Life stories recounted by ‘human books’


People were ‘‘checking out’’ a person at Alexandra Public Library recently as part of the Alexandra Thyme Festival.
The aim of the Human Library was to provide opportunities for people with different backgrounds and experiences to learn more about each other, library co­ordinator Helen Rendall said.
One of the ‘‘books’’ was Phanny Thomas, a survivor of the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Before 1975, life in Cambodia for Phanny Thomas was comfortable and middle-class.
Her father was was a businessman who set up rice mills in provinces across the country, and he brought his family to live in Phnom Penh, enjoying a prosperous lifestyle.
This changed dramatically when the communist Khmer Rouge took control of the country, under the leadership of Pol Pot.
Along with many others, Mrs Thomas and her family were forced out of their home by soldiers brandishing guns. The family loaded some belongings on to a cart, including jewellery and a ‘‘bag full of money’’ hidden from the soldiers.
They ended up at a military camp where they had to try to build a basic shelter.
‘‘I hadn’t got a clue how to build a hut,’’ Mrs Thomas said.
The Khmer Rouge wanted everyone to go back to a peasant life, surviving on the land, but crops failed and people began to starve.
In the space of two months, her husband and three children all died of starvation and hard work.
Mrs Thomas said she was ‘‘very skinny and nearly died’’.
In January 1978, Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge, ending four years of brutal rule.
Mrs Thomas eventually made it to Phnom Penh to try to find her parents but their home was destroyed.
Without her husband and children, she started thinking about a new life in a different country.
She set off on a long trek to a refugee camp on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
Terrified and having to bribe soldiers along the way with gold she had smuggled, worth about $4000, she walked ‘‘two nights and a day’’ without food.
Arriving at the refugee camp, Mrs Thomas used her sewing skills to get by but as an unregistered refugee, she couldn’t leave.
Another family legally registered as refugees adopted her as a sister, and when they were accepted to emigrate to New Zealand, Mrs Thomas hoped to go with them, but it took time before she was able to be registered and apply to join them in New Zealand.
Finally in 1987 she was able to leave and begin a new life in Dunedin.
Despite the trauma of her life, including more than one episode of post-traumatic stress disorder, Mrs Thomas had found ways to rebuild her life, marrying her husband Alan in 1992 and moving to Alexandra the following year.
‘‘He looks after me well — I have a good life with him.’’

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