Between 1975 and 1979, it’s estimated the Khmer Rouge executed as many as 2.5 million people in Cambodia, a nation of 8 million.
One of them was Robert Yuong’s older brother.
Now 49 and an award-winning math teacher at Foss High School, Yuong lived with his family in the city of Battambang when the communists came to power. Yuong’s brother was a police lieutenant.
“The communists ordered all military and police officials to put on their uniforms and come to the capital,” said Yuong, who was 10 years old at the time the U.S. evacuated Cambodia and the country spiraled into genocide. “It was a way to get rid of all high-ranking officers.
“My brother went, and we never saw him again.”
That was just the beginning.
Yuong was in fourth grade when the communists ordered the evacuation of his city. His family — he is the seventh of nine children — moved to farming country. They were not together long.
“Two of my older brothers were sent to work camps, then my mother was sent, and eventually it was just me, my younger sister and my father,” Yuong said. “The communists believed if they got rid of adults who might oppose them, they could train the children.”
Before he turned 11, Yuong was given duties that included picking up cow dung for fertilizer.
“To this day, if someone says ‘pile’ I can smell the dung, remember those fields,” Yuong said.
Families were not allowed to cook their own meals; utensils were taken from them. Yuong remembers eating rice porridge day after day.
“We watched one another starving to death,” he said. “It reached the point where I’d almost have died for one last good meal. I was 12 or 13.”
At 12, he was sent to youth work camps and moved often. The only things in his possession were work clothes, a spoon and a piece of cloth that was both blanket and towel.
At 13, his mother returned to the farm village to care for the baby of a city official. Yuong sneaked off one night, swam across a river and walked miles to see his mother.
“She told me I could not worry about the family, that if I had the chance, to run for the Vietnam or Thailand border,” Yuong said.
By 14, he had the frame of an old man. His bones showed. He believed he was dying.
The Vietcong overcame the Khmer Rouge. Yuong found a family headed for Thailand, and he joined their march.
“We met with a group of 50-100 people who had a guide who was going to take us through the jungle at night to the Thai border,” Yuong said. “We were told to walk in the steps of the person ahead of us to avoid mines.”
Midway through the night, the guide disappeared, along with many in the group. Yuong and others walked on and reached the Thai border checkpoint.
From there, he survived as best he could. He spent a year in a Thailand detention camp, then three months in a Philippines camp awaiting the chance to fly to America.
A family took him in, gave him false papers. He lied when he reached U.S. shores.
He and four others were housed in a single Maryland room. He was 15, and was put in fifth grade among kids four or five years younger than him.
“I was the same size as everyone in my class,” he said.
Another Cambodian family was taking a bus cross-country to Tacoma, and Yuong joined them.
Immigration authorities realized he had lied about his age and name, and threatened to deport him. Yuong sought political asylum before turning 16.
He was enrolled at Wilson High School, where he met Chantana, a Cambodian girl who had shared his experiences.
Yuong graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and was accepted at Washington State University, until they realized he had no green card.
Yuong went to Tacoma Community College for three years, married Chantana and got a green card. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Pacific Lutheran University, then a master’s in teaching at The Evergreen State College in 1996.
Foss High School hired him.
“Other schools have tried to get Robert away, but he loves teaching at Foss,” Principal Bonnie McGuire said. “It’s a high-poverty school. His students love him, they respond to him, they relate to him. Robert has a quiet magic in the classroom.”
He will tell students about his childhood if they ask.
Even today, Yuong is never far from those Cambodian camps.
“They say a cat has nine lives. I don’t know how many I have, but I shouldn’t have survived,” he said. “I know this — I don’t give up easily. I have forgiven, but I can never forget.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com