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Searching for lost relatives


Huge numbers of families were torn apart during the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge years, but many never gave up hope of finding their loved ones again

Photo by:
Sam Rith

King Sophal has been waiting for news of her lost son - taken by the Khmer Rouge in 1978 - for nearly 30 years.

SITTING on a sofa, eyes brimming with tears, a 76-year-old widow from Ampil village in Kampong Cham province's Kroch Chhmar district asked her daughter whether she has heard anything new on the loss of her oldest son, who was taken from her by Khmer Rouge cadres in 1978, a year before the regime was toppled by Vietnamese troops.  

"Do you have any news about your oldest brother, Youk Chhom?" King Sophal asked her 47-year-old daughter, Youk Thet, her third child now living in Phnom Penh.

"Usually [my mother] asks me by phone from her home in the province, but this year she has come to Phnom Penh to ask me," Youk Thet said, a worried look in her eye. "So, you can see how curious she still is today."

King Sophal has been waiting for news relating to her oldest son, Youk Chhom, for almost 30 years now. She says he would be 53 years old if he were still alive today.

Like many in her position, she desperately seeks solace in any assurance that her son might be alive, including that of fortune tellers.

"I was told by five or six fortune tellers that my oldest son is still alive and living in a country where people have red eyes, white hair and spend French notes," she said.

"They told me that he now has four children and that two of them have already married.

And he will not be able to come to visit me until I die."

Today, even though the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime have receded to the pages of history books, thousands of Cambodians like King Sophal still search for their relatives and friends every day, through any means they can.

Using the media

Mom Sonando, director of Sambok Khmum Radio (Beehive Radio), says that since he opened the station in 1996, he has received at least one request a month from Cambodians living in countries such as the United States and Australia to search for their relatives and friends through a broadcast.

Many people turn to fortune search for their loved ones

He estimated that about 20 percent of those people had gone on to find information about their loved ones. Sadly, most of them found out that they had died or just found the names and nothing else, he said.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that more and more people were searching for their relatives and friends through his organisation. He said that because communication in Cambodia was still limited, he received between 15-20 request letters from inside the country a day. Another 70-80 a day came via the internet from Cambodians living abroad.

However, Youk Chhang said not many of them had any luck. "About 30 percent of people we have been in communication with have found the names of their relatives and friends, but unfortunately most of those had already died," he said.

"Only one to five percent of those people found out that their loved ones were still alive, and most of these were friends rather than family members," he added.

Reach Sambath, the Khmer Rouge tribunal spokesman, said he himself had found two uncles that he had lost contact with during the regime.

He said one uncle was found in 1998 living in Cambodia, and the other was found in June this year living in France. The latter had had the good fortune of hearing his nephew's name mentioned on the radio in French in relation to the hearing of Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as "Duch", late last year.    

Reach Sambath said most people who were still searching for their relatives and friends were doing so because there was still no evidence that their loved ones had died.

"This is one reason why so many people turn to fortune tellers or other mechanisms to search for their loved ones," he added.

Never give up

King Sophal said that she will never give up the search for her son.

"I will not give up hope until I pass away," she said. "I am always waiting for news because before he was taken away he told me that if he were alive, he would write me a letter."  

She said that she still lives in the same village just so that her son can find her.  

Youk Chhang said his centre is currently working on a series of books that detailed information about the people it had confirmed died under the regime. He said the book would not be able to help everyone searching for loved ones because it was not a complete list, but that it could offer some assistance.

"After the book is finished, we will place it in each commune hall throughout the country in order to let people search for their relatives and friends," he said.

"We are publishing this book as a way for people to get closure, to know that the relatives or friends that they are searching for have already died. Then, they can hold a ceremony for those people," he said.

"The book will also be a message to the world about the people who can be lost to genocides like Cambodia's," he added. The book will be finished by the end of next year.



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