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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sisters re-unite after two decade hiatus

Sisters re-unite after two decade hiatus

RETH Sar, 19, sat slumped in a hammock.

She had saved money for a year and flown from her adopted country of Canada in an

effort to find a family she never knew, scattered during the Khmer Rouge years.

After a day of fruitless telephoning from Battambang to Sisophon, she had begun to

think that her quest was at an end.

"We were very hopeful to find my family when we got to Battambang, but after

spending a whole day trying to get in contact, it was impossible," Reth said.

Then a woman rushed into the house, took one look at Reth, and enveloped her in a

huge hug - sisters reunited after two decades.

A second sister soon followed, and orphan Reth found herself amid an instant family.

"I cannot describe my feelings when I first saw my two sisters," she said.

"We just could not believe we found them!"

A long and happy night followed, with Reth, Sophy and Sophea laughing, crying, and

trying to catch up on 20 years' worth of news.

"That night our conversation was mostly about my history," said Reth. "They

wanted to know everything.

"We talked about the war a little bit ... If my mother was alive, she would

be glad to see her seven grandsons." But she added that she was saddened by

seeing how her sisters' living conditions contrasted with those in Canada.

Reth was carried out of Cambodia as an infant in 1979 by her mother. During the uprooting

of society by the Khmer Rouge regime, Sophy and Sophea were separated from their

mother, brother and baby sister.

Reth and her brother spent ten years in Thai refugee camps, where their mother died.

In 1989, the pair was sponsored to move to Canada by the Cambodia Support Group (CSG),

an organization based in British Columbia. They moved to Invermere, BC, where Reth

graduated from high school in 1997.

"When I first arrived in Canada in 1989, I knew Canada was a place of opportunity

for education, freedom of human rights and good political system," Reth said,

adding: "And it's nice to know Canada is not at war."

But she said she was always sure she would return to the country she never knew,

to find her family.

Reth worked in a hotel for a year after graduating, saving money for the trip.

Accompanied by CSG president Arne Sahlen, she arrived on Jan 19 with high hopes and

no preconceptions.

"When I first got off the plane in Phnom Penh ... I was so amazed and so excited!"

she said.

"My first impressions of the country were [that] I was very impressed! I mean,

Cambodia just came out of the war. They are trying to get back on track ... I did

not have an image in my mind of what it would be like."

She and Sahlen spent two weeks touring Cambodia, including sitting in on a Handicap

International disabled rehabilitation seminar and meeting leprosy victims.

Sahlen said Reth was visibly moved after meeting a woman with leprosy.

"I'm such a spoiled brat!" she told him. "I think I have problems

- I don't have any problems like this."

On Feb 1, they flew to Battambang to track down the long-lost sisters.

Unfortunately they had almost no information to go on: only an idea they might be

in Sisophon, first names, and rough ages.

Reth spent eight hours in a telephone shop, with a kindly operator in Sisophon sending

envoys out to comb the town.

But as negative reports came back through the day, Reth was "like a flower wilting",

Sahlen said.

The two left at 5pm, dejected, but wrote down their address at the phone shop just

in case. What they did not know is that word had in fact finally reached Sophy and


"They said that when first someone told them of Reth's arrival, they refused

to believe it," Sahlen said.

But the sisters jumped into a taxi and pelted the 70km down from Sisophon on the

off chance the crazy story was true.

"Some relative had sent them a picture of Reth years ago, and the moment they

saw her, they knew," recounted Sahlen.

After the joyful reunion, Reth, Sahlen and her sisters spent a day and night in Sisophon,

meeting Reth's twelve nephews and nieces and assorted other relatives, before Reth

had to fly home on Feb 6.

Sahlen and the CSG have raised about a million dollars since 1983 for Cambodia-related

projects, including sponsoring refugees like Reth and supporting disabled and cultural


Sahlen, on his sixth trip here, performed two concerts to raise money for the Royal

Cambodian National Orchestra, but he said the highlight was undoubtedly Reth's reunion.

"If we've done one thing, to have assisted in this - what an honor," he


Reth's brother in Canada is now also planning a trip to Cambodia, and while Reth

is not sure of her future plans yet, she says she will definitely return.

"Every moment that I spent in Cambodia was precious," she said. "Everything

was memorable!"



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