T WENTY years since the Khmer Rouge seized power, launching a vicious social revolution
which forcibly split apart most Cambodian families, thousands of Khmers are still
Each year, the lucky ones finally find out that their loved ones are alive and -
with the help of international agencies - are able to contact them.
The Khmer Rouge years, followed by the Vietnamese occupation which sent nearly 300,000
people flocking to border refugee camps, led to vast numbers of Cambodians losing
contact with family members.
Trying to find them - whether they stayed in Cambodia or fled - is a daunting but
not impossible task.
Efforts to help search for missing people were launched in the late 1980s by the
Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
with each running their own tracing service. They later joined forces to establish
the Tracing Agency, a network of agents based at local Red Cross branches throughout
Cambodia, using a central data-base in Bangkok.
ICRC, operating from Thai border refugee camps, managed to locate 18,600 of 22,700
missing people reported to them by family members between 1989-92.
Initially, most cases were requests from refugees looking for information about relatives
After the 1991 Paris Agreements allowed refugees to be repatriated, the focus gradually
changed to Cambodians looking to contact relatives who had been granted asylum in
countries such as Australia, France and Canada.
But many in Cambodia still look for family members they believe are still in the
According to Simone Schneider, the Tracing Agency's delegate in Cambodia, some 2,165
cases of Cambodians in Cambodia looking for relatives abroad were filed with the
agency between 1992-94. Of those, 471 people (21 percent) were located.
In the same period, 1,641 requests to help find people within Cambodia were filed,
of which 324 (20 percent) were found.
The agency currently receives about 56 cases a month, about 38 of them relating to
They come from people like Danh Neang Monique, who - after all the rest of her family
were killed by the Khmer Rouge - got news of her only surviving brother in April
Monique, 37, who now lives in Takmao south of Phnom Penh, last saw her brother Danh
Bun Soumy during the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh by the KR in April 1975.
Soumy, who had studied in France and married a French woman, responded to a KR appeal
for Khmer-French people to go to the French Embassy for departure to France.
Monique and the rest of her family made their way to Preah Vihear, hoping to flee
Monique said 20 members of her family, including her mother, five sisters and two
brothers, were killed by the KR after they were caught. Her father, a high-ranking
army officer during the previous Lon Nol regime, managed to escape and remains missing
to this day.
After the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, Monique traveled through Cambodia looking
for her father and brother. She searched for evidence of them at the Toul Sleng prison
but found nothing.
She finally turned to ICRC who, within 18 months, had matched the details she gave
with a tracing request filed by her brother in Thailand.
Her brother is now living in France and she has written to him and hopes one day
to see him in person. ICRC cannot trace their father, and she has given up hope of
Simone Schneider says over half of the people who registered with it are looking
for relatives missing since 1975. Many of the rest lost contact with family members
during the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
While many missing people are logically likely to be dead - such as many of those
taken away for Rean Sotr (rehabilitation) during the Khmer Rouge period - there is
always hope that some are still alive.
To try to prevent raising false hopes, and wasting time and resources, the agency
recently tightened its criteria for accepting tracing requests.
Schneider said that of 900 "non-coded" requests - where firm leads were
not provided - accepted since 1990, only one was solved.
Now it has been decided not to accept requests relating to people missing since before
1975, or where the information provided is no more than rumor.
For Cambodians missing abroad, hard information like a last-known address or the
exact date of departure from Cambodia is needed.