Killing fields survivor determined to carry on

She was a little girl who saw things that little girls should never see.

Near starvation, she survived by chewing banana leaves, crickets, and caterpillars.

She watched helplessly as her parents were imprisoned and her seven siblings scattered to the countryside.


Once, the 9-year-old stood in a field as armed soldiers barked orders to a group of 20 people — strapped together like cattle — to move along more briskly.

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“I’m just in the rice fields by myself,’’ Tary Meas recalled. “I followed them and this is what I saw: They were lined up, faced away, and then two soldiers with machine guns started to shoot them.’’

The image of those bodies toppling into the rice paddies of Cambodia 35 years ago has never left her.

They were among the nearly 2 million who perished under the fanatical Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, when cities were emptied, religion was banned, and money was abolished in service of leader Pol Pot’s failed attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

On Thursday, a UN-backed tribunal convicted two leaders of that murderous communist movement for crimes against humanity. They were sentenced to life in prison.


Just hours before that verdict was rendered, Tary Meas, a survivor of the killing fields, sat with me in a Lowell restaurant and, while acknowledging the trauma and the terror, declared softly: “I cannot hold on to the pain of that time.’’

Hers is a remarkable tale of unspeakable cruelty, courage, resilience, and hope.

When the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in April of 1975, Tary’s parents and siblings, then living in the nation’s countryside, were quickly rounded up and separated.

Tary, just 8 years old, and two sisters were sent to discipline camps, where one of her first jobs was to mop the blood of victims murdered in the onslaught.

She was made a leader of a group of 30 other children and still can recite her old orders: “Line up. OK. Let’s go. We’re going to work in this field today.’’


Terrified, confused, and disoriented, she once asked a stone-faced soldier whether she would see her parents again. “No, from now on, we are your parents,’’ the man told her.

But that soldier was wrong.

Tary and her family, with the exception of one sister, escaped over the Thailand border, eventually making their way to Virginia and successful lives in America.

The 46-year-old now works as a systems analyst for the Executive Office of Public Safety.

With her partner and boyfriend, Vannak Kann, she has founded an organization that helps at-risk kids channel their energy into kick-boxing workouts at a basement gym they own in Lowell.

It’s a world opened to her by a chance encounter with Dicky Eklund, a boxer featured in the 2010 movie “The Fighter,’’ who took her to her first boxing match in Revere.

She was hooked.

“I once had no hope, and I want to send a message to these kids that if you keep striving, you’ll get there,’’ said Tary, a deputy state boxing commissioner. “I want them to have the same opportunity I have had.’’

Her former countrymen sat spellbound this week as Cambodia meted out justice for two engineers of its bloody past. But Tary was not one of them. She has kept her focus firmly on the future.

She stood in the pavilion at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in 2005, raised her right hand, and swore allegiance to the United States. Cambodia isn’t her country anymore.

And yet the dark images of her youth can sneak up on her.

It happened last month on Independence Day. Like many Americans, she was barbecuing in her back yard. Nearby, fireworks exploded.

And Tary was 9 years old again. The images of bodies splashing into rice paddies flashed before her eyes.

“Boom!’’ she said. “My heart started jumping all over again.’’

And then, as quickly as it came, the haunting images vanished.

“I am in America now,’’ she said. “God sent me to carry on, to live on through the bullets. That’s what I’m doing.’’

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist.
He can be reached at thomas.farragher@