Home > Country events > Boy who fled K.Rouge returns to Cambodia a US navy commander

Boy who fled K.Rouge returns to Cambodia a US navy commander

By Michelle Fitzpatrick (AFP)

Michael Misiewicz was just a child when he was wrenched from his family and Cambodian homeland 37 years ago

PHNOM PENH β€” When the destroyer USS Mustin docks in Cambodia next week it will be more than just a routine mission for the ship’s commander.

Michael Misiewicz is Cambodian by birth and was just a child when he was wrenched from his family and homeland 37 years ago, to be sent away from the country to escape the civil war with the Khmer Rouge.

He has not set foot on Cambodian soil since.

“I have been fighting a lot of emotions about coming back to my native country,” said Misiewicz, who was born Vannak Khem, of his impending return.

“To know that I’ve got relatives there that have wanted to see me for decades… I don’t know if I will be able to hold back the tears,” he told AFP by telephone aboard the US warship.

The 43-year-old was a small boy in the early 1970s when Cambodia was engulfed in a civil war between government troops and communist Khmer Rouge fighters.

In 1973, his father arranged for him to be adopted by an American woman who worked at the US embassy and was preparing to leave the increasingly dangerous country.

The move meant Misiewicz avoided one of the most brutal chapters of 20th century history — the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime that caused the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork and execution.

“At that age I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I really didn’t have any sense of the war or bad things going on in Cambodia,” said Misiewicz, recalling that he had no qualms about leaving.

“I was excited about getting on a plane, going to a new world where I could eat popcorn and have all the watermelon I wanted,” he said.

But his mother’s tearful goodbye is engraved in his memory. “My mom was so, so upset. I promised her I’d buy her a big house one day.”

The young Cambodian built a new life for himself in his adoptive country, enlisting in the navy after graduating from high school in Lanark, Illinois.

It was while he was attending the US naval academy that he began to learn about the atrocities that had taken place in his homeland.

Misiewicz had received no news from his family and assumed the worst.

“I felt a lot of guilt. Why was I the lucky one?,” he said. “I really doubted that my family had survived the whole Khmer Rouge era. I tried not to think about it.”

What he did not know was that his mother and three of his four siblings had survived and managed to flee the country in 1983, ending up in the United States themselves.

They were now living in Austin, Texas, desperately trying to find him.

It took six years of searching, but finally the family learnt that Misiewicz had lived in Alexandria, Virginia when he first arrived in the US.

Combing through old phonebooks, they eventually made contact with his ex-babysitter who happened to know his current whereabouts.

After 16 years of silence, one phone call reunited him with his family.

“One day, in 1989, I got a call out of the blue. It was my older brother,” said Misiewicz.

The joy of reunion was tempered by the news that his father had been executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977 and his infant sister had died, probably of malnutrition, during the “Killing Fields” era.

Misiewicz, who has more than 300 sailors under his charge, says he often thinks about how hard it must have been to make the choice to separate him from his family.

“I am so grateful my father had the wisdom to make that decision. It was a very tough decision, very heart-breaking,” he said.

Now Misiewicz is looking forward to reconnecting with relatives and exposing his sailors to the country through community outreach projects and training exercises with the Cambodian navy.

The USS Mustin, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, will be stationed in Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s southwestern coastline, for four days from Friday.

“I’ve been so blessed to have had these opportunities and I feel honoured and privileged to come back,” the ship’s commander said.

Misiewicz added that he feels “very close” to his birth mother and siblings.

“I did buy my mom that house — in Texas,” he said — making good on a promise made nearly four decades ago.

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