She was one of the most unforgettable people in my life. Soc Sinan was 22 years old when I met her. Within five years she had become trapped amid the horrors of Pol Pot’s “killing fields”. But Sinan was a survivor. She outwitted the Khmer Rouge.
With a little help, she escaped Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnamese occupation.
In America, she built a new life for herself, helping other Cambodian refugees. Sadly that life ended on December 9, 2010 when she lost her final battle for survival; a battle against cancer.
That day, a friend, to whom I wish I had been a better one, ended her final struggle for survival. Soc Sinan, age 62, succumbed to liver cancer complicated by hepatitis C contracted years ago in Southeast Asia.
On January 31, I returned Soc Sinan, as she had requested to her mother’s village of Thlock Chrou in Kompong Cham province.
Several of her friends from the 1970s and I said goodbye to a remarkable friend. Her ashes were scattered on the Mekong as she wished.
Her story is as remarkable as any in the wider war that was Cambodia.
She was a survivor of Pol Pot’s killing fields (1975-1979).
Soc Sinan was an employee of Sonatrac, a Cambodia-French agricultural firm, when I first met her in the summer of 1970.
Before work one morning, Soc Sinan walked from her office to the third floor café in the bank building near the Phnom Penh central post office where the daily military briefing was held.
I ordered a café au lait, and noticed her seated quietly in the back, clearly a newcomer to these proceedings. I took a seat nearby.
I scribbled my notes, faithfully reproducing the official reports from the war front delivered by the Khmer Republic’s military spokesman, the aptly named, Colonel Am Rong and his English speaking attaché, Lieutenant Chhang Song.
Soc Sinan sat taking it all in – the clutter of shabby newsmen and women; the attempts to put the best face on Cambodia’s already shaky military situation; the new condition only five months after the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk; the extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia.
When the briefing ended, I introduced myself.
Soc Sinan was an exquisite, intelligent, engaging woman, with whom in the months and years ahead, I would develop the kind of never-to-be-forgotten relationship that only war and the passions of youth can provide.
We saw each other off and on until 1975. We both became involved with other partners.
And yet, as chance would have it, we met each other again in February 1975. She was engaged to be married to an American Army Colonel, a former defence attaché in the embassy.
For reasons too complex to recall, she failed to join him and remained behind in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge moved toward completion of their inevitable capture of the country.
On April 5, I made a promise: to get Soc Sinan out of Cambodia, come what may.
I wrote in my diary: “She says she will leave Cambodia, but wants to stay through the Khmer New Year, Chaul Chnam Thme, which begins in ten days time.”
Chaul Chnam Thme would be celebrated in Cambodia that year only by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.
On April 11, the American Embassy issued its last morning progress report on the war with “the defence perimeter steadily shrinking”.
In the early hours of the next day, word came that I must leave Phnom Penh. US Marine helicopters swooped into a school yard behind the American Embassy and launched a hasty evacuation which included the American television networks and their associated reporters.
I raced to Soc Sinan’s apartment on Boulevard Monivong at six in the morning. It was critical that she join the American helicopter evacuation.
Her papers were in order; a visa for America, up-to-date.
A ticket to Paris and Washington was confirmed.
Yet Soc Sinan was nowhere to be found. [I found out later she had spent the night at the home of a girl friend who, fearing the sporadic mortar and rocket fire around the city, sought companionship.]
In desperation, I left a note and a business card with my address in Hong Kong. “Get out,” I advised, recommending the obvious, “any way you can. Join me in Thailand or Hong Kong.” I left, to my everlasting regret, without her.
Soc Sinan never fully told the story of her cunning, bravery, endurance, and survival in the days, months, and years that followed.
The American colonel in Washington assumed her dead. He waited and then married another woman.
I too believed survival was not possible. Educated city people did not survive in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea.
I dreamt she had worked herself to death in the communal paddy fields.
In late September 1979, I received a letter at my old NBC office in Hong Kong, forwarded by an employee of an international relief agency in Singapore.
Dated August 17, it began: “It is four years and four months since April 17th 1975.” I could not believe it. It was from Soc Sinan.
The two-page, handwritten, almost dispassionate, letter, chronicled in a minimalist way her suffering under the Khmer Rouge.
It said she was living in Kandal province about 30 miles from Phnom Penh (then under Vietnamese control).
She taught English there, helping survivors recover; helping provide kids who had had little under Pol Pot’s regime, some education.
Soc Sinan wrote simply: “I would need some help from you: could you please find
a good way to take me out of this situation.”
She signed her letter “your remote friend, Sinan.”
Soc Sinan had survived. At that time, as five years earlier, I became obsessed with my promise to get her out.
I returned to Phnom Penh in November 1979. With much negotiation, a lot of help from friends – American, Vietnamese, Cambodian – and the then Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister Hun Sen, my promise was kept. Hun Sen signed travel documents.
I arranged passage on a returning relief flight to Singapore.
A front page item appeared in the Singapore Straits Times, January 9, 1980, under the headline: “How Khmer Woman escaped to Singapore …with TV newsman’s help.”
The article did not explain how, after we had been flown to Singapore on a flight chartered by Oxfam, Singapore officials threatened to send Soc Sinan back to Cambodia and arrest me for abetting an illegal entry.
Singapore in those days continued to recognise the ousted regime of Pol Pot.
From Singapore, Soc Sinan then travelled to Washington DC, where she made a new life for herself.
We drifted apart in the late 1980s.
Much to my regret, I was not able to maintain her friendship.
She had once again become very much a ‘remote friend’.
Yet she remained, all the same, the most unforgettable person in my life.
Soc Sinan’s survival story was like none other I had heard from among the many accounts of the ghastly Khmer Rouge era.
The period, with its tortures and its nearly two million deaths from starvation, disease, and execution, is being revisited now at the United Nations-sponsored War Crimes Tribunal in Phnom Penh.
Soc Sinan was the only survivor, I know, who managed to remain in Phnom Penh well beyond the Khmer Rouge forced evacuation carried out between April 17 and April 20, 1975.
Within three days, at gunpoint, the city was reduced in size from two million to only about 25,000.
Sinan was still there on April 27. Darting from house to house and eluding Khmer Rouge capture.
When she was finally found, she was taken by truck to the district of Saang on the Bassac River in Kandal, an hour’s drive from the capital.
She disguised her identity, her knowledge of French and English, her friendship with Americans, her engagement to a US Army colonel, and her birth as the daughter of a General under Prince Sihanouk.
She managed to bury deep in a hole at her commune a passport, a visa for America, her air ticket, and a crumpled business card and note from a young TV reporter from America.
There was of course an element of luck.
She was befriended by an older couple in the commune. She managed to get enough to eat. Yet, like so many others, she worked under prison-like conditions catching rats in the paddy fields, harvesting rice and working in the communal kitchens.
Soc Sinan kept her secrets with great bravery. Every night, there were interrogations.
People were dragged away from the commune, taken across the Bassac, and put to death. Soc Sinan could hear the sounds.
In 2003, I took a boat out to the island in the river near Khum Troysla which had been a killing field. A shrine of skeletons and skulls stood in the middle of the island in memory of those who perished.
For the last 25 years, Soc Sinan lived with her partner Walter in a modest but comfortable home in the Washington suburbs.
She dedicated her new life to serving others.
She met often with the local Khmer community – swollen by fellow survivors and other Khmer refugees who had been spared the horrors.
She led a simple life. No frills.
Where ever she went, Soc Sinan brought compassion and help to those around her.
She assisted older Cambodians receive medical treatment at Georgetown University Medical Center.
She served as a paralegal and a translator for refugee families. She helped a young man get a job. She saved a young girl from spousal abuse.
She counselled them. Befriended them. Encouraged them.
Soc Sinan provided to others what she had lost in 1975 – the support of lost family and friends.
As she endured her final struggle, 30 years after the Khmer Rouge, and four months after being diagnosed with cancer, Soc Sinan exemplified the best of Cambodia – Khmer courage, honour, kindness, and decency – representative of those who suffered one of history’s greatest periods of genocide.