Widespread news reports that 20 Cambodians - including one of the nation's most
famous singers - were killed in the horrific Sept 11 terrorist attack on the World
Trade Center in New York are false, according to Cambodia's ambassador in Washington,
SHARING THE PAIN: Around 280 Buddhist monks and civilians, including Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara and US ambassador Kent Wiedemann, gathered at Wat Botum September 15 for a memorial ceremony in honour of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"I think they are just rumors. I am surprised that the wires reported this.
So far, I haven't heard of any Cambodian confirmed dead yet. One is said to be missing.
Other than that, I haven't heard anything specific," the ambassador said.
The news reports may have resulted from a simple misunderstanding.
"I think that about 20 Cambodians worked in the towers and people just assumed
they were missing," he said by phone from his office in Washington DC. "Luckily,
most of them worked night shifts."
Cambodians in the towers likely worked in security and food services, or as technicians,
Rumors that a score of Cambodians were missing emerged soon after the attack, and
were quickly picked up by news wires. Several Cambodian Americans said they saw a
Kyodo News file published on Sept 13 that cited Ambassador Kent Wiedemann as saying
20 Cambodians had been killed. The New York Post and New York's Daily News, perhaps
picking up the Kyodo report, claimed that same day that 20 Cambodians had died among
the 6,407 people who were missing and presumed dead at that point.
While the Washington Post was more cautious in a Sept 19 article that said governments
across the world are "warning families of the missing to expect the worst",
the paper also noted that "Cambodians" were presumed dead along with citizens
of at least 51 other nations.
The following day's edition included several corrections and a notice saying that
on the dead and missing from the attack was in a constant state of flux.
"The wire services picked up everything," Ambassador Eng said. "It
turned out to not be true."
The ambassador added that he was surprised that respected news organizations didn't
check to make sure their information about the large Cambodian death toll was correct.
As a result of the reports, Cambodian Americans scrambled to figure out just who
in their community had been lost to terrifying kamikaze-style air attacks and many
called the embassy or friends in search of clarification, seemingly spreading the
unsubstantiated reports even more widely.
The ambassador acknowledged, however, that it is very difficult to be certain that
no Cambodians died in the attacks because the Embassy doesn't keep a register on
Cambodians living in the United States.
While Cambodians in the US tend to seek help from the Cambodian embassy or semi-official
consulates in Seattle or Los Angeles when they have problems with visas or passports,
they do not sign up with their embassy, as do many other nationals. Besides, Eng
adds, "Most of them are American citizens."
While there can be no certainty that not a single Cambodian died in the attack, officials
at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington DC and at Cambodia's office at the United
Nations said that no one has come forth to say they had lost friends, family members
or even acquaintances. Moreover, not one of more than a dozen Cambodian representatives
and activists in the United States who were contacted by the Post knew of specific
reports of Cambodians who might have died in the attack. (Among those contacted by
the Post were New York Times photographer Dith Pran, representatives at the Cambodian
consulates in Seattle and Los Angeles, as well as numerous activists and Cambodian
travel agency owners in Boston and Los Angeles who might have booked seats on the
Amid the confusion caused by the massive attacks, there were plenty of other erroneous
news reports, including at least one more that was related to the Cambodian community.
Khmer-language news articles claimed that chanteuse Touch Sunnich, who some Cambodian
Americans describe as the most famous touring Khmer singer, was killed en route to
Los Angeles from Boston. While
two Los Angeles-bound jets were hijacked before crashing into the World Trade Center
towers in an orgy of fire, killing all on board and thousands in the towers, Sunnich
was not on either one.
The singer, who toured the US last year, is fine, according to Ivette Sam, the owner
of Angkor Wat Karaoke in Los Angeles. Sam says that she and Sunnich were together
last week when they came across premature reports of Sunnich's demise.
"She did not die. She went to France. She was with me," Sam said. "It
was just a rumor."
Some Cambodians in Massachusetts are expected to miss a man who aided them in getting
started in farming. John Ogonowski, 50, the pilot on American Airlines flight 11
from Boston to Los Angeles, who lived in Dracut, Massachusetts , was born, raised,
and educated in what is now the sizable Cambodian community in Lowell, Massachusetts.
A pilot during the US war in Southeast Asia, Ogonowski later helped Cambodians in
Lowell obtain access to 150 acres of land through a federal agricultural preservation
program. A Sept 17 posting on the organic farming trade website "CropChoice"
detailed the fruits of Ogonowski's three-year effort to help Cambodian immigrants
become sustainable farmers in the US.
In a pre-taped radio interview slated to be broadcast on America's National Public
Radio this week, Ogonowski talks at length about how he got involved with the immigrant
farming program due to his love of agriculture, and he praises the hard working Cambodian
families involved in the project.
While Ogonowski was supposed to simply rent land to the growers, he rarely collected
the rents and was often toiling out in the fields himself, according to the website
obituary, which credits him with helping to give
dozens of Cambodian households a new start in farming this year alone.
The web posting also cites August Schumacher, Jr, the former United States Undersecretary
of Agriculture, speaking about Ogonowski's commitment to use farming to help those
who he had seen suffer from the war in Southeast Asia.
"He was so committed to helping immigrant farmers, to assist new immigrants
from war-torn Asia to make a better life farming in America," Schumacher said.
"I just think how ironic it is that someone who worked so hard to help victims
of terrorism should be brought down by an act of terrorism himself."
(Note: For those wanting to send condolences to Peggy Ogonowski and family, the address
is: 315 Marsh Hill Road, Dracut, MA 01826, USA. She has asked that contributions
in memory of John be given to the Dracut Land Trust to preserve farmland in his honor.
The address is: Dracut Land Trust, Inc. c/o The Enterprise Bank and Trust Co. 168
Lakeview Ave. Dracut, MA 01826 USA).