Through the Forest: An Unexpected Path to Global Leadership

In Cambodia, Global by AHF

From the darkness of the genocidal Khmer Rouge’s regime the inexhaustible spirit of
Dr. Chhim Sarath—Chief of AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Asia Bureau—was born

When Chhim Sarath – the man who would one day oversee the care of thousands of people living with HIV – was born on the outskirts of Cambodian capital city Phnom Penh, there was no doctor in his village, only one nurse who operated a single clinic.

One late night, as young Sarath ran a high fever and he scrambled with his mother and brother to this lone clinic, both brothers decided that inaccessible treatment for sick people was something they would not tolerate. The boys promised their mother that night that they would become doctors – a promise both, many difficult years later, would keep.

Sarath was just five years old when his town became a conflict area for war between the ruling Lun Nol and the rising Khmer Rouge regime. News of his neighbors being injured or killed became increasingly frequent. Just five years later, on April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and the area was forcibly evacuated.

The townspeople were displaced to the countryside when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime came into power in Cambodia. Families were separated by age and sent away from each other. Sarath ended up in a group with two other young boys and two adults, with whom he was sent into the forest to tend cows. Sarath, then a 10-year-old child, was not allowed a blanket, or even shoes.

I learned to become strong inside and endure.”
Dr. Chhim Sarath

For three years, Sarath lived and worked in the forest. As years without shoes passed, the soles of his feet became hard and tough. Denied food, Sarath lived on forest fruits and leaves. He often lay awake at night, shivering without a blanket and surrounded by mosquitos without a protective net. Just once he and his family asked to be reunited and relocated. Citing a lack of “cow carts” used for transportation, the regime permitted Sarath’s aunts to join the group being relocated, but not the child, his parents, or his siblings. Sadly, all the people who left on the carts, including Sarath’s aunts, were killed by the regime.

(clockwise from top left) On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam, Dr. Sarath found a pair of shoes typically worn by displaced townspeople in 1975 Cambodia -- the same shoes he was denied as a child by the Khmer Rouge. They cost $2; Dr. Sarath with medical staff at the Waibargi hospital in Yangon, Myanmar, during a February 2013 visit to discuss access to treatment; the Cambodian flag; Dr. Sarath celebrating International Condom Day with AHF in Cambodia on February 13, 2013

“My parents and siblings and I decided to stay quiet, not ask for anything, and I went back to the forest,” Sarath recalls. “It was very hard for me to leave my parents again and go back to the misery, but I went. I thought it would never end. I learned to become strong inside and endure.”

Finally, in 1979, the Khmer Rouge began to fall. Sarath’s brother came to the forest and retrieved him just before the area became a bloodied battleground for clashing troops. The family was reunited and hoped to begin a new life together, but to do so they had to walk without shoes back to Phnom Penh, carrying their heavy luggage and battling unhealthy conditions. It took three months.

Sarath made education his priority when he returned to life in Phnom Penh, and with the help of a scholarship he achieved his dream of becoming a doctor. Today, Sarath is the leader of AHF’s Asia Bureau, overseeing the care of 45,150 individuals in India, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Nepal. He and his wife, Ankearithy, are raising two daughters, Chhunhean Rithy Ritta and little sister Chhunhean Rithy Ninna, in Cambodia.

“This experience explains to me how Dr. Sarath operates successfully in the world,” said Terri Ford, AHF’s Chief of Global Advocacy and Policy. “Low profile, not asking for too much, but keenly aware of all that is going on and cleverly finding ways to chop through the forest to a better life – this time not for himself, but for those living with HIV.”

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