1. 0 ABSTRACT
“I have been many things in life: A trader walking barefoot on paths through the jungles. A medical doctor, driving to his clinic in a shiny Mercedes…a Hollywood actor. But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.” (Ngor, 1987:1) Dr. Haing S. Ngor was a man haunted by his past under the Khmer Rouge, yet still maintained a friendly and charming disposition. Dr. Ngor’s loyalty and dedication to those closest to him was remarkable, particularly to his niece Sophia, whom he brought with him from Cambodia. Dr. Ngor’s strength of character enabled him to survive his years in the killing fields of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime, and to travel on human rights missions after the regime was overthrown. He is described by friends as being extremely opinionated, particularly about communism, yet a team player and modest. He was a “man of the world, comfortable wherever he went…always ready for humor and the new experience.” (J. Ong, pers. comm. July 2004) Throughout his life he lived with the hope that members of the Khmer Rouge would be brought to justice. “If a man’s convictions, deeds and sense of fair play reflect his character”, it can truly be said that Dr. Ngor is the ideal recipient of a human spirit award. (J. Ong, pers. comm. July 2004)
2.0 THE BACKGROUND OF A SURVIVOR
2.1 Early Rebellion
Haing Ngor was born in the village of Samrong Yong, Cambodia. After an incident involving the shooting of a guerrilla in his village, his family moved into the country, his parents commuting into the village each day to run their dry-goods store. Guerrilla rebels captured his father, requiring his mother to collect money for his release. The arrests and kidnappings continued, forcing the Ngor family to pay corrupt military officials and guerrilla rebels recurrently, causing them to become very poor.
Haing Ngor did not enjoy the Chinese school to which he was sent, and was elated when he was taken out because his father could not afford the payments. He was to barter food in the country with his mother instead. Haing Ngor had a short attention span as a child and was hyperactive, and felt guilty that he would rather play than help his father with the rest of his brothers. His inability to assist with the family business displeased his father, who tended to blame Haing for stolen items or misdeeds, and beat him. Although Haing was not the “favoured son”, his devotion to his family, and particularly his father, was admirable during his life.
2.3 Teacher-student Relationships
Haing’s father’s business prospered, and Haing continued his schooling, eventually passing his exam to enter medical school. His knowledge of science subjects allowed him to become a tutor for students at several lycees, high schools, as well as private homes. It was in a tutoring session that he met Huoy Chang. He began to court her, and they had agreed to marry, however, Haing’s father did not approve of Huoy, and the marriage was postponed.
3.0 SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS
3.1 In the beginning
On April 17 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over the capital city, Phnom Penh. Believing himself to be safe in his profession as a doctor, Dr. Ngor returned to his clinic but was forced to leave a dying patient on an operating table when confronted by an armed Khmer Rouge guerrilla, going against his ethics as both a doctor and a person. His guilt his actions never truly left him throughout his life, although it was a life or death choice. The city was evacuated and the inhabitants, including Dr. Ngor, were forced to walk into the country.
3.2 Trials and Tribulations
Dr. Ngor’s fight for survival began on that day, and lasted for the four years of the regime. His life was transformed from that of a privileged obstetrician in Phnom Penh to that of a “war slave”, forced to work twelve hour days building canals and farming rice under appalling conditions, an adjustment of unimaginable proportions. Any dissent or suspected dissent was punished by death or brutal torture at the prison of Phum Chleav. Dr. Ngor survived three of these torture sessions, a physical and psychological feat of human spirit. The first torture was punishment for foraging of wild food. The “war slaves” were only given bowls of watery rice, not nearly enough to provide them with energy for working. Dr. Ngor was tied to a tree and subjected to hours of being bitten by red ants, watching the interrogation and subsequent torture of other prisoners such as the disembowelment of a pregnant woman and strangulation of the foetus. When Dr. Ngor did not capitulate and admit to being a doctor before the take-over the Khmer Rouge severed part of his finger and exposed the bone in his ankle. Dr. Ngor’s second and third terms of imprisonment involved much of the same torture. Throughout his imprisonment it was his love for his wife Huoy, hope of a better life after the Khmer Rouge and a will to survive that enabled him to endure the torture.
3.3 Keep being strong and you will never die
Contaminated drinking water caused amoebic dysentery, a common ailment in the Cambodian concentration camps. By the time Dr. Ngor succumbed, however, he had used all of his antibiotics and dysentery medication treating his family and others. Without adequate food, clean water or medication his body could not destroy the infection, and it was only Dr. Ngor’s spirit that prevented his death. It was only through Huoy’s generosity in giving him their ration of one small yam whilst going without herself that enabled him to survive. Once again it was the love of his wife that strengthened his spirit and resolve to live. She had saved his life.
3.4 Take care of yourself, sweet
At the end of 1977, with the assistance of reasonably adequate food acquired through Huoy’s work in the kitchen and Dr. Ngor foraging for food, Huoy became pregnant. By 1978, however, famine had struck Cambodia, and Huoy became malnourished and went into labor prematurely. The Khmer Rouge forbade a man to deliver his wife’s baby, but any attempt to assist Huoy would also give away Ngor’s profession as an obstetrician, putting his family in danger. Huoy’s labor was slow and painful, and did not progress. He was unable to save her with a Caesarean section and she died in his arms, and with her, Dr. Ngor’s dream that his life would be better after the Khmer Rouge regime. Guilt about her death stayed with him for the remainder of his life. “She had taken care of me when I was sick. She had saved my life. But when it was my turn to save her, I failed.” (Ngor, 1987: 360)
4.0 LIBERATION AND A CAMBODIAN ODYSSEY
4.1 He Was Alive, But The Price Was Too High
Four years after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1979, the regime was overthrown and Dr. Ngor, or Samnang (“lucky one”) as he was known in the camp led a group of refugees to Thailand. According to Dr. Ngor, “the long darkness was nearly over”. (Ngor, 1987: 377) He no longer had to keep silent, follow rules and be afraid for his life. Yet it was only Dr. Ngor’s will and spirit to live that enabled him to survive, as well as a great deal of luck. The majority of his family had perished under the Khmer Rouge, and it was a physical and psychological feat that he escaped with his life. After working in a hospital as an obstetrician for a short period of time, Dr. Ngor escaped towards the Thai border with his niece Ngim.
Throughout Dr. Ngor’s journey to Thailand corrupt soldiers and officials repeatedly robbed him and his group of valuables, clothing and food. Guides charged exorbitant prices to take them to Thailand, offering little or no protection against “pretend” Khmer Rouge aggressors. Often their group would be required to pass through land mine territories in order to reach the border, resulting in injuries and deaths. Without medical supplies, Dr. Ngor was forced to watch the injured die without pain relievers. Thieves stole their gold and possessions and raped and molested the women. Eventually Dr. Ngor, his niece Ngim and the rest of the group reached the border camp of Nong Chan, to taste his first Pepsi in four years. Dr. Ngor remarked in his autobiography, “We have survived. They have taken our gold, but it does not matter. From now on, no more killings, no more rapes. We will block the past out of our minds.” (Ngor, 1987: 409) Yet again Dr. Haing S. Ngor had survived due to his strength of spirit and will to live.
5.0 THE AFTERMATH
Dr. Ngor transferred to another refugee camp, Khao-I-Dang. He worked at a doctor, treating the walk-in patients who generally suffered from malnutrition, disease and depression. Dr. Ngor himself had overcome depression after his escape from Cambodia, and he instilled hope in his patients, talking to them in Khmer, consoling and encouraging them. (Ngor, 1987: 448) After just over a year in the refugee camp, Dr. Ngor met a young Thai-Cambodian woman, who he considered marrying. She asked him to take off the chain with the locket containing a photo of Huoy, however, and when he “explained that (he) was showing (his) respect to Huoy for saving (his) life, the woman became suspicious” and nothing came of it. (Ngor, 1987: 453) The time had come to leave Thailand, and face a new life in a foreign country…the United States.
5.2 The American Dream
“In America it never occurred to me that my life was in any danger or that there was any risk of starvation. I wasn’t worried about having only four dollars.” (Ngor, 1987: 463) He took at a job as a night security guard whilst taking English as a Second Language classes. In 1980 he became a caseworker providing free job placement for refugees in the Indochinese Unit of the Chinatown Service Centre. (Ngor, 1987: 464) Although he did not make the exorbitant amounts of money that he would have made as a doctor, this work satisfied him as it allowed him to assist refugees, using his strength of character and perseverance to help others.
5.3 Dith Pran, Sydney Schanberg and “The Killing Fields”
In 1982, Dr. Ngor applied for and was accepted for the role of Sydney Schanberg’s assistant and translator, Dith Pran in the movie, “The Killing Fields”. “The Killing Fields” was a story of “war and friendship, of the anguish of a ruined country and one man’s will to live”. (Ngor, 1987: 474, New York Times, 1980) Dr. Ngor realised that he was Dith Pran. The similarities in their life paths allowed Dr. Ngor to bring humanity and realism to the role, eventually resulting in an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and telling the story of the forgotten Cambodian holocaust to the world.
5.4 Two Bedrooms and a Balcony
After the success of “The Killing Fields”, Dr. Ngor became a spokesman for Cambodians, and organised aid for refugees. (Ngor, 1987:495) He worked with the Khmer Humanitarian Organization, helping Cambodians in refugee camps and in the United States, and other organizations attempting to build a Cambodian temple. He helped to start a medical training centre, teaching public health skills to villagers re-entering Cambodia. In 1991, he and Jack Ong began the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, a humanitarian organization and also built a sawmill and an elementary school. (www.jackong.com/ngor-bio.htm) Most of the profit from his work as an actor went into providing humanitarian aid to Cambodia. Dr. Ngor continued to live in his two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and wore a locket with a photo of Huoy in it years after his escape from Cambodia and subsequent success.
5.5 The Story of the Locket
For a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust, a renowned actor and obstetrician, Dr. Haing S. Ngor died in one of the most undignified ways; shot to death on the streets of Los Angeles by cocaine addicts looking for money. The three assailants demanded his $8000 gold Rolex watch – he gave it to them. (Jeffreys, March 8 1998, The Sunday Mail: 101) They then demanded the gold locket containing the photo of his dead wife Huoy around his neck, and he refused to give it to them. That picture was the sole reminder of his wife. One of the assailants shot him in the right leg. When he still would not relinquish the locket; they shot him in the chest, stole the locket and fled the scene. (Jeffreys, March 8 1998, The Sunday Mail: 101) Dr. Ngor died on the pavement, alone. Some have described Dr. Ngor’s act as reckless and meaningless, failing to realize that this act was Dr. Ngor’s final act of devotion to the wife who had saved his life countless times. Though his assailants were captured, the gold locket and chain were never recovered.
Dr. Haing S. Ngor lived through a period of civil war in Cambodia, and faced a great deal of adversity throughout his life. Dr. Ngor’s short life span impacted greatly on his closest family and friends as well as the wider community through his humanitarian work in Cambodia and through “The Killing Fields.” Dr. Ngor’s spirit in the face of adversity under the Khmer Rouge and in the United States was truly remarkable and inspiring to humanity. Dr. Ngor is an example to others of the capabilities of the human spirit in adversity. His survival in the killing fields of Cambodia was a physical and psychological feat of human endurance of astounding magnitude.
As a person who truly exemplifies the concept of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, Dr. Haing Ngor truly deserves one of the United Nations’ Human Spirit Awards. Despite all odds, Dr. Ngor survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and rose to become a renowned actor in the United States. Although he was welcomed into the “Hollywood fraternity”, Dr. Ngor remained true to his beginnings and supplied humanitarian aid to the country of his origin, Cambodia. Dr. Ngor embodied the qualities of a truly great human being – humility, integrity, and above all, a friendliness and charm that attracted people to him. Dr. Haing S. Ngor was an inspirational human being who overcame great adversity during his life and is truly worthy of this award posthumously.