TV show reunites Cambodian families scattered by Khmer Rouge

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2015 2:29 AM
TV show reunites Cambodian families scattered by Khmer Rouge

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Tears welling in her eyes, Sam Somaly looked into the camera and pleaded to three siblings she had not seen in nearly 40 years — family lost to a nightmare that still haunts Cambodia today.

"I am your sister. I am looking for you," she said, clasping her palms tightly together. "If you hear this ... please come to me. I miss you so much. I'm getting sick because I miss you so much."

The Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia in 1975 and literally broke families apart as they forced this Southeast Asian nation's entire population to work in the countryside in a bizarre attempt to construct an ultra-communist agrarian society.

Somaly knew her parents and one brother were among the nearly 2 million people who succumbed to overwork, starvation and execution during four years of Khmer Rouge rule. But the fate of two remaining brothers and a sister was a mystery she likens to "finding a needle at the bottom of the sea."

She has no photos, no birth certificates, no other clues. Two siblings were very young when they were separated. Today, Somaly probably couldn't even recognize them.

But when she had all but given up, a glimmer of hope came. Not from a government aid program or a humanitarian group, but reality TV.

A show called "It's Not a Dream" has transformed the darkest episode in Cambodian history into one of the modern world's rawest forms of entertainment. Since it began in 2009, it has reunited dozens of families separated by the Khmer Rouge. When Somaly contacted the station for help, a crew came to film her story.

Her video was first broadcast a year ago. For months, there was no response.

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When black-clad Khmer Rouge fighters marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the entire capital was forced to evacuate. Somaly, around 9 at the time, remembers soldiers firing in the air as they ordered people to board trains. The corpses of those who had refused lay beside the tracks.

In the chaos, she was separated from her family. The Khmer Rouge banned religion, private property and money, and they viewed family bonds as a threat to the state. They separated husbands from wives, parents from children, brothers from sisters.

Somaly and her relatives were dispatched to separate villages in the northern province of Battambang. She managed to see some of them on rare occasions while they spent 12-hour days digging canals, building dams and tending to rice paddies.

When Vietnamese forces invaded in 1979 and put the Khmer Rouge on the run, Somaly was briefly reunited with her youngest brother, then about 6. But two days later, the Vietnamese army convoy they had been following was attacked, and the pair was separated again.

A year later, Somaly returned to Phnom Penh to try to find the tiny wooden shack that had been her home. But her memory was faint and the city had changed. She never found it.

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In July, a retired policeman watching an "It's Not a Dream" rerun stumbled upon Somaly's clip. Aov Vantha didn't recognize Somaly, but he did recognize names he hadn't heard in years — those of her father, Sam Seng, and her missing siblings, Sam Phalla, Sam Somala and Sam Sophath. He had known the family well in the early 1970s.

Somaly "seemed so lonely ... my heart just went out to her," Vantha later recalled at his home, an hour's drive from the capital. "All this time, we never searched for her, because we thought she was dead."

After the Khmer Rouge fell, most families trekked back to their homelands. Somaly never did because she had thought she was born in Phnom Penh. In reality, she came from a village next to Vantha's from which her family had fled to escape fighting.

Vantha called Bayon TV, where "It's Not a Dream" airs. "When can I see her?" he asked expectantly.

"You must be patient," came the reply.

The reunion, of course, would take place on TV. Until then, Somaly would know nothing.

Prak Sokhayouk, the producer, said her staff had to fact-check Vantha's claim and try to find Somaly's siblings. "We're in no way trying to prolong their pain," she said.

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Last month, Somaly was invited to the studio to recount her story. The station did not tell her that 15 of her relatives, mostly cousins, would be waiting behind a partition just off stage.

The rapt audience was mainly composed of older Cambodians. Those too young to remember the Khmer Rouge — a majority of the country at this point — are less interested in the show.

"They say it's a sad story to watch. They don't want to see people crying," Sokhayouk said. "Some young people don't believe the war was so cruel. I didn't either, until I started listening to the stories that started coming in."

The show began with Somaly's original video, followed by one featuring another cousin, and Vantha slicing banana trees on his farm. Both said they longed to see her again.

"Do you recognize these people?" the presenter asked Somaly.

She didn't, but the gravity of the intensely bittersweet moment was dawning. She was about to meet long-lost relatives, but not those she wanted most desperately to find.

"They are your cousins," the presenter said. "Do you want to meet them now?"

As the sound of a violin playing the "West Side Story" tune "Somewhere" filled the studio, a cousin walked on stage. Somaly, almost dazed, staggered into his embrace. The rest of the family streamed out and surrounded her as the audience applauded.

When the cameras stopped rolling, a cousin asked, "Do you remember when we used to play hide-and-seek?" Somaly shook her head.

Later, they would drive down dusty dirt roads to the place where Somaly was born. More lost relatives greeted her there. Stories would be told, histories remembered, long-forgotten faces finally recognized.

But now, lights dimmed on stage, an overwhelmed Somaly turned to the producer to thank her, and make one final plea.

"Please find the rest of my family," she said. "Please don't give up."

Sokhayouk assured her she would not.

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Associated Press Writer Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.