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Local man, Art Purdon, helped save Cambodian babies as Phnom Penh fell to Khmer Rouge
When Osoyoos resident Art Purdon travelled to Cambodia in January 1975, his assignment was to find ways to improve the drinking water supply of the city of Phnom Penh for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Bureaucrats in Geneva simply shrugged off the fact that the city was under siege by 100,000 Khmer Rouge communist guerrillas who had Phnom Penh circled.
They wanted Purdon to go anyway.
Purdon escaped the country two months later on one of the last flights out before the guerrillas moved in and ultimately committed one of the most notorious genocides in human history.
The two months he spent in the embattled Cambodian capital not only changed his life forever, but also put him in the middle of a drama that would not be believed if it were a Hollywood movie.
Today the 24-year resident of Osoyoos, who moved here when he retired from civil engineering at age 60, recalls his two months in Phnom Penh as if it occurred in another lifetime.
With work on his water project impossible and embassies advising their citizens to get out immediately, he was on the verge of returning home to Canada.
A chance meeting with two young Quebec sisters running an orphanage they called “Canada House” convinced him to stay on and help to save the lives of Cambodian babies who were abandoned and dying.
Purdon obtained a WHO generator for the orphanage and wired it in so that baby food, milk and medicines could be refrigerated as the capital experienced constant power outages.
His employers didn’t know how he was using the generator.
“I didn’t discuss it with them,” he laughs.
Then, aged 46, and having fathered five children of his own, he took his turn bottle feeding babies, including one traumatized four-year-old pulled from under his mother’s body after his entire family was massacred.
Last month that drama had a remarkable epilogue when Purdon, now 84, was honoured in Montreal at the premiere of a documentary produced for Radio Canada, the French language CBC, about those 1975 events at the Phnom Penh orphanage.
The subject of the documentary, Kim Routhier-Fillion, presented Purdon with a plaque inscribed “for your outstanding contribution to the Canada House Orphanage in Phnom Penh, 1975. Without your love and support, we, the 55 orphaned kids, wouldn’t be here today.”
Routhier-Fillion, now a Montreal financial advisor, was one of those orphanage babies Purdon cared for and was born a week before Purdon arrived in Phnom Penh.
It was a tear-filled reunion as Purdon met some of the other orphans for the first time since 1975. And, in an especially touching moment, he embraced the two Quebec sisters, Anna and “Dolly” (Eloise) Charet, who put their own lives on the line, refusing to leave Phnom Penh without the orphans.
The documentary’s title – Jamais sans nos enfants (Never Without Our Children) – refers to the two women’s insistence on staying with the orphans even as embassy officials begged them to leave.
They only left the Cambodian capital when a sympathetic American cargo plane pilot agreed to fly the women and 43 babies to Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, on March 27, 1975, barely two weeks before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Saigon itself was on the verge of falling to the Viet Cong and the Charet sisters and orphans only reached safety when a Canadian Forces Hercules airlifted them and others to Hong Kong.
They subsequently were flown to Montreal, where all the children were adopted.
Purdon left Phnom Penh on March 6, 1975, as originally planned, but on an American aid plane. His scheduled flight had been cancelled because of rocket attacks on the airport.
Purdon had to run from behind sandbags to get onto the plane. His worried wife, Ilene, back in Burnaby, only learned her husband was safe when she saw a CBS television news report with broadcaster Walter Cronkite announcing “the last flight” out of Phnom Penh.
Purdon appeared in the report momentarily.
In hindsight, Purdon said he would not have left when he did if he had known what the Charet sisters and the orphans would go through after his departure.
“I wouldn’t leave them,” he said. “If I had known what they were going to go through in the end, I never would have left.”
Right from his arrival in early January, it was clear that Phnom Penh faced a desperate situation.
The Khmer Rouge strategy was to strangle the city by cutting off supplies of rice and munitions that came into the city by the Mekong River.
Prices escalated, and the plight of the people became more and more desperate. Riots broke out.
“When I first got there, there were rockets coming every day,” recalled Purdon. “On the first night it shattered the windows of the hotel, so from that point on I closed the shutters, pulled the blinds and dragged the mattress into the bathroom and closed the door to sleep. They were shelling all the time.”
The Charet sisters themselves had only arrived a few weeks earlier on Christmas Eve, 1974.
One of their first visits was to a state orphanage where behind a closed door they discovered a room of 20 sick babies that the orphanage didn’t know what to do about.
Red ants were eating the children’s faces.
For the next 10 days, the sisters cared for the babies at their hotel, hiring some Cambodian girls to assist.
Then, the Cambodian government allowed them to move into an old villa on stilts and set among coconut trees that became “Canada House.”
Purdon took many of the photos of the orphanage that appear in the documentary and in tributes on YouTube. The photos show the tiny malnourished babies being nursed back to life.
The traumatized children rarely smiled at first. After a while though, they were lining up to have Purdon swing them in the air.
Linda Chamberlayne, Purdon’s daughter, has assembled a ring-bound book that documents many details from those remarkable two months in Phnom Penh.
The book is illustrated with Purdon’s photos and it contains correspondence between Purdon and his anxious wife.
It has been updated to include a description and photos from the December 18 documentary premiere in Montreal.
“Dad came in disguise to the premiere, wearing a hat and dark glasses,” writes Chamberlayne. “Kim [Routhier-Fillion] wanted Dad to be a surprise, so we had to slip him out of the hotel, where Anna and Dolly were also staying, and get him into the theatre without either of them seeing him.”
The documentary brought many tears.
At the end, Routhier-Fillion asked the sisters if they knew who took the photos of Canada House. It was a set-up line.
When Routhier-Fillion asked if Purdon was in the audience, Purdon called out: “Here I am!” As he made his way to the stage, 375 people gave him a standing ovation.
“Dad had not seen Anna since 1975 in Phnom Penh and had last seen Dolly in 1999,” wrote Chamberlayne. “It was a very joyful and emotional reunion on stage.”
A Hollywood movie could never do it justice.