved them off at the airport.

Laughing, she recalls showing the bewildered family how to eat a hamburger as they waited to board the flight to their new life.

“I joked that the British ate hamburgers with a knife and fork,” she says. “While the Canadians and Americans ate with their hands. As they were leaving, I gave them my address and told them to write to me.” So for Vichuta, the blue dictionary’s work was not yet finished.

It led her on to a brave new world and is never far from her side.

“Thanks to Anne, I went on to become a lawyer,” she says. One who is now remarkably giving back the freedom Anne had once given to her.

Vichuta now works in Cambodia, running a project that provides legal aid to women who have experienced human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Anne looks at the smiling woman she helped save with pride.

“Vich says that I inspired her,” she says, tears in her eyes again. But it was her strength that inspired me.”

  • To donate to Save the Children, visit www.savethechildren.org.uk

A monument filled with human skulls at the Killing Fields

Terrifying Pol Pot reign that left two million dead

Up to two million Cambodians died under brutal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

The Marxist tried to take the county back to the Middle Ages, forcing whole families to work on communal farms as part of an attempt at social engineering. Under his vision of communism after overthrowing the government, Pol Pot declared that the nation would start again at ‘Year Zero’ and abolished money, private property and religion.

Academics, doctors, teachers and anyone considered intelligent were forced to work in fields as part of their ‘re-education’. Thousands were also sent to detention centres where they were tortured then executed.

In one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of families died of starvation, disease and overwork. Bodies were buried in graves that became known as the ‘killing fields’ – a phrase which was later the title of a 1984 film based on the experiences of an American war reporter and a Cambodian journalist who became friends.

Pol Pot, a one-time Buddhist, had started life as part of an affluent family who owned acres of rice fields, but went to Paris on a scholarship where he became active in Communist circles.

His four-year reign of terror, from 1975 to 1979, came to an end when the government was overthrown by invading Vietnamese troops.

Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at an extermination camp at Choeung Ek after the fall of the regime – many of them political prisoners held in detention centres. Today, there is a glass-sided memorial to the victims on the site filled with 5,000 skulls.

A former high school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh – used as a torture and execution centre – is now the home of the moving Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

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