Sophie Stagg
Above: Sophie Stagg’s first trip back to Cambodia in 20 years was a mixture of sorrow and joy, a chance to purge bad memories and revisit the homeland that haunts her. She was taken from her family and put to work in the Khmer Rouge killing fields when she was 9.

Right: The walls of Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh are covered with photos of some of the 20,000 people who died there between 1975 and 1978. Men, women and children were tortured and killed; seven came out alive. The prison is now the Museum of Genocide.

Story by Jeanne Malmgren
Photos by Jamie Francis
of the Times Staff

Return to the killing fields
One woman’s mission to save Cambodia

In July, Palm Harbor resident Sophie Stagg returned to the homeland she had not seen since she was a child. In a two-part series, we tell the story of her efforts to help Cambodia's struggling people.


It is only the first month of monsoon season, but already the streets in this northern Cambodian city are a red sea of mud and potholes.

In the chaotic tide of motor scooters and small pickup trucks, a boy, perhaps 9 or 10, struggles to push a bicycle laden with a mammoth bundle of grass, feed for his family's cow.

A Toyota minivan bumps alongside the boy. Sophie Stagg slides open the window and reaches out, dangling a maroon T-shirt. It is a gift, bought at Wal-Mart in Palm Harbor and carried 10,000 miles for this very purpose, to be given to a child.

The boy turns, rain dripping off spikes of black hair plastered to his forehead. With a grin, he reaches for the T-shirt. As he does, Sophie sucks in her breath.

The boy has no left hand.

He is a land mine victim, one of thousands in this Southeast Asian nation where rice paddy workers earn 85 cents a day and babies die of diarrhea. A whole generation in Cambodia has known nothing but civil war and poverty, starvation and disease. They subsist on rice and dried fish, and on the gentle acceptance of suffering taught by their Buddhist faith.

The boy drapes the T-shirt on the handlebars and pushes on. He still needs lots of other things: a prosthetic hand. A good meal. A chance to go to school.

At least Sophie did something. She did what she came here to do -- to help.

Only 5-million kids to go.