The Rocky Mountain News is running a 12-part series called The Healing Fields about a Cambodian family in Denver who are trying to help Cambodians back home. Here’s the editor’s introduction. It seems a good example of making the global local, or vice versa.
As you know, the Rocky Mountain News is a local newspaper. The motto we use on our advertisements is “Closer to home,” because we feel it expresses the core of our identity, that we cut closer to your lives and that our emphasis is what happens here, where you – and we – live.
So when Assistant Business Editor Jane Hoback approached me late in the summer of 2003, I have to admit I was somewhat dubious of the value of making a major commitment to Randa and Setan’s story. Many people from this area, after all, help others around the world, as Randa and Setan do.
But then I met them.
As Jane says, “they’re not saints,” but in a visit to my office they struck me as remarkable souls whose story could change the lives of others.
I was struck right away by how their Christian faith would play such an important role in any story we did. We in the secular press are often criticized, even rejected, for our perceived denial of the importance of religious beliefs. I believe in the value of taking seriously what motivates people, why they act and think the way they do. I believe if we can bring understanding, we have done our job well.
And so we began our journey. Jane rarely writes stories for the Rocky. She normally helps polish the work of others. But this story gripped her, and she was determined to tell it herself.
One of our challenges was that so much of this story is history. It is the retelling by Randa and Setan of their ordeal and escape from Cambodia. They were alone. This is what they remember, and the memories are painful. As Jane listened, and we learned more, the more it seemed worth traveling to their homeland, where we could witness Randa and Setan’s program to free women who had been sold or forced into prostitution and give them the chance for a new life.
Jane was joined on that journey by Ellen Jaskol, a talented photographer whose work often graces our Spotlight section.
I had come to see that although we needed to travel halfway around the world to tell it, this was a local story. Not just because Randa, Setan and their extended family live among us, but because it is just such stories that show us how connected we are to a world that is growing smaller and smaller.
This is especially the case in an open Western city such as Denver, where so many of us come from somewhere else.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to cross the cultural barriers in a strange land. But try we must. Jane and Ellen traveled for two weeks with a driver and a translator, following Setan through his past and observing his struggle in the present.
When they returned, the question we faced was how to tell such a sweeping story. The way we approach big projects at the Rocky is to form a team that works together from the start. Nothing is more satisfying than working with a group of people who complement each other’s strengths.
And that’s what happened in this case.
At first, 18-year-old Setan Lee didn’t notice the trucks full of armed soldiers rumbling into the Buddhist temple square in his hometown of Battambang.
On this final day of the Cambodian New Year, music and noisy celebration filled the packed square in Cambodia’s second largest city. Children played in the warm afternoon air. Revelers sprinkled perfumed water onto the temple statues in a blessing ritual intended to bring good luck, long life and happiness.
“We were celebrating,” Setan says. “We were having fun.”
Setan didn’t understand when he saw the grim, black-uniformed soldiers pouring out of the trucks, aiming their rifles wildly and shouting “enemy” over and over.
Setan’s best friend didn’t understand, either. He approached one of the soldiers.
I’m not your enemy, he told the soldier. Why do you call me your enemy?
The soldier’s response was swift and irrevocable.
“Just like that, they shot him and killed him.”
Setan froze in disbelief and terror. He went numb.
“Right away, I know he’s not going to make it. He’s already dead.”
It was April 17, 1975, and in one terrifying moment, Setan Lee – son of a wealthy businessman, youngest student in his medical school class – lost a world of promise and possibility.