The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
[This story was originally published November 25, 2011]
For 36 years, Sorn Sarim had been haunted by one thought: Would he ever see his family again? He was a government soldier when Pol Pot’s peasant army tromped into Phnom Penh in 1975.
In the confusion of those early days of the regime, when the first order was to empty the capital of its population, Mr Sarim lost track of his parents and his four sisters.
“I feel so lonely here, without my sisters and family,” Mr Sorn, 61, said recently at his small home in Kompong Cham province’s Tbong Khmum city.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and in the turmoil of the civil war that followed, Mr Sorn made attempt after attempt to find out what had happened to his loved one: he asked old neighbors, friends, whomever he met, if they knew anything of his family’s whereabouts.
Once, he trekked to the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border after hearing rumors that one of his sisters was still alive; he missed her by a few months.
For more than three decades, his quest seemed hopeless—until he heard about a show on Bayon TV.
Since July 2010, the reality-style show “It’s Not a Dream” has reunited 13 families separated during the Khmer Rouge regime.
On a lighted stage, in front of a packed and often weeping audience, long lost brothers, sister, children and parents have been reunited to a studio sound track of slow, dramatic music.
The show is an intoxicating mix of the emotional topics that still define Cambodia: The years of war and the indelible mark left on the majority of the population, the unending search for national reconciliation and, most of all, the family bond that can’t be broken by time.
Last month, a team of five people from Bayon TV traveled to Mr Sorn’s house near a large rubber plantation, where he told them his story.
“My memory of my family is harmony, we were so happy together,” he said, sitting on a dusty, wooden gazebo in front of his home.
He lived a middle-class life in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s. He was married and made a decent salary as a soldier. But life was shattered when the Khmer Rouge took power.
“The Khmer Rouge said we have to leave Phnom Penh only for three days and we would be back, so we didn’t bring any clothes or belongings,” he told the TV crew.
Soon he realized that the three days were meant to last longer than anyone had expected.
While living at a Khmer Rouge labor camp in Kandal province with his wife, the Khmer Rouge started to investigate people’s pasts. Cadres told his wife they were looking for people with military experience to help them, and she told them about her husband’s background as a Lon Nol soldier. Shortly afterward, a sympathetic Khmer Rouge soldier approached Mr Sorn in a paddy field and told him what happened.
“He told me to run away immediately, otherwise, they’d kill me that same night.”
He escaped, and for days, he was hunted by the Khmer Rouge who were constantly on his heels.
“But they found me and I was arrested.”
He was brought to a nearby camp, where he was tied up to a pole with his arms behind his back.
“I was about to be killed. I was hoping and praying to survive, and after some time, I managed to loosen the ties and free myself.”
On the run again, having nothing to eat, he made it to a remote village, where he took on a new identity.
“I pretended to be a silly man. The Khmer Rouge asked me all the time what I did in Phnom Penh. I said I was a cyclo driver and pretended to be retarded.”
He survived the regime, but he never stopped thinking about his family.
As the TV crew asked him about his lost parents and sisters, Mr Sorn started to cry.
“I miss them so much, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where they are. I have no idea where to look for them. Maybe they live in France or the US?”
And then, on cue, he asked the question that the show’s producers had anticipated.
“Do you know where my family is?”
And they do know.
But show business is show business, and for the sake of the emotional catharsis that has made “It’s Not a Dream” so addictive, they will not tell Mr Sorn that they may have found his younger sister.
“It’s hard for us not to tell them that we found a family member already,” said Prak Sokhayouk, the show’s producer.
They can’t tell, Ms Sokhayouk said, if they want to shoot the emotional reunion on stage in their Phnom Penh studio in front of a live audience.
If they had revealed to Mr Sorn that his sister, Sorn Sam Oeun, was alive and living with her husband, children and grandchildren in Kompong Speu province, he would have left right away to see them, Ms Sokhayouk said.
“We regret that we can’t tell them, especially when they cry; we all just want to say, ‘Stop crying, we found your family.’”
But they don’t.
Mr Sokhayouk admitted that the people selected for the program have encountered a lot of anxiety and mental pressure.
There is no psychologist attached to “It’s Not a Dream,” but the team of interviewers, camera people, producers and directors try to talk to participants to ensure they are dealing well with the emotional rollercoaster. They also have a nurse available on call, Ms Sokhayouk said.
Dr Muny Sothara, a psychiatrist with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Cambodia, said he generally supports the show, but expressed concern that there was no psychological counseling.
People should be briefed about what exactly is going to happen before, during, and after the show—which would also involve a slower approach to revealing that a member of somebody’s family has been found, Dr Muny said.
“In psychology, we have a process of talking to people to reduce their reactions. But maybe [the show] wants to create a surprise moment so there is more emotion and it attracts a bigger audience.
“The process should be well prepared. There should be at least one psychologist on the show to work with them.”
A few weeks after interviewing Mr Sorn, Ms Sokhayouk and her team visited Ms Sam Oeun in her small house, right next to National Road 3 in Kompong Speu province, where an extended roof covered several beds on an open-air deck.
Ms Sam Oeun’s life was just like her brother’s.
Sitting on a bed next to her ailing husband, she recalled the moment she first found out that her brother was still alive: “It was August 8 and I was having lunch with my family. My husband and I were listening to the radio. Suddenly, a voice said my mother’s name, and then my father’s, the names of my sisters, and then mine.”
“I was so surprised and excited, I had never dreamed that my brother was still alive. Before the announcement, I thought that everybody in my family was killed. Now, it feels like my brother has come back from the dead, like a resurrection,” she said.
And like her brother, Ms Sam Oeun told the crew how she had suffered during the Khmer Rouge.
She told how their sisters and parents died during the regime. How she had to move to a refugee camp along the Cambodian-Thai border because she heard there was food there.
“The regime made me suffer. Without [the Khmer Rouge] my life would have never been so bad. I had a good life in Phnom Penh, but the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything.”
“They destroyed my whole family, the Khmer Rouge are responsible for that, and I want the court to punish them.”
In Cambodia, the family was the strength of everything: Support, economy, power, decisions, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“For the Khmer Rouge, the only way to control and destroy your was to separate [you] from your family. When you are separated…each person felt like they lost their strength. They didn’t even have to kill you, just put you from Phnom Penh somewhere in a rice field in the province, without your brother or sister or anybody. People got traumatized by the isolation,” Mr Chhang said.
“It’s Not a Dream” is one way of reconnecting the pieces of shattered families, Mr Chhang said.
“I think family is the foundation of Khmer culture and it was broken and vanished during the Khmer Rouge. The show is extremely important because it reaches out to many people, because people watch TV.”
Ms Sokhayouk, the show’s producer, also believes the show’s importance is not just about its massive ratings.
“My generation knows a lot about it [the Khmer Rouge regime], but some young people don’t believe what happened, because it’s just so crazy,” she said. “I think my mother is very proud of me and my work. Sometimes she says ‘Oh, Sokhayouk, your show always makes people cry.’”
While recording the siblings’ first meeting earlier this month, tears did fall among the audience at the Bayon TV studio.
Sitting on blue and red plastic chairs, the crowd talked quietly about their own lives under Pol Pot. As the studio’s stage lights dimmed and spotlights shone on Mr Sorn, the audience fell silent. He still did not know that he was about to see his sister again.
On a large screen, a video showed an older woman wearing small gold earrings, preparing lunch over an open fire.
Maybe it was instant recognition or just the emotional strains of weeks of anticipation, but Mr Sorn’s eyes filled with tears when the woman started talking about her life and how much she missed her family.
A few meters away behind a stage curtain, Ms Sam Oeun looked anxious and jittery as she saw her brother’s reaction on another TV screen. As the video ended, she bolted on to the stage screaming “Bong, Bong, I know you are my brother.”
Mr Sorn and his sister hugged each other crying for several minutes.
“Our parents are dead,” Ms Sam Oeun sobbed. “And our sisters, are they dead too?” he asked, sobbing too. “Yes Bong,” answered Ms Sam Oeun, “they are dead already as well.”
Later, when the cameras stopped recording, and the studio lights were turned off, and as the stage equipment was packed away, Mr Sorn and his sister joined the departing audience, leaving the studio hand in hand.
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