WASHINGTON—Sophonna Valerie Nong recalls in detail the day in 1975 when her younger sister vanished in a crowd of Cambodians being force-marched out of the capital, Phnom Penh, by the Khmer Rouge.
The car carrying her mother, four sisters, grandmother, and uncle suffered a flat tire six kms (three miles) northwest of the city, and the family had to get out and walk. “But there were too many people,” she said.
The second youngest of the girls was Nong Watana, nicknamed Srey Noech, who was then aged two or three. She was swept into the crowd with the children’s grandmother and uncle and never seen again, Nong said.
Three decades after the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia upside down in a frenzy of bloodletting, a U.N. tribunal is at last under way to bring the faction’s surviving leaders to justice. Thousands of Cambodians worldwide, however, seek a different kind of closure.
They want to find or account for loved ones who vanished during those dark years from 1975-79, during which the Khmer Rouge killed, tortured, starved, or worked to death somewhere between one million and two million people.
Searching without luck
Nong, like many Cambodians, said she was aware of the U.N. tribunal but takes little comfort from it. She wants to find her missing sister.
The members of her family who survived the murderous Khmer Rouge regime returned to Phnom Penh for two years in 1979. They later spent six months in the Kao Y Dang refugee camp in Thailand and then left for the Philippines, before proceeding to the United States in December 1982, she said.
For years, Nong said, they busied themselves making a home in their adopted country, but they never stopped missing Nong Watana. Her mother asked after her lost child for years, with no luck, Nong said.
Thirty-three years later, Nong, 36, a naturalized American and a legal assistant in California, has taken up searching for her baby sister, inspired by the Christian faith she embraced in her new country and aided by communications technology that wasn’t available in the 1980s and 90s.
Nong has started a blog, contacted the Red Cross, begun advertising in Khmer-language media, and blanketed the Internet with pleas for information about Nong Watana, her grandmother Meas Kim Orn, and uncle Kang Pirun.
No photos of them have survived, and even Nong’s mother has largely abandoned hope of finding them.
“I have faith in God, and with faith and his guidance, it gives me hope and motivation to find my sister who is missing,” she said. “And with today's media and technology, I believe it will be possible to find my sister, my grandmother, and my uncle.”
A Christian friend has assured her, she said, that her sister is “still alive, living somewhere not in the United States, and she has some children but I don’t know how many.”
“I strongly believe she is alive,” she said.
Back in Phnom Penh, the Documentation Center of Cambodia has received some 200 letters from Cambodians searching for relatives through the “family tracing” project the center launched back in 1995.
The Documentation Center plans to publish the names and details of every reported missing person in 2009.
Most of the letters come from Cambodians abroad, who write in English, but some also arrive in Khmer from Cambodians who remain in their native country.
“It’s our most important project and has been done on a volunteer basis. We call it a service of the heart,” Peoudara Vanthan, deputy director of the Documentation Center.
The project is staffed by more than 2,000 volunteers, most of them young Khmers and civil servants, Peoudara Vanthan said.
Volunteers collect as many clues as they can in a Khmer- and English-language database about the hundreds of thousands who remain missing. But unique challenges remain in this developing country, where literacy rates are relatively low and only 0.3 percent of the population has Internet access.
“People who have searched for lost family members are more from abroad because Internet access is easier than in Cambodia,” Peoudara Vanthan said.
“In Cambodia, the post office is still limited in terms of sending letters back and forth from the provinces, especially in rural areas. They sometimes come in person to our office or through the government office or taxi,” he said. “We also are planning to publish all the names from our database as a family tracing book and hope to deposit it in every commune office across the country.”
Accounting for family members and holding a U.N. tribunal, however, can only go so far. Polling by the Documentation Center between September 2002 and June 2003 found Cambodians remain ambivalent about their country’s grim history and how to move forward.
Asked if they could forgive the Khmer Rouge for the suffering it inflicted, more than 67 percent responded “no.” But asked if they would seek revenge if they found out that surviving villagers were responsible for the deaths of their lost relatives, nearly 69 percent said they wouldn't.
Roughly 57 percent said they might be able to forgive Khmer Rouge cadres if they were to stand trial.
Asked whether she's prepared to learn her sister may not have survived, Nong said she was. "If I don’t find anything about my sister, or find out that she has died, I would feel sad, but at least I’ve tried my best and put [forth] all my effort and love to find her," she said.
"I want her to know that my family and I still love her and [are] thinking about her and searching for her, and don’t want to give up until we know the truth."
Original reporting by Yanny Hin for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service chief: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.