The room was silent as Bun Yom, a Cambodian man and Ellensburg resident, addressed the Army cadets who ﬁlled the hall. His English is tough to follow, but it’s an achievement for a man who speaks six languages – English being his most recently learned. He addressed the cadets Friday night to impart the lessons learned from his experiences.
“The Khmer Rouge forced my family to go into the jungle. No house, no nothing, they tell us to get out,” Bun said. “We have no food, nothing.”
At ﬁrst appearance Bun (pronounced Boone) is a modest and humble man, short in stature and unthreatening. However, Bun has an amazing story of hardship and strength. Bun survived years of enslavement in the killing ﬁelds of Cambodia and went on to become a freedom ﬁghter, liberating thousands of his people. His story is a tale of courage, honor and loyalty to his people. His journey ultimately ended in Ellensburg, thousands of miles from his homeland.
Bun Yom was born in Cambodia in 1960, the second of four children. Shortly after he was born, his mother found a ﬁve carat ruby, which earned them enough money to buy land. His parents began a business where they bought rubies from others and sold them in Thailand. Because of this, Bun’s parents were able to send him to school. At the age of six, Bun began school and quickly skipped grades on the recommendation of his teachers.
Bun lived a normal life until 1974 when the Khmer Rouge came to his town and forced the people out of their homes and into the jungle. They had no food or supplies Bun was only 14-years-old.
“My brother was only six-years-old and he would keep crying, and the Khmer Rouge said if they let the baby cry they would kill everyone, so me and my sister tried to make the baby stop crying,” Bun said.
The Khmer Rouge told them that if they returned to their homes they would be killed, so they stayed in the jungle with-out food until the children were taken away. A day later, the Khmer Rouge split the boys from the girls.
“I tell my sister when you ﬁnd food, bring food to our parents ﬁrst … From that day, I never see my sister,” Bun said.
The Khmer Rouge forced the children to take tests to determine if they had an education or were ﬁt for forced labor.
“They’d ask, ‘Are you student?’ Some kids say ‘Yeah I’m student,’ and they ask another kid and they say, ‘No I’m a farm-er,’ and they put him in another truck,” Bun said.
“Once the truck got full, the kids that have the education, they go to kill them in a big hole.”
One kid escaped and warned Bun and the rest of the kids that they should all claim to be farmers and lie if their parents had been merchants or doctors. Bun and his siblings were tested many times, but they always passed the test by lying about their family. The Khmer Rouge separated Bun from his brothers and put him to work in the killing ﬁelds. They were called the killing ﬁelds because the children who worked there had little chance of surviving. They worked to build a dam with nothing but buckets and shovels, and survived off of nothing but a scoop of soup rice a day.
After building the dam Bun was sent to plant rice, but ﬁrst had to work to clear the ﬁelds of the bodies of children who had died in a vast ﬂood. In ﬁve days, his crew loaded over 1,800 bodies into trucks.
“If someone falls down, the Khmer Rouge tell us to pick him up and put him in the truck and they take him away and dump him with the bodies”, Bun said. “Sometimes my friends collapse, I don’t know what to do and you try to help them and you cannot. I cannot help myself either that year, but whenever I fall down I get up quickly or else the Khmer Rouge take me away too.”
After almost three years in the killing ﬁelds Bun was skin and bones from living off of one scoop of soup rice a day. He slept in water with his crew because the ground was too hard for their brittle bodies. The water left them cold and miserable.
“My friends keep die die die – we can see the people dragging dead people every hour,” Bun said. “The Khmer Rouge don’t care, they just point and shoot them like animals.”
Bun’s situation looked hopeless until one night bun met two Cambodian freedom ﬁghters who were there to free his crew. Bun cooperated with the freedom ﬁghters to organize the escape of his 200-man crew. Of those, only ﬁve arrived to the Cambodian freedom camp.
“Bombs fell everywhere on the front, on the back,” Bun said. “Some of the crew said ‘Bun Bun! go back, go back’ and I said ‘No, no we can’t go back, the Khmer Rouge kill you anyway, we go forward and maybe we get lucky.’”
After regaining his health with the Cambodian freedom ﬁghters, he began training to become one himself. He learned how to ﬁnd mines and travel the jungle. On his ﬁrst mission in 1979, he carried more than his bodyweight in rice to an area where kids worked the killing ﬁelds. He changed clothes and mingled among them to gain their trust and show them that food and hope was near. He earned their trust, and in his ﬁrst mission Bun led roughly 1,000 people to freedom, without even having a weapon. Over the course of that ﬁrst year, Bun helped lead between 4,000 and 5,000 people to freedom.
Bun’s leaders realized his skill, and soon he had 300 soldiers under his command as he rescued people from the killing ﬁelds.
“The thing I found most amazing about Bun is for all his experience with the Khmer Rouge … he would go to great lengths to capture and not kill them,” said Bill Chandler, a close friend who introduced Bun to the audience. “I know many of us would get revenge, but he didn’t.”
Bun’s time as a soldier came to an end in 1983 when he received a letter from his mother. Bun had thought his family was dead, but he learned that they were in a refugee camp in Thailand. Bun was torn between serving with his soldiers and reuniting with his family. His bosses refused to let him go, but after receiving a third letter Bun made the decision to return to his family, leaving under the cover of darkness.
In 1984, the U.N. moved the refugee camp to the Philippines and later that year Bun traveled to the United States, arriving in Yakima. He still lives in Ellensburg with his wife and three children. The search for family members continued until his eldest brother was found in Cambodia in 1996.
Jessica Myers, junior spanish major and a cadet, grew up next door to Bun’s family and didn’t realize he was the speaker who would be sharing his experiences of the killing ﬁelds.
“I thought it was really inspirational –you don’t get a lot of speakers that have amazing stories like that,” Myers said. “His attitude was amazing. There are so many traumatic things that happened to him but his main focus was on his goal.”
Bun ended his speech by telling the cadets what he always told his soldiers:.