Cambodian Genocide Survivor in Denver, Now Builds Playgrounds (Part I)

Helena Ny, Cambodian genocide survivor, entrepreneur & playground builder.

Helena Ny, Cambodian genocide survivor, entrepreneur & playground builder.

Helena Ny was a year old when Pol Pot’s military began executing and starving what would be over two million Cambodians. Helena would spend the early part of her life being passed between families and surviving unspeakable tragedies. Years after the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia ended, Helena received news of something she had always known in her heart — her father was alive and wanted her to come be with him in the United States.

Helena would spend the years to come escaping the home of her adopted mother, escaping Cambodia and then ultimately arriving in the United States to be with her father. When Helena’s father died decades later she returned to Cambodia to give children what she never had – a chance to play.

Here is a bit of her story.

What is your first memory as a child?

Everyone worked all the time under communism. There was a lot of starvation. When the sun came down my mother and all of the workers would all walk home. When I saw them I would run towards them, but I couldn’t see anyone because the sun was setting behind them. All I could see was the sun, but I knew if I ran in their direction my mom would catch me.

Can you explain what was causing the starvation in Cambodia?

Most of the crops grown in Cambodia were sent to China. It was traded for ammunition from China. Under Pol Pot even the people who were doing the killing were starving. It was only a small percentage of the elite  who grew their own food who weren’t starving. Even the people who were helping these people grow food were starving. People ate rice porridge after working 12 to 16 hours a day. There are people that came out of Pol Pot’s reign talking about eating cockroaches or insects, but if they would have been caught eating anything they would have been killed or punished.

You were born the year before Pol Pot’s rule. Can you talk about what Pol Pot did to Cambodia?

Helena in Phnom Penh before escaping to Thailand

Helena in Phnom Penh before escaping to Thailand

Pol Pot was educated in Paris.  He trained the military that would do all of the killing in the Cambodian forest. Cambodia in the 1970s was unstable because of the Vietnam War. Pol Pot came out of the forest on April 17, 1975 after the United States left Vietnam. His message was that Americans were the enemy and that he was there to help the people. When people saw Pol Pot and his military on the Cambodian streets they thought they were being liberated and then all of the sudden people started getting killed.

If you were smart, college educated or if you wore glasses they wanted to kill you. Everybody that was educated that would have questioned their authority was killed. Everyone who lived in the city was taken into the country. The parents and children were separated. If you were a boy you were taken to be in the army. All teenagers were separated and taught to kill. They went on a killing spree. They made children kill their own parents just to see how strong the child was, to see if they could use them for the army.

How long did this killing go on for?

Three years, eight months and 20 days.

How many people were killed in this time?

They estimate two million people or one third of Cambodia’s population at the time was killed.

Do you remember being separated from your family?

My father, Bun Heng Ny [Ny Bun Heng], before the war worked for the French embassy. He knew something was going on. The French sent a lot of the employees out of the country because they knew what was happening. My father knew and spoke to my mother about it, but my mother could not go because her mother was sick and she had a lot of brothers and sisters in Cambodia. My father and mother were very much in love.

My mother could not part with her mother. She told him to go because if he stayed he would be the first to be killed. After he left it got really bad. We were separated from our home town and one by one members of my mother’s family died. Her mother died, her sister died and then she died. My aunt adopted a little girl and then my aunt died. When my mom died it was just me,the little girl my aunt had adopted and a male cousin they sent away remaining.

Photo of Helena's mother before the war started

Photo of Helena’s mother before the war started

When my mom died she had gold. Pol Pot abolished money and Buddhism. Money was all over the streets in Cambodia as it had no value. My mom gave the gold to someone to take care of me and my cousin. I lived with the family my mom gave the gold to. I did not get proper care. I remember sleeping inside a shack and hearing coyotes at night howling. We did not have toilets. We had to go the bathroom outside. I remember being so scared that I pooped and pee’d all over myself because I was scared to go outside.

When you say your family died, were they killed?

My mother died of starvation. She saved all of her food for me. I was a chubby child. My mom wanted to make sure if she died I would stay longer. I remember holding onto her when she died and then watching her get buried. Everyone else in my mother’s family was executed.

Those are indescribably difficult memories.

The first family my mother gave the gold to was executed not long after. I was moved between many families. Then the military came to the town [I was in] and said they were were taking us to another town. This is what they would say they were doing when they were going to kill  everyone.

There was one lady in the town that knew this was going to happen. She was the Head of Agriculture during Pol Pot’s reign. She always wanted daughters and she saved me from being moved because she had known my mother. When they were going to move us and then kill us she asked the military if she could have me. Because she was high up in the government they gave me and my cousin to her.

That seems like quite an act of humanity given what they were capable of.

I believe it was divine intervention. I believe my mother did it.

How old were you at this time?

I was probably around three or four. I cannot even tell you how many families I got tossed around to in those years. Humanity was still there even without money or food. People still helped each other. But the more you turned your neighbors in, the more likely you were to survive.

Helena's father, Bun Heng Ny (Ny Bun Heng)

Helena’s father, Bun Heng Ny (Ny Bun Heng)

What were they turning neighbors in for?

If I knew that my neighbor used to be a teacher then I could go to the authorities and tell them that certain families or people were educated. They wanted to kill all educated people. It made them think I could be trusted and that I was on their side. The more people you turned in the longer you got to live.

Was there ever a point in your childhood where you felt like it was similar to a childhood in Europe or the US?

No. I never once felt like my life was normal. I felt like I was dropped off from another planet. I just knew at some point my father would find me and we would be together. Everyone called me crazy. Everyone told me he had died, that I didn’t have any parents, and that I was not loved.

I remember one month before my father found me yelling at kids telling them to stop telling me my father would not come find me. A month later a letter from my father showed up. I came home from playing in the river and the whole town was crowded around because a motorcycle delivered a letter from my father.

What did the letter say?

Basically that I was his daughter and he wanted me back.

What was it like the day you got that letter from your father?

It was powerful. I felt a tremendous amount of hope.

How long after receiving that letter was it until you were able to see your father?

To actually get to my father took years after receiving that letter because of the politics and because my adopted mother did not want to give me up. She had every right to be greedy because we were so poor. She asked my father for a lot of money. She did not want to let me go.

How did you deal with wanting to be with your father, but the woman who adopted you not letting you go?

I was always pretty distant from her. She was not home a lot. She was the Head of Agriculture . She was always in meetings and involved in agriculture. Wherever she went to work she had to walk and did not arrive home until late. She had two sons. Her husband and one son were tortured and killed under Pol Pot. The wife of the son who was not killed and her son took care of me. They both abused me very badly.  I just knew no matter who abused me; it would not be forever because I knew one day I would be with my father. I do not know where that knowing came from. I learned to detach from them. I never called my adopted mother ‘mom’. I called her auntie. I made up my mind that I would be with my father.

Helena with her adopted family

Helena (left) with her adopted family

To get to my father I was essentially kidnapped to go to Phnom Penh, so I could escape. After years and years, I was helped out of that situation by a family in Phnom Penh.

How did they help you?

They came to find me. They had me come live with them in Phnom Penh under the pretense that I was going to go to school there which was the excuse they used to get me out of the country to set me up to escape. They had different places their family was living. They were putting me one month in one place and then one month in another place. They did this to show the government I was still in the country. I had to really betray my adopted mother to do this. I was feeling ungrateful and disloyal, but I had to go find my father.

I would be the mother of so many children right now if I was still there. I did everything the family in Phnom Penh told me to do. I had to keep moving with different families so my adopted mother could not report I was being kidnapped.

How did you ultimately get out of Cambodia?

One day they took me close to the border of Thailand and for three days I escaped with a dozen other people. We walked stepping on each other’s footprints so we would not step on mines. I remember I had an orange. I was so numb and so scared and so hungry that I ate the entire orange – peels, seeds and all. I knew I shouldn’t eat all of it, but I was just so hungry.

Helena meeting her father for the first time in Thailand

Helena meeting her father for the first time in Thailand

How did you eventually meet your father?

When I met my father in Thailand I did not know who he was. I remember seeing two men standing by a car. I remember looking at both of the men not knowing which of the two men was my father. I was hoping he would come towards me.

After I met him I had to stay in Thailand because my paperwork was not done. I stayed in an orphanage with a girl who was doing the same thing, but she was going to Australia. The kids in the orphanages were trying to get me to run away and I just knew that it was wrong. With all the hell on earth I went through there was no way I was going to miss out on living with my father.

How old were you when you finally got to Thailand?

I was 12.

How old were you when you got to the US?

I was 13.

Tell me about your first experiences in the US.

The flight from Thailand to Australia to Burbank was terrifying. I remember sitting right next to an American man. He was this huge person. I had never seen big people in my life. I was so scared. I either fell asleep or pretended to be asleep the entire time. When we changed planes the stewardess would take me. I did not know a word, except for cat, of English. I had never been on a plane before.

The first three or four days I was there my brain was not right. You know when you take pictures of traffic and you see that streak of light? That is what I saw and felt those first few days.

When I saw my father I started crying because I was so scared and because I did not know he had a new family until I arrived in the United States. If I would have known that he had a family I probably would have run away with the other kids when I was in Thailand. When I found this out I was so angry and jealous. The entire time I had waited for him I imagined a life with just me and my daddy.

Helena's father, Helena and the new family on her first day in the US

Helena’s father, Helena and the new family on her first day in the US

When I was a child in Cambodian culture there was not divorce and if a spouse dies the spouse who remains does not get remarried. I did not know what divorce was. I felt like I was the third wheel. I felt like I was not a part of the family.

They were trying to feed me three meals a day and I had never eaten that much. Time went so fast. There was so much activity in America. My father wanted me to learn English and become Americanized quickly. I remember the first time I ate a hamburger. I ate it and threw up.

It was very, very hard not speaking English the first few years. The woman he married was Thai. I had learned to speak Thai during my time in Thailand, so I had something in common to love my new Thai mother, but I was so jealous of her for my mother. I was so mad that as much as he loved my mother he could still remarry and love another woman. Looking back I know that thinking is wrong. He deserved to be happy.


Read Part II to hear about Helena being sent to live with her aunts, her journey to healing and her return to Cambodia.

See Helena’s documentary  or learn more about Helena.

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