Requests to find lost relatives dwindle as Cambodian Red Cross programme enters 22nd year
AS she sat among some photographs scattered on a mat in her Takhmao flat, Chan Sophan, 68, seemed pleased to recall the day they were taken: October 9, 2004. At 9:30 that morning she had been reunited with her son after 31 years of separation – an event she once though would never be possible.
In 1973, as fighting escalated between the US-backed Lon Nol regime and the insurgent Khmer Rouge, Chan Sophan and her husband, a government soldier from Prey Veng, parted with their son voluntarily, opting to send him out of the country rather than subject him to the hardships of war.
Because she and her husband were too poor to send him abroad themselves, they turned him over to a man who promised to take him to France, where he would be adopted by a well-to-do family.
“We were so poor, and there was no one who could help us, not even in Phnom Penh,” she said in a recent interview.
“I heard that they could take my son to France, so I decided to take a risk and hand him over to the man so that he would have a better future.”
As it happened, the middleman proved true to his word, and Sophal was adopted by a French couple who promptly changed his name to Jean Charles.
He did not begin to ask questions about his Cambodian parents until he was 14-years-old, and he did not actively search for them until he took a trip to Cambodia in 2004.
By that point, Chan Sophan had long ago given up hope of ever seeing him again.
“Even as early as when I gave my son away, I thought that I never expected that he would come back to look for me,” she said.
Jean Charles, too, grew discouraged as all initial efforts to locate his parents proved fruitless. Then a taxi driver suggested that he contact the Cambodian Red Cross, which he said ran a programme for people in his situation.
Since 1988 that programme, Restoring Family Links (RFL), has been reuniting relatives separated before and during the Khmer Rouge regime.
In its first year, it researched eight cases involving eight missing people. Four of them were found alive.
Requests for reunions taper off at the Red Cross
The Restoring Family Links programme launched in 1988 with eight cases. The programme’s success peaked in 1992 with over 2,000 positive cases, and results, along with requests, have gradually declined since then, falling to just two in 2009.
Source: Cambodian Red Cross JON TURNER
The next year, the number of cases skyrocketed to 528. A total of 226 people were found alive, and RFL was also able to provide information about the deaths of many of the others. This upward trend continued through 1992, when RFL helped to find 2,071 people in 1,588 cases.
Since then, however, demand for the programme has gradually declined. Last year saw 47 new cases, only two of which led to successful searches.
But Bruce Eshaya Chauvin, a regional medical delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has collaborated with RFL on search efforts, said he expected requests to keep filtering in, albeit at a slower pace.
“In the war, most people lost at least some links with their family, and even 30 years later they have no information,” he said.
Conducting a search
RFL relies on two methods when going about searches: tracing missing people by visiting their home villages, and sending out public appeals through the media.
Try Eav Heng, the head of the programme, said many people will instinctively return to their home villages, though he noted that this does not apply to everyone, notably former Khmer Rouge cadres who have opted to remain in former strongholds in the northwest.
Before visiting a village, he added, RFL consults databases of people who died in refugee camps along the Thai border, as well as those who were sent to the Cheoung Ek killing fields.
Media appeals, which Try Eav Heng said are generally less successful, are carried out in partnership with six television stations and one FM radio station.
In Jean Charles’s case, the programme prepared an appeal that was broadcast on TVK. It aired over the summer, and Chan Sophan contacted the CRC shortly afterwards. By mid-October, RFL had arranged for mother and son to finally meet at the CRC’s headquarters.
Though Jean Charles speaks very little Khmer, a factor that hindered the pair’s ability to communicate, Chan Sophan, whose husband died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, said the tearful reunion had provided some semblance of long-awaited closure after the difficult regime years.
She and her son have stayed in touch sporadically in the intervening six years, while he continues to live in France.
Meanwhile, Try Eav Heng said RFL continues to open new case files, having received three requests already this year.