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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Recovering the roots of a family

Recovering the roots of a family

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090122_07a.jpg

Siem Reap

Australian photojournalist Chris Pritchard recounts the improbable

journey that led his wife to reconnect with a mother who was feared

lost to the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Photo by:
Chris Pritchard

Suree Pritchard with her mother, Sin Simath.

THE map, hand-drawn on a scrap of paper, resembled those in corny movies that lead the hero to buried treasure. Tears of joy and giant tropical raindrops quickly combined to make it more abstract art than an accurate guide, but this map kindled a love affair with Angkor Wat's grand antiquities that still endures.

My wife and I were handed the map back in 1991 in the Thai frontier town of Aranyaprathet. It was here that Aunt Sopee raised my wife Suree.   

Aunt Sopee was Cambodian but, gazing over her shoulder into a tragic land, she determined her future was Thai. She did not conceal her family's Cambodian origins but always said no one else in the family was alive.  "Forget about Cambodia," she would opine in Thai. "Nothing but trouble. Make your future here in Thailand."  

Suree moved to Australia, where she worked as a photographer in the late 1970s but kept in close contact with her irascible aunt. In Aunt Sopee's final years during the late 1980s, her rambling recollections acquired intriguing new details.  

Mapping the way home

While Suree's father had indeed lost his life in the 1950s during a burst of domestic and violent political turmoil, her mother was alive.

Word of this survival leaked across the porous border  even before the xenophobic Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, but Aunt Sopee had for a long time kept this news to herself. Then, one day, shortly before her death, she ripped the corner from a piece of wrinkled wrapping paper, drew a rudimentary map and handed it to Suree. "That's where you'll find your mother," she promised.   

That was in 1990. We took this precious paper to Cambodia in 1991, and travelled from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It was the rainy season and the road trip of nearly 300 kilometres along a rutted road with numerous temporary bridges took 12 hours.

SOPEE WAS CAMBODIAN BUT, GAZING OVER HER SHOULDER INTO A TRAGIC LAND, SHE DETERMINED HER FUTURE WAS THAI.

On arrival, we took out our smudged map and began our needle-in-a-haystack search, but became increasingly pessimistic. Next day, we grew suspicious of a solicitous man, a distant relative of Suree, who said he knew Suree's mother. He said he would fetch her from the outskirts of Siem Reap where she now lived.
We continued to search and, using the scribbled map, found the family house.

It was inhabited by two of Suree's elderly aunts who confirmed that my wife's mother indeed now lived in Siem Reap. They also said the cousin who had gone to Siem Reap would indeed return with Suree's mother, so we spent the rest of the day waiting at the hotel.

Then, just before dusk, we were standing outside the hotel when a diminutive woman in her mid-60s slid from a motorcycle pillion. She was dripping wet and caked in mud.  Mother and daughter collapsed in each other's arms. Over the next few days, amid much weeping, a story tumbled out that filled gaps in an exceptionally minimalist sketch.

Rediscovered family

My mother-in-law had three children. After her husband had been shot dead, she could not support them all. She decided Suree, the middle child who was then three years old, would be raised by Aunt Sopee, whose departure for Thailand was imminent.

Suree's siblings, a brother and sister, later perished during the Khmer Rouge era.

Suree's mother, Sin Samath, remarried. We travelled back to Siem Reap with her and met her daughter, Sok Kanthea, and grandchildren.

In this way Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, became an enriching element in our lives. We go roughly once a year, strengthening bonds with a rediscovered family.

Home turned out to be a large, sturdy timber dwelling on stilts beyond Siem Reap's  bustling New Market and about four kilometres from town.

Rice fields extended from a cluster of a half-dozen houses off a road heading to the Rolous group of temples.

Circumstances back home in Australia meant we skipped two years before returning recently to discover Siem Reap had changed.

Suree's mother had lived in the countryside - but last year we discovered her living in town. She hadn't moved. But Siem Reap had spread dramatically.

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