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Family reunites on TV after 31 years

SEVERAL cameras are pointed at a 40-year-old farmer inside Bayon TV’s studio. Suon Thy sobs as he tells his story of wartime separation from his mother, sisters, and brother in a family reunion programme called It’s Not a Dream.  

“As I listened to the radio, I heard stories about people who live abroad but who still found their relatives in Cambodia. Why can’t I?” he said, tears streaming down his face.

As soon as he finishes his tale, a video clip shows a woman claiming that she lost a brother in Pursat province. Suon Thy becomes more overwhelmed. A few minutes later, the woman on film, Suon Koe Noeun, steps on to the set. They both run to hug each other, despite not recognising each other as brother and sister.

“It’s hard to believe that he’s still alive,” said his sister.

After 31 years, they are together at last. They had been separated when he was nine and she was 14.

Soon after Suon Thy meets his sister, his long-lost mother, brother and sister also step on to the set for a tearful reunion.

This is the fourth family to be reunited under the gaze of TV cameras in It’s Not a Dream. The episode featuring the family will be broadcast tonight on Bayon TV at 7:30pm.

Like millions of others, Suon Thy was separated from his mother, brother, and youngest sister when the Khmer Rouge reigned. But he managed to stay close to his elder sister, Suon Koe Noeun, until 1979. They were separated at Aoral Mountain after Vietnamese soldiers pushed Khmer Rouge troops to the margins of the country.  

Suon Thy says: “Helicopters dropped bombs on us and Khmer Rouge soldiers forced us to move forward. They said that if we didn’t move quickly, Vietnamese soldiers would catch us and chain us up by piercing our nose or heels. So I and many others fled with them.”

He first moved to Battambang province, then to Thailand and back to Battambang. In 1982 he was given a rifle by the Khmer Rouge and sent to northwestern Banteay Meanchey province, where he settled, married and became farmer.

He now lives there with his wife and three children, farming in Takong village, Namtao commune in Phnom Srok district.

He thought his hometown might be in Kampong Cham province, so last year visited the area and posted notices appealing for news of his family on bridges, trees and buildings.

Then he asked Bayon TV to help.

“I didn’t know that the programme had found my family when they invited me to Phnom Penh. When I saw my sister, it was hard for me control my feelings.”

Suon Koe Noeun, 45, vividly recalls the day she was separated from her little brother at Aoral Mountain.

“I was carrying stuff on my head and held another bundle in my hands, so it was hard for me to hold my little brother’s hand. But I lost him among the crowds about 7pm. I called for him the whole night, but I never saw him again.”

Although she never expected to find her little brother alive, she tried several times between 1990 and 2000 to find him through local media appeals, but heard nothing.

“Last month my neighbours ran to ask my mother whether she had lost a son during the Khmer Rouge regime, because they had heard his appeal on radio saying her name and those of her son and daughters,” said Suon Koe Noeun.  

She contacted Bayon TV and gave them as much background information as she could.

Suon Koe Noeun says that she was reunited with her mother Meung Tri, brother Suon Phai and youngest sister Suon Phal after the war. They settled in their former village in Prek Kork, Prek Bak commune, Stueng Trang district in Kampong Cham province.

Almost 350 people have applied to find their families through It’s Not a Dream since Bayon TV and partner Metphone launched the programme in January of this year, according to Programme President Prak Sokhayouk.

She says about 200 cases deal with families separated by war, but the rest are from relatives who have lost touch because people have moved around the country.

Producers send Metphone staff to villages to search for any clues and appeal for information on Bayon radio and TV.

They have traced relatives of eight families successfully, but so far only four have met each other on TV.

“Some people who lost their family were quite young, so they don’t remember a lot of details.

Sokhayouk says that the programme will show four more family reunions in the coming months. And those that appear on TV are treated to a free city tour and meals by the station.

It’s Not a Dream runs a one-hour special tonight featuring Suon Thy’s reunion with his family at 7:30pm, repeated on Sunday at 2:30pm.

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