By way of a life story so unimaginably full of war and horror, Ny Ly, once a young Buddhist monk in Cambodia, came to believe in the God of the Bible, a God he knows loves him.
His story holds mysteries so incomprehensible, he claims the questions they beg can be answered only by faith in a sovereign God, ruler of heaven and earth. That he still draws breath, Ny Ly claims, is itself vivid proof of God’s love. “What else is there?” he says, an engaging smile spreading over his face, even in the wake of suffering few of us can imagine.
Today, a near lifetime away from what he and Wendy, his wife, will never forget, he—and they—are happy. Ny Ly is a Cambodian American; a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah; and an elder at The Community Christian Reformed Church, a Cambodian fellowship.
To understand his story, rooted as it is in the Cambodian people’s attempt to find themselves as a nation after a century of French colonial rule that ended in 1953, requires some Southeast Asian history.
For more than 60 years, King Sihanouk maintained leadership in his native land, even though rebellion and war raged all around. In the 1960s, Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War, but when North Vietnamese troops planted training camps in Cambodia’s eastern provinces, his people became victims of the violence.
To uproot those North Vietnamese camps and sanctuaries, from 1965 to 1973 the United States dropped thousands of tons of bombs over Cambodia in mass bombing runs that left many Cambodian casualties.
Cambodians were caught in a crossfire that pitted U.S. forces against the greatly more powerful North Vietnamese, who’d been their enemies for generations. That violence bred insurgent Cambodian forces who eventually made possible Pol Pot’s five-year reign of terror, remembered by many as “the killing fields.”
When Pol Pot grabbed power in 1975, he placed King Sihanouk under house arrest and directed the Khmer Rouge in a bloody genocide that eliminated millions of Cambodians.
Ny Ly was perhaps the only Christian Reformed elder who once went to war in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.
He was born in 1955 in the capital city of Phnom Penh, the youngest boy in a family of 14 children. After his father retired from the railroad, his family moved back to ancestral land near Kampot, a seaport village in far southern Cambodia. With his father unable to work and older brothers and sisters no longer at home, Ny Ly’s mother needed her son to barter for what they need every day in order for the family to survive.
In 1970, surrounded by civil war, his mother, a devout Buddhist, grew anxious. She told her son, just 15, to run to the temple and become a monk. A monk might just escape the killing.
War in Cambodia
“I was a kid,” Ny says, “and all I wanted to do is play.” But war required warm bodies. Three years later, in 1973, the Khmer Rouge grabbed him from the temple and put him in a uniform, a rifle in his hands. He never saw his mother again.
He knew nothing about politics. At least the military offered food and clothing. For a year in the temple, he’d lived on the graces of peasants who brought whatever food they didn’t need. Once battle lines swept into the neighborhood, starvation was weaponized. “If you fight,” he said, “at least you can eat.” An elementary equation.
“I knew my heart wasn’t with them,” he remembered. His innocence was part of his reluctance, but more significant was the fact that some of his siblings were fighting with the opposition government forces.
The Khmer Rouge knew that also. “To them, I was not a clean person, you might say,” he said. Pol Pot’s people weren’t sure Ny Ly wouldn’t work against them.
For a year, gunfire all around, Ny Ly went wherever the Khmer Rouge fought. “I carried a rifle, just a fighter,” he explained. Ny Ly is amazed how effortless it was to kill other human beings. To stay alive, he says, one must learn to control the spirit within because evil is “a spirit in the mind,” an evil spirit that can simply take control.
He opens his shirt just slightly, points to a scar at the top of his chest, where he took a shank of shrapnel in a blow that knocked him out and could easily have killed him.
When he awoke, his men were not to be found. He stumbled to his feet, then heard the enemy. He grabbed a handful of slimy mud from the jungle floor to blot the blood running down from his throat, then ran to get away, zigzagging through the trees, enemy fire zinging all around.
He was alone, just a kid in the Khmer Rouge, alone.
His friends were stupefied when, later, he showed up. “What?” they said. “We saw you die!”
He claims he was prepared to breathe his last, a strategy to live. “You have to think you’re going to die,” he says. “The only way to live is to think you’re going to die.”
Why didn’t he? That’s the question he still asks. He should have. So many times, he should have been dead.
Pol Pot’s Policies
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, Ny Ly among them, only 20 years old, handed government control to the Pol Pot regime and its leadership, called Angka. The war had ended, but the real suffering had only begun in what Angka called Year Zero.
Pol Pot’s vision was a return to the land, where everyone would farm like peasants in the ancient ways. The entire country was forcibly relocated to collective farms and labor camps where starvation and worse killed thousands upon thousands.
For a time, Ny Ly cut down jungle to break ground to create rice paddies. This was slave labor with no pay and little food, the men forever under armed guard.
“This is where we have to start,” Angka told them almost daily. “This is what we must do to build a new Kampuchea.”
After a year in a jungle prison without walls, Ny Ly and others were sent to an island just off the coast, where the people’s government needed Khmer Rouge, they said, to protect the homeland. “Vietnam is armed to take over,” Angka said. “You will be our defense.”
There was nothing—absolutely nothing—on the island. “It was all monkeys, and trees,” he remembers, “nothing anywhere but ocean all around.” To this day, he does not understand why Angka sentenced them to an uninhabited island with no tools or provisions, not even a fishing net. Once again, the battle was simple: survival. Many did not.
Isolated as they were, fashioning spears to catch fish to stay alive, Ny Ly and the others found themselves far from war. “I didn’t know that Pol Pot killed three million people,” he said. “We didn’t know.”
With no medicine, death stalked the islanders. Once again, he asked himself why he wasn’t among the dying. “When I think about it,” he says, “through all of this, I can’t help thinking, ‘God is saving me.’”
In 1979, Vietnamese bombing runs created horrors on the mainland and convinced the islanders that their lives were in jeopardy, not simply because of their circumstance, but because the assault Angka had warned them about three years before was coming.
The remaining men—there were no women—determined that remaining on the island was lunacy. They had to swim to the mainland. Some tied coconuts to their arms to keep themselves afloat, others created life rafts from bamboo or fashioned canoes—a flotilla of 100 men attempting to stay alive through a long night in the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, a flotilla of a hundred men.
Many made it to the mainland, only to realize that after three years of isolation, they had no idea what was happening. Too quickly, they saw the scarred face of war and understood that home was no haven.
Surviving the Homeland
Their first taste of rice came when they stumbled on a deserted village where entire families had left, leaving behind food the islanders hadn’t tasted for years. Other villages were similarly emptied. Suffering and death was all around. Some survivors gave in to death, the only solace in the madness.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Ny Ly said, remembering. “All we know is to try to stay alive.”
At sundown, just a day later, they encountered a river too wide to cross. Maybe if they’d tie clothes together they could create a rope line, they thought. But before it was completed, the night air screamed with bullets. They had no choice but take to the water. “All around me, bullets—zip, zip, zip,” he said. Around him, the river flowed with blood. “You don’t look back—you just go!”
As a Christian, he’s tried to understand the madness. “I can’t help but think that a bad spirit ran loose in Cambodia,” he explained. “That bad spirit is what allowed three million people to die in Cambodia because, like Israel, they forgot—they kicked out God. They forgot God.”
Pol Pot had ruled out all religion in a country that was predominantly Buddhist. “Everything was gone, and that’s how the bad spirit understood that that time was his time.” It’s clear he’s given those years much thought. “That’s what I believe right now when I read the Bible. And I think maybe that somehow God chose me.” After all, he is still alive and so many of his countrymen are not. “But why me and not the others?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
Once the rain of bullets ceased, in complete darkness he climbed into the jungle on the other side of the river. The firing continued, “but what I know is, I’m alive,” he said.
Ny Ly’s life became a survival marathon; he was constantly running from death. On the bank of that river, he had no idea who he was running from or where he might be running to. What he knew was that he and a company of ragged survivors had to run barefoot through the jungle and up into mountains and then down again in a frantic race to escape death’s crosshairs.
One day a bag of rice, a miracle, appeared along the path. The men were famished. Everyone took some that Ny Ly poured equally into the scarves each of them wore. Great rejoicing.
When the bag was empty, he asked his friend to pour out the last bit. That’s when the grenades blew; the bag had been booby-trapped. Ny Ly was thrown like a rag doll, but his friend was gone, simply gone. All around, others were bleeding from the shrapnel.
Whole villages were moving east to Thailand. Guided by the sun, they kept running, mountain after mountain. Along the way old and young continued to die.
The chaos he remembers is impossible to imagine. No one knows who is the enemy because in some ways everyone is—even those without food, even families. Unable to care for their children, parents, distraught, left them behind. Refugees killed each other for food and deserted the sick and weak.
Three months of ceaseless travel continued before they come to the border with Thailand. Three months of running into and through jungle wilderness, of successive mountain ranges, often a spray of bullets behind them. But deprivation—hunger and exhaustion—continued to reign among refugees still looking simply for life.
When the gunfire stopped, Ny Ly remembers thinking about something other than sheer survival for the very first time in his life. Once, he’d trusted Angka, but no more. Through those mountain passes, surrounded by refugees who, like him, wanted only to get somewhere safe, for the first time he began to consider what exactly was going on around him, what was going on with his people, with his country, even with him. Why was he still alive?
The Border Camp
Cambodians by the tens of thousands were risking death to leave their country for Thailand. All those thousands on the Thai doorstep made officials wary. They shut the door.
The people created makeshift dwellings on a narrow strip of land just short of the Thai border with no provisions, all of them stalked by hunger they’d lived with for weeks and months, locked between war-ravaged Cambodia and a country that didn’t want them foraging through the countryside.
When the Red Cross drove up and threw out packets of rice for the first time, people fought each other. You had to.
Some mornings refugees were commanded to stand, men on one side, women on the other, while Thai men went shopping for sex slaves. Brothers could do nothing; fathers were powerless. Mothers, sisters simply disappeared.
It was there, in the camp, that Ny Ly claims some voice in him—God’s own? —directed him to try to work with the Thai officials instead of against them. Something in him, he says, urged him to avoid the corruption of those in the camp determined only to make money.
His decision not to get involved in corruption was a moment when God simply directed his life, he says. He doesn’t understand why. Long before he ever knew of Jesus Christ, his Savior was somehow directing him to do the right thing. Yes, he was hungry, he said, but when he ate just a little, he somehow didn’t want more. “God showed me the way.”
There, in that border Cambodian camp, Ny Ly met Wendy. That’s where their stories come together, unmarried but already a couple.
Together, they stole away from the camp for a time, escaped into a village to work to eat. Thai people would visit the camp looking for cheap labor. “I know someone who needs someone to work, and she’ll give you food,” a woman told a small crowd one day. She told them how to get out and to get to the place where the people lived who needed work done.
So, for a few months, Ny and Wendy lived in a village not far from the camp, a place where they cleaned out a wealthy home owner’s pit toilets and used what they dug with their hands to fertilize trees and flowers. For that, food, twice a day. Rice.
They stole back into the camp when they were told a raid was about to occur. When they returned, things had become more organized—some people now lived in wooden shelters. But corruption had grown. Rice was delivered, but only a fraction got to the bellies of hungry people. Graft ran rampant.
The Superintendent of Children
Three buses full of orphaned children came into camp one day. Ny Ly was standing nearby, heartbroken at the sight of the children, when the director pointed to him. “Hey—hey, you!” the director said in the Thai language, pointing at Ny. “You want to watch them—these children? I’ll give you a job.” The man was offering compensation, food, if Ny organized the children's’ lives, kept them clothed and fed on a can of rice per day.
It was an opportunity he believes came from God almighty. At that unlikely moment, he became the superintendent of a refugee orphan school, responsible, along with Wendy, to keep the children fed and clothed and healthy.
That position offered authority and prominence. “The kids were my people,” he said. “I’ve got to take care of them.” He had resources, but he also had responsibility for other human beings, children. Now he had to think about the survival of a hundred orphan children.
The director who chose him to take care of the children started keeping food and other relief supplies from the Cambodians he was supposed to serve. In secret, Ny Ly and other refugees considered options because the suffering and dying all around was increasing while camp officials got fat on their own corruption.
“Life was no better in those camps than it was in Cambodia,” Ny said. Even the Thai military chafed under the command of the corrupt director. Camp life grew so pitiable that Ny Ly and others—including soldiers—began to plan a necessary end. The directors had to go.
“My wife knew nothing of this,” he said, looking at her. The plan was to get the second-in-command, a Cambodian national, somehow off by himself. Many refugees were working on a lake in the middle of the camp, building a house for the director. That day Ny Ly told the children to stay home, not to walk to school. He didn’t them to witness murder.
“After we killed that guy,” he says, “we had enough food. That was it! We had music again for the first time, parties, birthday parties. Buddhism came back too. Rice. Freedom. Happiness—you can see it on people’s faces.”
Leaving the Homeland
When life in the camps improved, for the first time he asked himself what he wanted for his own future. Thai leaders sat up in front of the refugees and announced that those who would like to go to France or Canada or America should raise a hand. He did.
Those officials seemed not to take kindly to his volunteering. The lights went out, and bullets were sprayed over their heads to intimidate them all. His raising his hand or getting to his feet could spur on more to follow suit, he thought. For some officials after all, the camps provided an income.
“I don’t know why I stood up,” Ny Ly admits. “And I don’t understand why I wasn’t scared when the bullets started to fly.” He shakes his head because so many moments in his life of survival he still can’t process.
Almost immediately, he was herded into the back of a troop truck.
Once again, Ny Ly was in a life-and-death situation. If the soldiers driving the truck stopped and walked to the back of the truck, the prisoners determined they would die. The soldiers had guns. If they fought, there were more prisoners than guards, and some of the prisoners, they told each other, would live to run again.
It was dark and rainy on the way to the camp where they were going. Eventually, they were unloaded and packed into what they discovered, strangely, was a chicken coop, hens and roosters up over their heads.
Wendy laughs when she remembers, as does her husband. The next morning when both were mustered from their cages, they expected to die. Instead, many relief organizations were gathered before them. They found themselves in a camp unlike any they’d seen before. Actual schools. Theaters. The American Red Cross. The Japanese Red Cross. “I thought we were going to die that night,” he said. Instead they stood at the spot where emigration would begin.
There, for the first time, he heard the Christian gospel. “I started to hear about Jesus in the camp of the chicken coops because Christian missionaries were there,” he says. Like others, his motives for listening to the gospel was something less than a desire to hear the gospel. “I went because the Christians had clothes and food. ‘If you need something, you go to church’—that’s what you heard. You had to listen to a man talk first, then you get what you need.”
Wendy went first. You know,” she explained, “a church of the Seventh-Day Adventists over there.” Then Ny Ly went too—”They give you clothes and a Bible.”
One day, just a few weeks later, his name appeared on a blackboard scribbled with the names of refugees and their countries of destination. “America!” he whispered to himself, thoroughly aghast. When he was with Khmer Rouge, all recruits were taught—were told—that no country in the world was as wicked as America, the place the bombs comes from. “We hated America!”
Once again, they were transferred to a camp where they were registered and then prepared for the oddities of American language and culture.
A little finesse was required. “They knew Khmer Rouge were bad,” he said, “known for killing people.” But he told the men behind the desk that back then he was only a boy and not a bad person. He was Khmer Rouge, but he had only considered it something he was doing for his country.
He and Wendy and Bori, their son, born in the camp he was named for, would come to America, they said. It was November 1982.
To Ny and Wendy, a Wal-Mart was unimaginable: endless overflowing aisles stacked with more things than either could have dreamed. Hundreds of shirts and slacks. Dozens of cereals. A score of socks. Cooking things they had no idea how to operate. Creating a home on the other side of the earth seemed impossible; but then, imagine being on your own in a Cambodian street market.
They came to a place called Utah, a difficult name, to Salt Lake City, where they were met by a crew of folks from First Christian Reformed Church (now Life in Christ), several of whom were immigrants themselves—men and women who had made it their mission to help with the adjustment immigration requires.
No matter how tough immigration was, Ny Ly said, nothing could ever compare with what they had already lived through. “Whatever else was there, I knew that here we had freedom,” Ny exclaimed.
A man named Luke DeBruyne, he says, worked tirelessly to connect them and dozens of other Cambodian refugees, with relief organizations where they could find housing and furniture and clothes, locate doctors, hospitals, and a food bank.
John Jonkman, another member of First CRC, found them work in a local restaurant, where dishwashing jobs turned over interminably. Jonkman learned to call cafes early Monday morning in a search for openings because it soon became clear that the Cambodians the church was helping made wonderful workers. Soon, Jonkman says, Salt Lake City restaurants were calling him.
“Here, in America,” Ny says, eyes flashing, “for the first time in my life, I got paid.” “For me, this is the ‘Promised Land,’” he says.
“When I started,” Wendy adds, “I got $3.35 an hour for cleaning 13 rooms a day at a motel.” She beams. “Our first pay? For two weeks I got a hundred dollars and more.”
Community CRC, Salt Lake City
Luke DeBruyne took them to First CRC, Salt Lake City, where they met other Cambodians, and where even more families arrived later. The church’s ambitious resettlement program had everyone working. “Mr. DeBruyne kept helping me until I started to learn what to do and became someone who could help the refugees myself.” The hard work resettlement requires came as no surprise. “That kind of work is good—and I like it, the same kind of work I was doing in the camps.”
With just three Cambodian families and a church full of refugee support, First CRC began to talk about what needed to be done. After what the Cambodians had been through, the needs were evident.
A Cambodian church? The community keeps growing. World Renew’s Disaster Relief Services lined up work crews from Montana, Illinois, and Iowa. Foundations were laid, the building got framed, windows and doors got put in—by CRC work group volunteers.
On nine successive Saturdays, Mike vanMilligan, also of First CRC, set up workdays for the Cambodians themselves, who, each week, got everything finished by nightfall. When the roof wasn’t finished, Hispanic workers swung by looking for jobs. They were told all the work was being done by volunteers, so they volunteered themselves. Twice that happened.
Just inside the door of Community CRC, a bulletin board holds a swarm of photos of work crews building the church, volunteers from near and far. Salt Lake City Community CRC belongs to the Cambodian Americans, but don’t be fooled. It’s all or ours.
At Home in Salt Lake City
When Joseph Smith chose the place, he determined his Mormon people could live peaceably only if they lived hundreds of miles from anyone. Their long trek west started from Illinois in 1847 and ended here, at the Great Salt Lake.
Smith chose the place that would eventually be called Utah. Ny and Wendy Ly were chosen for it, place where an ambitious congregation of dedicated helpers determined they would come to the aid a people ravaged by war and starvation. Those people decided to give away hope and solace, peace in a new land.
Thirty years later, Ny Ly is surer than ever that he’s where God wants him. For the last 26 years, he’s been doing general maintenance at Detroit Diesel. Wendy works there too, has been for 23 years. Life goes well, he says. “God has blessed me a lot.” Together they go to work every day.
“It’s something I really don’t really understand,” he says, “but I am sure that God showed me the way here, he brought me here for a reason.” Ny Ly said he never dreamed about another life. He couldn’t, never had time. He had everything he could do to survive. “But right now, I have God—he showed me the way. I trust him because I know he was showing me the way even if I didn’t know him.” It was never a matter of choice. “He took me. I didn’t die.” Life is proof enough for his trust. “So now if I do die, I’m with him—and that’s okay. I know him, and he knows me.”
Today, at 60 years old, he’s no longer just surviving. Today, he’s flourishing.