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Cambodian Killing Fields Survivor Tells His Story In New Book

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council Sichan Siv has written a new book, called "Golden Bones," that tells how he survived the Khmer Rouge terror in his native land and came to prosper in the United States. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from San Antonio, Texas, the author admits that luck had a lot to do with it.

On a patio outside his home, Sichan Siv shares a toast with friends who have come to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of his arrival in the United States. At that time he had only $2 in his pocket.

But Sichan Siv had something else on his side, as he explains in his book "Golden Bones."

"Cambodians believe that somebody who is very blessed and lucky is a person with golden bones," he said.

Luck and a lot of hard work helped Sichan Siv go in 13 years from being a poor refugee to being the first Asian-American deputy assistant to the president of the United States, under the first President George Bush. In 2001, the current President Bush appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

But Sichan Siv's real luck started well before all that. He survived one of the most brutal periods of modern human history when the Khmer Rouge took over his country in 1975.

He was working with the relief agency CARE at the time and could have escaped had he made it to the U.S. Embassy on time.

"I missed the last helicopter by 30 minutes because I decided to go to a meeting trying to help some 3,000 refugee families stranded in the province," Siv recalled. "Five days later, the Khmer Rouge came and they emptied the cities and all the urban centers and they put everybody to forced labor."

He lost his mother and all other members of his family in the killing fields, and nearly lost his own life as well.

"I survived 10 brutal months under the Khmer Rouge with countless brushes with death," said Siv. "Then I made it to Thailand after I spent three days walking across the jungle in northwest Cambodia. I fell in a booby trap and was severely wounded, but I arrived in Thailand completely exhausted."

Thai authorities arrested him for illegal entry and then took him to a refugee camp where he taught English to fellow refugees and intensified his devotion to Buddhism.

Although he avoids bitterness, Sichan Siv says he wants to see former Khmer Rouge leaders held accountable for their crimes.

"There is not one Cambodian who has not lost someone or something dear to them so everybody wants to see justice brought to these people," he said.

Five former Khmer Rouge officials are being prosecuted by a special genocide tribunal in Cambodia. Their cases are expected to be tried later this year.

Today, Sichan Siv enjoys going for rides around San Antonio on his motorcycle. He cannot forget the horrors of the past, but he seems determined to concentrate on his new life here. This self-styled "Cambodian cowboy" also enjoys horseback riding and has helped herd cattle on a ranch in west Texas where his wife, Martha, was born and raised. She says they chose to live in San Antonio partly because of its western atmosphere.

"Sichan says that when he was growing up in Cambodia he listened to all those John Wayne movies dubbed in French, so now he is living it out in San Antone!," she said.

As his book goes on the market, Sichan Siv hopes he can help readers understand what it has meant for him to have this new life in the United States.

"I hope that they will understand that in America everything is possible, that when you have dreams you can turn your dreams into reality," he said.

Sichan Siv has found his dream here, but he says he will never forget those in Cambodia who were unable to escape their nightmare.