Stan Remembers: The tragedy in Cambodia


  Stan's memories of Cambodia are still vivid today.
June 11, 1999
Reporter: Stan Atkinson
KOVR 13 News, KCRA News

The world has been watching the refugee crisis in Kosovar, but its magnitude is dwarfed by what happened 20-years ago in Southeast Asia. The time Stan Atkinson spent covering the Cambodian refugee crisis left indelible images in his mind that will never be erased.

Stan Atkinson: As always in situations like this, it was the littlest who suffered the most. And it is their faces that you never forget.


  The magnitude of the tragedy, brought out an incredible outpouring of help from all over the world, and Stan was there to witness it.

In 1975, the world of the Cambodian people was turned upside down by a Marxist madman named Pol Pot. His plan was to turn back the clock to what he called "year zero," and to convert Cambodia into a nation of farmers.

People who were educated - lawyers, doctors, teachers - were hunted down and killed. Then, to heap tragedy upon tragedy, Vietnamese communists invaded. Their plan: to use Cambodia as a buffer against their ancient enemy, the Chinese.

By the time of my first visit in 1979, more than a million people were dead, and a million and a half survivors were huddled along the Thai border. Their stories were heartbreaking.


  Stan says that his experience in Cambondia changed his perception.

Survivor: "Communists cut the neck of all the people who lived in Cambodia, yes."

Stan Atkinson: "Your parents?"

Survivor: "Yes, my parents and my sister, plus my brother."

Stan Atkinson: "Were all killed?"

Survivor: "Yes."

The magnitude of the tragedy was matched only by the incredible outpouring of help from all over world. Excuse the boast of a proud father, but my oldest son, Brad, joined in that effort. Then just 20, Brad was the youngest member of Sacramento-San Francisco based medical team.


  Stan felt the breeze of a bullet fly past his head, during one of his reports.

They were mavericks. The team would head off into the countryside on their days off to bring help to the most isolated refugees. Brad helped fit artificial limbs, taught English and as team pharmacist, learned enough of the language to persuade patients to take their medicines.

Over the 18 months he was there, the family worried for his safety. But he and the hundreds of others like him were much too busy for little things like that.

Whether you were a refugee worker, a doctor, a nurse or a journalist, you couldn't go to a place like this and not have your perception of the world forever changed.


  Stan would always go the extra yard to tell the full story.

Stan Atkinson: "It's going to be an incredible change going back to Sacramento. What are your feelings about that?"

Monica / American: "I'm scared to death. I really am. I don't know how I'm going to react to that sterile, clean environment, where people's problems are what kind of book they're gonna buy next year. It frightens me. I don't know how I'm going to react. I really don't."

During the time of my visits, Pol Pot's guerilla army, the Khmer Rouge, was fighting the Vietnamese. The refugees were caught in the middle. The tensions ran high. When you wanted to go where there was news to cover, there was always resistance.

Finally, persistence paid off. We were allowed in without our KCRA news camera. Carrying my own still camera came in handy. My 35-milimeter provided our only pictures of what life was like inside the Khmer Rouge camps.


  During Stan's third trip to Cambodia in 1984 he was amazed by how much the relief workers had done.

Definitely, there was always an element of danger. The refugees were always the pawns in power struggles that would become firefights. And then they - and a Sacramento newsman - would be targets in what in a flash would become a shooting gallery.

Stan Atkinson: "As we showed you when we arrived about 3 or 4 hours ago, the place was peaceful. People were going about their ordinary daily chores simply trying to exist on the Thai, Cambodian frontier. But now, all of a sudden, their life again is different. Different for you and me perhaps, but it's the same for them. It's the same, because war and movement has been the story of their life, particularly for the young faces that you see. These are people who've known nothing but this: killing, wounding and running. And that's what happened here again today at Nom Choing. And that's why today we have a tragedy in Cambodia."

I made a third trip to Cambodia in 1984 to follow up on the story, and it was amazing how much the relief workers had done. Children who were near death were happy and healthy. It truly was one of history's greatest rescues.

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