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New home in another country. After the horrors of war, Southeast Asians celebrate their beginning in the United States

By Ellen SteeseStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1986



Lowell, Mass.

THE handsome renovated courtyard of Market Mills is the pride of Lowell. Lowell used to be famous for its textiles, many years ago. Then it was known as a town full of derelict textile factories with mostly broken windows. Now it is known as a computer center, and as a town where derelict textile factories have been turned into boutiques, offices, and other beautiful and useful places. Last week, the Market Mills courtyard was full of well-dressed people -- some Asian, but most Caucasian -- who had gathered in honor of the publication of ``Southeast Asians: A New Beginning in Lowell,'' by James Higgins and Joan Ross, a book of sensitive and empathetic photos of the first generation of Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians to make their home here in Lowell.

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Dith Ser Meoun was wearing a long, narrow, dark-green silk dress. She is the wife of Dith Pran, the hero of the movie, ``The Killing Fields.'' We were standing with her youngest son, Totinel, 14, under the banners and trees in the sunshine of the only perfect day in late August, talking about Mr. Dith's near-miraculous escape from the Cambodian holocaust. ``He keep saying to me, `I still can't believe why they kill so many people,' '' Mrs. Dith said.

Totinel, who is a cute, all-American kid, says he doesn't remember much about Cambodia.

``My oldest son remember more,'' said Mrs. Dith, recalling the time she, her parents, and her three children hid from the Viet Cong in an underground train station in 1970. ``The water was so high,'' she said, gesturing to her hip. ``My youngest son was six-, seven-months old, so we had to hold him up.''

Totinel, born after that, was only a baby of two when Mrs. Dith and her children were airlifted out of Phnom Penh. A few days after he was born, when Mrs. Dith was still in the hospital, ``they throw the grenade on the first floor. I jump out of bed without knowing anything,'' she recalled.

Her husband would find wounded people in the streets, more than ambulances could deal with. ``And Pran, he just put them in our car and take them to the hospital. For me, I so scare,'' she said, with wide eyes and a richly feminine chuckle.

Six barefoot monks in orange and burnt-sienna robes and with shaved heads entered and sat down on folding chairs on a little brick parapet, since by tradition they always sit higher than everyone else. Below, a Cambodian group in jeans and shorts played some traditional music, which sounded nice, maybe a little like Scottish music played on Middle Eastern instruments.

The official program began. When everyone involved in the book project had been thanked, Mr. Dith, a slight and charming man, spoke of his 4 years of living in a prison camp under the Khmer Rouge, who murdered an estimated 2 million to 3 million people after they took over in 1975.

``The movie `The Killing Fields' did not end in 2 hours and 15 minutes. It is still going on around the clock,'' Dith said. `` `The Killing Fields' is a universal story. It happens over and over.

``In the movie, we show you just a little bit because we understand that the Westerners couldn't watch. They forced babies to go to work. They left the babies crawling to eat sand and rock. In the movie you saw me eat the lizard. That was nothing. I eat leaves and grass and snakes. They cut the oxtail, live, to eat. And we are Buddhists; we are not supposed to kill anything. . . .

``I'm happy to see all these monks. The monks teach us not to be violent. That's why the Khmer Rouge could kill millions of people; because they had no religion. All religions have the same thing; to make the people love each other. . . .

``In the movie we didn't show you that they used people to pull the plow. We didn't show they killed the babies with bayonets, knives, and sticks. You can read more, but you cannot watch on the screen. I understand that some of you are very emotional and I'm very sorry. But the story, the refugee story needed to be told. . . .

``They kill because they want power. They were afraid. They saw the enemy everywhere. They killed the children because when they grow up they ask, `Where's my father, where's my mother?' It is very hard to find a family who didn't lose anyone, a brother or a father. . . .

``For me, I don't see this war to end easily. They're poor in food but they're not poor in weapons.