The Healing Fields

A 12-part series about a couple who survived the Cambodian killing fields and returned years later to help others. The devistation of genocide is revealed through their own journey and that of the women they seek to rescue fro a life of prostitution. Originally published in the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) in June, 2004.

KAMPONG THOM, CAMBODIA - She heaves the full force of her body against the padlocked door of the cramped room. Her fear takes over as she runs back and forth, back and forth, screaming, sobbing.

Son Put has been held prisoner for a day and a half in a ramshackle brothel outside this small Cambodian town.

The woman who owns the brothel has tried coaxing Son into low-cut tight blouses, short skirts and makeup, promising an easy life and plenty of money. Son has refused.

But the 19-year-old virgin will fetch a fine price, at least a hundred times the usual dollar or two for a prostitute. So the owner has turned to threats, slapping Son across the face over and over, shrieking, You won't do this? Do you want to die?

Still Son has refused. And her panic is rising.

Suddenly, a merciful hand unlocks the door. A prostitute in the brothel has taken pity on her.

Run, the prostitute says, before it's too late.

On the street, Son hears that Christian pastors have come to town, promising prostitutes a new life at a place across the river, a women's center where they will be fed, sheltered and taught job skills. Look for a gray truck, she's told.

And so she finds Setan Lee, who will change her world.

Setan, a Cambodian-born minister who now lives in Colorado, knows about slavery, and about hope.

He and his wife, Randa, escaped a prison of their own nearly 25 years ago. They survived the killing fields, where millions of Cambodians lost their lives to one of the 20th century's most brutal regimes, the Khmer Rouge.

Setan and Randa were just teens when they were torn from their families and forced into slave labor camps, working endless days in leech-infested rice fields. They endured beatings, torture, hunger and illness. They saw friends hacked to death, suffocated, shot. They ran through the jungles, defying capture, stumbling over rotting corpses, dodging gunfire.

After more than four years in hell, they made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where they found each other and a new guiding force - a Christian faith that led them to forgiveness and peace.

Before leaving for a new life in Aurora, they made a vow that would take a decade to fulfill. One day, they would return to Cambodia to comfort those left in the ruins.

They could have been content with the American dream, their two children, their nice house in the suburbs. Instead, with money squirreled away from fast-food jobs and factory overtime, with patience and personal sacrifice, they kept their promise. They have built a growing Christian ministry, a small patch of healing fields, in Cambodia.

And they are reaching out to women like Son, whose desperate stories make Randa remember her days alone and give thanks that, by the grace of God and her own resolve, she was spared a life of prostitution.

Not all of the women at Setan and Randa's center make it. Many are sabotaged by AIDS, drugs, family needs, self-hatred. The obstacles are overwhelming.

Yet Randa and Setan persevere. They are survivors of the killing fields, where every hour meant finding a way to stay alive.

Today we begin their story.