LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ As a child in Cambodia, Sara Pol-Lim lost her father, three brothers and a cousin to the Khmer Rouge and spent four years in a youth concentration camp.
Pol-Lim was finally able to deal with her past when her mother wrote a book, but the community organizer works daily with refugees who repress their own horrific memories.
Now, those exiles will have a chance to reveal those tales — and participate, in their own small way, in an international quest for justice.
A workshop at California State University at Long Beach on Saturday is one of the first U.S. events to target Cambodian-Americans and solicit their participation in an international war crimes tribunal for the Khmer Rouge that's under way in their homeland.
The daylong event will feature a panel of experts on the Cambodian genocide who will discuss the Khmer Rouge's physical and psychological effects on survivors, as well as a second panel of younger Cambodians, many of whom were born in the U.S. or fled with their families as young children. The speakers will include doctors, immigration attorneys, economists and artists.
Organizers hope exiles will share their memories and plan to review the stories for possible submission to the joint United Nations and Cambodian court that was established two years ago.
They also will urge attendees to apply for formal victim and civil party status and volunteer as translators or witnesses. A representative from the State Department will attend, as well as international experts on the Cambodian genocide and members of a watchdog group that's been monitoring the tribunal.
Many Cambodian exiles don't understand the tribunal process or see the need to get involved — even though almost everyone lost loved ones to the Khmer Rouge, said Leakhena Nou, a Cambodian-American and sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach. Buddhist beliefs about karma also create a cultural resistance toward confronting the past, she said.
"There's still a lot of fear involved and there's no incentive for the survivors to talk about their past," said Nou.
The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-79 under Pol Pot and have been implicated in the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population. They died from disease, overwork, starvation and execution in the notorious "killing fields."
If the session goes well, similar events could be held in other states with large Cambodian refugee populations, including Massachusetts, Oregon and Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C., Nou said.
Community leaders acknowledge, however, that the biggest challenge may be getting Cambodian refugees to show up at all, let alone tell their stories. Cambodians make up about 10 percent of the population in Long Beach, a city of about a half-million south of Los Angeles, but they remain isolated within a few gritty city blocks known as Little Phnom Phenh.
There, rumors fly about the true nature of the U.N. tribunal and suspicions that it's been infiltrated by Khmer Rouge supporters. Many don't trust the court simply because of the current government's involvement.
A series of delays hasn't helped, even though the first trials are now slated as early as this fall, said Chhang Song, an adviser to the Cambodian government who splits his time between Long Beach and Phnom Phenh.
"The court has become abstract to these people. It's very difficult to get information," he said. "I know how difficult it is to get this going, but people in general are not aware of that. They want to know what's taking so long."
Others worry that even those with an interest in the court may not show up because it's too traumatic. Most older Cambodians rarely talk about Pol Pot's killing fields — even with their American-born children or fellow victims.
"They're still afraid to share their stories with their kids, so how do you think they're going to come out and say, 'Yes, I'll sign up for victim status?'" said Pol-Lim, executive director of United Cambodian Community. "You have to get them to trust that what you do is for the benefit of the closure of that wound."
Still, Pol-Lim and others believe the workshop is an important first step toward the ultimate goal: allowing exiled victims to heal.
"They need to get beyond this mind-set of suffering, that the world owes them something," said Nou, the professor.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.