TAN Kean Chhiv last saw her baby brother over 20 years ago on the day their mother
was executed by the Khmer Rouge, but like thousands of other Cambodians she refuses
to give up hope of one day finding him.
"I have always believed my brother is still alive somewhere listening to the
same songs as me, under the same stars," said Chhiv.
Chhiv is just one of a growing number of Cambodians who are now turning to DNA tests
to find family members lost in the chaos of the war years and to confirm whether
individuals they have found are actually genetically related, when photos, documents
and memories have been destroyed.
Mainly overseas Cambodians are using the costly but highly accurate tests to positively
identify kin and at least one foreign embassy here says they will recommend DNA tests
to help determine blood ties.
Chhiv, who now lives in Australia, lost her youngest brother Tan Kean Huor, known
as Pov, when he was handed, as a baby, to a village elder in Battambang, over 20
"In 1975, our father who ran a noodle shop in Anlung Vil in Battambang, was
executed by the Khmer Rouge, for trying to escape to find food," recalled Chhiv,
who was nine years old at the time.
"The next day a neighbor told us our mother and sister had also been executed
in a rice field on the outskirts of our village," she added.
"Pov witnessed the killings and would not stop crying, so he was handed to a
village organizer to be cared for... we don't know his fate, we never saw him again,"
Four of the ten members of Chhiv's family, the Tans, were executed or died of illness
during the KR years, and the surviving children, all living in Australia and the
US, are still trying to track down their youngest brother.
"Last year old village neighbors found a 23-year old fisherman, who had been
orphaned, living by himself near the Tonle Sap lake," Chhiv said.
"They believed they had tracked down our brother but we wanted to be sure that
he was Pov... otherwise if we accepted him we would always be wondering if our real
brother was still out there waiting," she said.
Two thousand dollars worth of DNA tests in an Australian laboratory later, the Tans
were informed that the orphaned fisherman had no genetic similarities to them...
so their quest continues.
The Tans will not be searching alone. The International Committee of the Red Cross's
(ICRC) Tracing Delegate Martin Hasler, said the avalanche of tracing requests to
ICRC in the 1980s and early '90s has declined but thousands of Cambodians are still
searching for lost loved ones.
ICRC's records show over 23,000 Cambodians have registered with their family tracing
service since 1989, trying to find relatives who never reappeared after Pol Pot's
forced relocations and the long running war.
"It's impossible to put a number on it, because for all those who have the initiative
to put in a request to ICRC, there are many more who have given up hope of finding
relatives alive after so long," Hasler said.
Requests for ICRC to find over 2,000 missing people have been made in the last two
years and over 1,500 of those cases are still unsolved, Hasler said.
"Most people contact us now because they have heard something that has given
them fresh hope, it's often reopening an old request," he added.
The ICRC delegate said DNA tests will be too costly to be of use to most Cambodians
but the tests are being eyed by embassies in the capital who are screening thousands
of Cambodians for family link-up immigration visas.
Australian embassy officials who witnessed the Tan family DNA tests for validity,
said they want to give more Cambodian families the opportunity to use DNA tests now
that the technology is available here.
"It will assist families who are trying to prove a relationship to individuals
they have located after years of separation," the embassy's first secretary
for Immigration, Linda Urquhart said.
"In 90 percent of [visa and immigration request] cases, we'll continue to rely
on the traditional methods, like written documentation and photos, but where there
is just no evidence DNA will be useful," Urquhart said.