Refugee returns to build schools, irrigation system

Reaksa Himm

Reaksa Himm

March 31, 2014

A man whose life was spared by chance in the killing fields of Cambodia is now a champion of school and church building projects in areas wounded by the Khmer Rouge rule.

Reaksa Himm was a young teen living in the northwestern city of Siem Reap when he witnessed the deaths of 13 of his family members in 1977. He told his story at a City in Focus event March 14 while visiting Vancouver.

"Early in the morning, Khmer soldiers came to my house and told my parents to prepare a three-day food supply to go to the countryside. They were telling us that they were searching for American soldiers who were hiding," he recounted.

"It turned out to be three years and eight months and 20 days in hell."

When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, in 1975, they evacuated cities and sent people to forced labour in the country as part of a plot to create a communist agrarian society without money, religion or modern technology. Many of the well-educated were executed.

"At that time, if anybody said something bad about the Khmer, they would send that person to the jungle. They would say they were sent to study at school, which actually meant execution," Himm recalled.

Children over age 10 had to work; Himm tended a herd of cows. One day, as he was walking home, he remembered seeing "men sharpening knives and axes and switchblades. Fear and weakness and sadness took over my life."

That day, a stranger came to his door and invited his father to a meeting. Himm followed and watched as three soldiers told his father, a teacher, they would kill him.

They arrested the family and led them to a freshly dug mass grave.

One by one, they were pushed into the pit. "All I remember was that there was a lot of bodies falling over me. I felt the warmness of blood. But when it came to slaughtering bodies, somehow they missed me."

The Khmer soldiers left. "After (the soldiers) finished their killing, they buried the victims and went back to the village. They were not aware I was alive," Himm said.


"I went back to the grave. I grieved and cried for three days and nights. I made three promises in front of the grave: as long as I live, I want to take revenge for my family," he said.

In case he couldn't carry that out, he pledged to dedicate his life as a Buddhist monk, in honour of his family, or to live as far away from Cambodia as he could.

When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by Vietnamese troops in 1979, an estimated one to two million people had been killed.

Himm returned to city life. Anxiety and depression made it difficult for him to concentrate in school, so he joined the police force, aiming to fulfill his first promise.

When a revenge plot failed, he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. After five years, his application to live in the United States was rejected. He tried Canada next, sending letters daily to the Canadian Embassy in Bangkok.

In 1989 he landed in Toronto. Himm started a new life, working, studying for a doctorate in psychology and getting married. He converted to Christianity.

Ten years later, he returned to Cambodia, but not to exact revenge.

Himm was asked to teach at Phnom Penh Bible School and volunteered at a mental health hospital. He gained the courage to seek out the men who had murdered his family 28 years earlier.

"It took me half a year to pray that God would give me the strength so I could make the trip to see my family's killers," Himm recalled. He entered the village filled with anger, sadness and fear.

"I went to see the man who had killed my father. I offered him a Cambodian scarf as a symbol of my forgiveness of him. Then I gave a shirt as a symbol of my love for him, and a Cambodian Bible as a symbol of my blessing for him." He did the same for the man who had killed his mother.

"I accomplished the most difficult mission in my life: forgiving my family's killers. It was through the grace of God."

Since then, Himm has headed the construction of five churches, two schools, a library, a community centre and an irrigation system.

His projects are championed by Ratanak International, a charity mostly concerned with rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked Cambodian children.

"The hot-button issue for me is if we create that kind of stability, the poor families are not that poor so they aren't selling their daughters anymore," said founding director Brian McConaghy.

Businessman Jack Gin, also a firm believer in Himm's projects, has helped fund an irrigation system which supports 20,000 villagers.


"Upstream, literally and figuratively, is where these children are stolen," he said. "Reaksa's out there creating a greater family to protect these children."

McConaghy, who visits Cambodia four times a year to manage projects, finds Reaksa's work inspiring.

"He has this life and this fun and this energy that really challenges my concept of Christianity, because I don't have as much fun as he does," he said.

"How can you possibly live life to the full having experienced what he's experienced?"

Reaksa has described his past in two books: The Tears of my Soul and After the Heavy Rain.