From Killing Fields to a Living Hope

Cambodian jungles stretch thick, tangled and dark across miles of war-ravaged land. Through these jungles prisoners ran for cover, escaping the Killing Fields where a million people lay murdered in open graves in the late-1970s under the Khmer Rouge.

In these jungles, where light sparsely streamed through a dense canopy of vines, a hidden Setan Lee met Jesus Christ. And in these same tangles years later Lee would see the stark effects of the regime that slaughtered one fifth of the population.

Hundreds of children in rags or naked would run wild, living off beetles and frogs, with no adult to call mom or dad and no shelter but vines to call home.

And–another jungle of sorts–50,000 young women would find themselves trapped in the sex trade.

Scars from military brutality–an abandoned generation left to fend for themselves.

But Setan Lee and his wife, Randa, also a survivor of work camps under the murderous Pol Pot regime, have devoted their lives to restoring their country.

For the stray children–truly a land of lost boys and girls–the Lees started an orphanage, The David Center.

And for the hopeless young women sold into prostitution, or trying to make enough to keep themselves and their families alive in a nation poor as ash–the Lees opened the New Development Center.

They followed the Lord. He opened the way. He brought them out of the miry clay. Through their ministry, Kampuchea for Christ, He lifts others out as well.

But Lee had to survive genocide before he turned to help others.

In the early 1970s the Cambodian army fought two enemies: the North Vietnamese and the communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. By 1975 the Khmer Rouge took control. Every day bombings thundered through the atmosphere, the drumbeat growing closer to the city of Battambang, home to 17-year-old Setan Lee.

New Year´s festivities filled the air April 17, 1975. Lee drove his new red truck into the city to greet his friends as planned. Hopes sprung high for this pre-med student, and Battambang bustled with celebration.

No one expected anything different.

Yet in a heartbeat, everything changed as military trucks suddenly entered the town square and soldiers in black jumped out. With vehemence they pointed their rifles into the crowd.

The next moment Lee followed orders to line up and march for days to the fields where the people would labor–many to death.

The sun had set on Cambodia.

One day in 1977 soldiers seized Lee and four other students. Their execution loomed like dingy air rising from the muddy field marsh. Their crime: They could afford an education. Last in the lineup, his head covered, Lee trembled at the screams of the students ahead of him as ruthless guards hacked them to death one by one with the sharp end of bamboo poles. Lee felt the blood splatter onto his skin.

With no knowledge of the true God, he inwardly cried out for mercy. “Lord of the universe, Whoever You are, please spare my life.” At that moment, a guard rushed up shouting for the soldiers to stop.

He soon learned they wanted to use his knowledge. The very thing that condemned him (an education) now saved him. And when they asked him to develop an irrigation system for agriculture, in which Lee had zero knowledge, he only watched in amazement as his hand began to draw a blueprint on a blank page–one that would satisfy the ruler and help the land.

Later he would make his way through the jungle to a refugee camp in Thailand, and in that jungle he would meet another wanderer who would tell him the name of the Lord of the universe. Jesus Christ.

He met beautiful Randa, also a survivor, and fell in love at the refugee camp in Thailand. The two married and began a new life together.

Returning to Cambodia at that time was unthinkable, no matter how much they both wanted to help their country. In 1980 Lee and his wife, screened for a refugee resettlement program in America, moved to Colorado and found jobs and a church community. Lee took classes at Denver Seminary.

They held firm to their vow to go back to Cambodia.

After two failed attempts entering through Thailand, in 1990 the couple entered Cambodia through Laos. They returned as Christians ready to share the gospel.

The capital city of Phnom Penh had all but collapsed, leaving the people with no electricity, little food, hardly any medical care and very few jobs. Young women roamed the filthy, potholed streets alone, as most men had died in the Killing Fields or at war.

With hard work and savings they opened the New Development Center and made a home for prostitutes and at-risk teens. Here they learn a trade – sewing or cosmetology. And they learn about Jesus.

Christian Aid helped them.

The Lees knew rebuilding their country meant saving one life at a time. They looked out at the sea of need and asked the Lord to lead them.

The Lees have given their lives for the work of Christ. In the refugee camp, they made a vow and called Him worthy Who brought them through the Killing Fields.

They found–and offer–a living hope in Jesus.