U.S. diplomat's extraordinary journey


"She was a strong woman and she told me, she told us that no matter what happens, never give up hope. So that was one piece of wisdom that remained with me and that is why I was able to survive the killing fields of Cambodia because hope was the only thing I had left," said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Sichan Siv.

Siv is traveling the country, talking about his new book, "Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America."

"Golden bones is used by the Cambodians to refer to somebody who is very lucky," said Siv.

Siv spoke with ABC7 recently about his life in Cambodia. He had been a teacher, but quit his job to work for CARE International because his country got dragged into the Vietnam War.

"CARE was helping about half a million refugees, displaced persons in Cambodia."

He was offered a chance to escape from Cambodia in April of 1975, but was trying to help CARE arrange for a food airlift for starving refugees.

"That was the reason I missed the last helicopter."

His life changed dramatically in May of 1975 after the Khmer Rouge staged a revolution against their own country.

"They forced everyone to get out of cities and urban centers and Pnom Pen. Just imagine three million people trying to get out at the same time," said Siv. "My background was putting my family into great danger because I went to school, I was college educated, I wore glasses and the Khmer Rouge wanted to turn society upside down. They wanted to eliminate anybody they considered an enemy of the revolution."

So he threw away his glasses and took off on a bicycle heading to Thailand with the blessing of his mother in order to save his life and the lives of his family members.

"I was later captured near the Thai border, so I changed completely my identity. I was just a simple peasant, a former truck driver," said Siv. "I walked through the jungles of Cambodia, I fell in a booby trap, I was severely wounded, was jailed for illegal entry, I was transferred to a refugee camp. I spent time teaching English to my fellow refugees, I became a Buddhist monk."

Siv made it to America thanks to his supervisor from CARE, June Macnaldi, who asked her friends to sponsor him. Unfortunately, most of his family in Cambodia was killed.

"I had two dollars in my pocket and I told myself that I ought to look forward, forget the painful past and look forward to the future, hopefully brighter."

He did whatever it took to earn a living.

"I washed dishes, I cooked hamburgers and finally I went to New York to drive a taxi."

He received a scholarship to Columbia. In 1988, he wanted to understand American politics. So he volunteered for the campaign to elect the first President Bush.

"I got a call from the transition team to go down for an interview and I was offered a job at the White House."

In 2001, the current President Bush nominated Siv as an ambassador to the United Nations.

"So, within 13 years, I went from somebody who tried to escape the killing fields, walking across the jungles, to a presidential assistant, and that tells a lot about America."

ABC7 Extra

You can see more of Siv's exclusive interview with ABC7 in the media player above or by clicking on the links below.

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