Twice left for dead and dumped in mass graves by Khmer Rouge cadres, only to regain consciousness and drag himself out, former Lon Nol official Peou Nam survived Cambodia’s killing fields believing he had lost all his loved ones.
Left traumatised by torture, beatings and attempted murder, he couldn’t remember the names or faces of his seven children by the time Vietnam toppled the Pol Pot regime.
Nam remarried, took on a new name and tried to begin a fresh life in Kampot province, where he had another six children. He had no contact with the children from his first marriage until, 36 years later, his lost family tracked him down.
“Nothing is more important than being reunited with my family,” Nam, who is well into his 80s, said yesterday, while relaxing at the home of his rediscovered son, Phnom Penh businessman Peou Phyrun.
In an interview with The Post yesterday, Phyrun and his older brother, University of Winnipeg political science department head Peou Sorpong, recounted the extraordinary rediscovery of their father, a quest sparked by dreams, premonitions and visits to a psychic.
“In a million years, who would imagine that we would be back together?” Sorpong said. “I always thought that he was dead, but at the same time was wondering if he was alive.
“It’s a natural instinct: a desire, a longing to see him again. And now it’s happened. It’s difficult to fully comprehend.”
The Peou family believed that Nam, who served as a mid-level official at the Ministry of Interior in Banteay Meanchey province during the Lon Nol regime, had been killed when he was taken away by Khmer Rouge soldiers in a military truck outside Poipet town in April, 1975.
After surviving the notorious brutality of the regime, they left the Kingdom and resettled in Canada in the early 1980s.
But in December, 2009, Sorpong dreamed that he was walking through the entire night “just chit-chatting” with his father, who told him that he was alive. The dream rekindled his yearning to see his father again, but he set it aside, not knowing what to do with it.
“I don’t believe in psychics, but my youngest brother wan-ted to try it out. He went to see a psychic to consult about his business. But for the first half- hour, she kept saying, ‘Your father is alive’,” Sorpong said.
Sambo, the youngest of five brothers, didn’t want to hear the advice, but recalled the story later, to the amusement of his sister and mother.
After two other visits by family members to the psychic, the Peou family decided, perhaps sceptically, to begin the search.
“I was sort of unhappy with my brother seeing that psychic, but he said, ‘Well, this may be one way to find out’,” Sorpong said.
Phyrun, the second-eldest brother, had recently moved to Cambodia and was in the best position to lead the quest.
Beginning in March last year, he began three fruitless months of trekking through villages and towns on the Thai side of the border, reasoning that his father would have found the rest of the family after 1979 if he had been living in Cambodia.
Empty-handed and losing hope, Phyrun discussed the prospects with the rest of his family and decided to travel to Poipet town in November.
He put up 1,500 posters bearing the only photo the Peou family had of Nam around the city, and talked to moto drivers, police and street vendors.
Later that month, several people told Phyrun that an old man with a likeness to his father had been begging at the markets. When he met the man, however, both agreed on only one thing: they weren’t related.
The man said all his children had been killed, but his cheek bore a mole, unlike that of Phyrun’s father.
Unexpectedly, the man began to cry, and struggled to explain himself. “He said that when he saw my face, when he met me, something reminded him about the past … it made him so sad that he couldn’t help himself from crying so bitterly,” Phyrun recalled.
Nevertheless, the two parted ways, only to bump into each other by chance the next day.
Phyrun decided to take the man out to a cafe. Yet again, the old man burst into tears, saying Phyrun reminded him of the past, or perhaps a previous life.
Phyrun asked for the man’s number and photographed him, but they went their separate ways: Phyrun to Phnom Penh and the old man to Kampot province.
Sorpong said that when he saw the photos, he thought immediately it was his father, but Phyrun remained sceptical.
Phyrun decided to visit the man at his home in Kampot.
At this third meeting, Phyrun’s doubts began to dissipate. The elderly man again broke down in tears. When asked why he had no scar on his thumbnail, as Nam had, the man said all of his fingernails had been pulled out when he was being tortured by the Khmer Rouge. He added that the mole on his cheek had emerged only recently.
Phyrun’s mother, Chhea Vath, said by phone that he should try a sure-fire test: food. Phyrun provided salty eggs, one of Nam’s favourite dishes, and a pumpkin stir-fry, something his father had always refused to eat. The old man in Kampot passed with flying colours, devouring four eggs and saying he would not touch anything with pumpkin in it.
Phyrun said he asked the man why he travelled to Poipet to beg, when Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh were closer.
“He said something caused him to want to go to Poipet, that nobody could stop him from going there,” Phyrun said.
“He was not a beggar, but when we went there people had compassion on him and gave him money,” Sorpong added.
Now in the same house as his father for the first time in 36 years, Sorpong says he is filled with a feeling of gratitude for “another remarkable chapter in life”.