From Killing Fields to a Living Hope

Setan Lee, front row on far left, as a young man at the refugee camp in Thailand

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.

Testimony of Lee in the Killing Fields

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.

“Enemy! Enemy!” They shouted as they shifted aim from face to face.

Lee´s brother pleaded, “We´re not your enemy.”

Boom! A soldier fired and Lee´s brother collapsed to the ground.

Lee gasped. His brother lay dead, along with so many dreams they shared.

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.

Prayer to the Lord of the universe

Sewing classes offer at-risk teenage girls the opportunity to earn a living and escape the snares of the sex trade.

During the first two years of the Khmer Rouge labor camp, Lee watched one friend after another die of dysentery, starvation, untreated malaria or pneumonia. They suffered constant torture and brutality. A guard once buried Lee alive for two days, his head above ground to feed snakes and fire ants. He survived.

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.

“I knew instantly that this Lord I had called upon had helped me,” Lee remembers.

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.

He knew the Lord of the universe had moved his hand.

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.

Refugee Camp Vows

A survivor of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Lee endured torture, beatings, near starvation, untreated illness and the inexplicable misery of witnessing the slaughter of loved ones. Now with one fifth of the population dead under the Pol Pot regime, a world of devastation remained.

He vowed to do what he could to rebuild his country.

But he would not do this alone.

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.

Rescue Mission

Some of these children were rescued from life on the streets. The David Center and Kambour Village provide hot meals and a loving Christian environment.

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.

The Lees looked into the eyes of young girls posted as lures on empty streets or leaning against clapboard houses–brothels–waiting for the next trick. So many brothels. So many girls with skirts too short and makeup caked.

Some told Randa their stories. Many had been kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Sometimes the girls chose the trade as the only way to support their families. Some carried the deep sorrow that their parents had sold them.

“I was overwhelmed with compassion and love for these girls,” Randa remembers, “and I wanted to do something to help them out of their worldly prison and give them a new life through Jesus Christ.”

After all, she thought, that could have been her.

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.

“When we heard their story, we wanted to help their mission,” a spokesman for Christian Aid shared. “We sent financial gifts from people in America who shared the vision.”

Today 70 young women call the New Development Center home, thanks to a new dormitory. Kampuchea for Christ trains teams to rescue girls from brothels and free them from the sex trade. Those who desire come here to live and learn.

Lives change in the warm care of Christ´s love. The women grow in confidence that they can make a life for themselves. They can open a garment shop or beauty parlor. Learning a trade diminishes their rate of vulnerability; they no longer wander aimlessly like lost children, prey to kidnappers who scoop them up and sell them to the unthinkable trafficking system.

In Christ they find a home.

Lost Boys Found

Lee forgave the soldier who buried him alive and left him for the poisonous snakes in the work camp.

Now, at the Lord´s prompting in the mid-1990s, he ventured into the Khmer Rouge stronghold to share the gospel with Khmer Rouge generals.

At that time, the terrorist group occupied the jungles of northern Cambodia, where they carried out assassinations, bombings and random acts of violence. The territory harbored countless landmines, making entrance nearly impossible.

But Lee came through and, by the power and grace of the Lord, brought a general to Christ.

The general drove Lee deep into the jungle.

“You need to see this,” he said.

Lee shuddered when he saw hundreds of dirty children in tattered clothes, or naked, running through the muddle. Some roamed listlessly, barely alive. Others dashed in and out of the maze.

He felt the Lord press on his heart. He thought, “I can´t, Lord. There are too many.”

But the Lord of the universe made a way. And with prayer and help Lee built The David Center, an orphanage and center of transformation for children who lost their parents to terror, murder, poverty, disease, or to the land mines scattered throughout Cambodia.

Children of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge came to David Center.

They found Jesus, Who first found them.

Lee believes today´s David Center children will grow up to transform Cambodian society.

More to Do

Through the ministries of Kampuchea for Christ, orphaned or neglected children receive an education and hope for a bright future.

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.

Today they pray for and feed the 350 children in Kambour Village–at risk for exploitation. In this depressed society parents desperately seek employment to no avail. Many head for Thailand to work, leaving their children behind.

“Our goal is to prevent these precious children from being kidnapped or sold into the sex trade, to provide clean drinking water and food and to take medical personnel to the village to improve their health,” Lee wrote Christian Aid.

Offerings have gone forth for a community center and bathroom facilities. They hope to build dorms to house the children in Kambour Village who often don´t feel safe sleeping in their own homes. They need $30 per month to feed each of these 350 children five days each week.

“Having the love of Christ in their hearts changes them forever,” Lee reflected.

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.