Cambodian Families Reconnect
As prospects for an end to civil war brighten, lines to a shattered past are reestablished
SITE 2, THAILAND — NAV Pauline knows the elation of finding lost family. This year, the Red Cross worker who traces separated Cambodians was reunited herself with a 22-year-old niece in this maze-like refugee camp stradling Thailand's border. She had last seen the girl in 1975."When I heard the news, I just rushed and rushed and ran and ran to her," the woman said inside a bamboo hut, which serves as her tracing office. "She said that many times she rode her bicycle by here but didn't know I was her aunt." But Mrs. Nav also knows the ache of continued separation. Two of her four brothers survived the brutal rule of the Marxist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but can't be traced. Amid a building momentum for peace, Cambodians are beginning to reconnect to a shattered past. The Khmer Rouge drove deep divisions among Cambodians, forceably separating families and driving an estimated 2 million people into the countryside in its savage agrarian restructuring. The radical Marxists are blamed with the death of more than 1 million people by execution or starvation. "There is no Khmer [Cambodian] family today without one member separated or missing," says Alfredo Mallet, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "This is one conflict where there was a clear purpose of separating the families." Red Cross officials say interest in tracing lost families is growing amid brightening prospects of ending Cambodia's 12-year civil war. The agency receives 100 new cases each month, up from 20 when the program started at the beginning of 1989. In the last three months, the Phnom Penh government, backed by Vietnam, and the three resistance factions, dominated by the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, have called a cease-fire and moved toward a peace settlement. Most Cambodians are seeking relatives missing or out of touch for a decade or longer. Still, the likelihood of finding lost family has improved significantly with widening access inside the country and Cambodians' strong village ties, says the Red Cross, which runs its largest tracing network in Cambodia. Officials say they can trace 80 percent of the requests, mostly inside Cambodia. Efforts to track people in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and overseas have been less successful. "They are still linked to their original village," says Mallet, the Red Cross official. "In a village, they are all related in a way and everyone knows everyone." The big problems, however, come in tracking Cambodians from the cities that were thrown into tumult when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. People were forced into the exodus from the towns and disappeared. Other families were separated when the Khmer Rouge was routed from power by Vietnam in 1978 and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled or were forced to flee to the Thai border. "Whole families were pushed around very often," says Andre Tschiffeli, a Red Cross official. In the capital, Phnom Penh, some remnants of those lost lives remain at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, a high school converted into a torture center by the Khmer Rouge. Fleeing the Vietnamese invasion, the Marxists left behind 4,200 prisoner documents and confessions, and 6,000 photos. An estimated 20,000 people died there. Judy Ledgerwood, a Cambodian specialist at Cornell University, is translating and organizing the documents as a historical source. In two instances, she says, the records helped Cambodian friends determine the fate of relatives. With peace prospects looming, tracing lost family members has become increasingly difficult in the Thai border camps, Red Cross workers say. Camp populations are on the move to tap the thriving border commerce and many plan to locate family only upon resettling in Cambodia. Reuniting families can also be touchy for Cambodians. In some instances, the new-found relative refuses to respond after being traced. Requests to find children adopted in Western countries years ago create other dilemmas. The years of infighting and turmoil have also left many Cambodians wary and uncertain. In the camps, Cambodians say many refugees, even those who locate family, will not resettle in their original village, fearing old rivalries and revenge. Hou worked in Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge but then lost a leg fighting for another Cambodian resistance group. He just reestablished contact with his parents in Cambodia after 16 years. But, he says, "I won't return to the old place because I want to find a job," he said. "Sometimes people were not happy with each other during Pol Pot time," says Nav, the Red Cross worker. "Cambodian people can't clear that out from their minds. They are still afraid."