Separated by genocide, reunited by reality TV. Dateline meets the determined young TV producer finding answers the Cambodian government struggles to.
It is one of the biggest TV shows in Cambodia. Every week ‘It's Not A Dream’ pulls in massive audiences as it reunites families after decades apart.
MOTHER (Translation): My daughter, my daughter.
They are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime which killed millions. This is reality TV with ambition, healing wounds from one of Cambodia's darkest and most painful legacies. Four decades ago Cambodia suffered one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. We have all heard of the killing fields of Cambodia when 1.7million people were killed when Khmer Rouge communists of Pol Pot reigned here with terror for four years. What is less well-known is how families here were deliberately and systematically separated and they are still paying the price today. In the capital Phnomh Penh a small television team is working to bring those separated families back together.
SOKHA YOUK: This is the studio where we are going to have our reunion programs and in front of you we will have a big stage.
Sokha Youk created the show in 2010 and is now the series producer. She is 35 years old.
REPORTER: You weren't born in the 1970s, were you?
SOKHA YOUK: No.
REPORTER: No. So you have got no recollection yourself of what happened?
SOKHA YOUK: Yes. But my mother was. They had probably 20 members in a house, and 19 were died during that war, except her.
Sokha believes hundreds of thousands of people remain separated. The team has a huge backlog of cases that will take years to get through.
REPORTER: Can you tell me about this week's show?
SOKHA YOUK: This week is about a reunion program for a woman who is living in the United States. And we have found her younger sister who’s living in Kampong Chnang Province right now.
This week's story, she says, is unlike any they have put on TV before.
SOKHA YOUK: It's the best! It's the best talk show ever we are going to have. It is a very surprising one.
REPORTER: You are being a little cryptic. Are you holding something back from me?
SOKHA YOUK: No.
SOKHA YOUK: Maybe! Just follow it. We will reveal it on the talk show day.
TELEPHONIST (Translation): Hello, this is ‘It’s Not a Dream.’
People contact the show's hotline with their cases every day. There are no effective government services to help separated people and although the Red Cross does some work in the area it's Sokha's team of 12 that have proved the best asset reuniting families involves months of painstaking detective work to find relatives and confirm matches.
SOKHA YOUK (Translation): Could you rewind the footage?
But their most powerful tools are TV and radio. The team travels across Cambodia recording appeals from people searching for their relatives.
SOKHA YOUK: People who come to us they say the same thing. It is their last hope that they come to us. So their dreams and hopes depend on us.
It is Monday, 6 o'clock. The time of the week that ‘It's Not A Dream’ broadcasts its appeal. These are desperate pleas from across the country, over the airwaves. Hoping against the odds that after all this time their loved one is still living - still out there, and with a bit of luck watching. The message is always the same - I'm alive, I'm here, please find me. The crew meets one of the long lost sisters in this week's show, Siv Hong. She has just flown in from the United States.
SIV HONG (Translation): How are you?
SOKHA YOUK (Translation): I am fine. Everything okay this morning?
After years in a refugee camp Hong began a new life in Texas in 1984. She's now married, has two children and runs a donut shop. Joining her on this trip, her daughter Nary, who was born and raised in America.
REPORTER: What made you first get in touch with the program?
SIV HONG (Translation): Because Bayon TV is famous for helping people find relatives.
Hong first contacted the team two years ago, but she doesn't know they have since found her sister. She's been told she's here just to film another appeal.
SIV HONG (Translation): I am your sister, my name is Ly Siv Hong. I miss you very much. Do you miss me? I’ve come to find you.
Hong has good memories of life in Phnomh Penh as a little girl but in 1975 the Khmer Rouge regime emptied the cities and forced families to separate.
SIV HONG (Translation): We enjoy before we don’t have war. I was very happy, you know. Before, I live with all my family.
The Khmer Rouge forced Hong to move north with her father and younger sister. Her mother and other siblings were sent to a different part of the country. Word eventually reached Hong that her five brothers and sisters had all starved to death.
REPORTER: Do you know what happened to your mother?
SIV HONG (Translation): No. She thinks - um, me die. I think her die. I couldn't find her.
Hong and her little sister were the only ones that she knew had survived. For a while, an old lady took them in but there wasn't enough food, so each sister was sent away to live with a different family. They never saw each other again.
SIV HONG (Translation): I really wanted to say goodbye to her but I don’t have a chance. I can’t hold my tears when I talk about all my story. I’m crying, you know.
Later that day, I join Hong and her daughter as they visit the famous killing fields at Cheung Ek, which have been preserved in memory of the genocide.
REPORTER: Do you know much about what happened? Has your mum talked to you about it?
NARY: A little bit. I get real overwhelmed, so I usually just walk away. I don't - I can't handle it. .
The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a farming-based communist utopia. They banned religion, private property, and the use of money. Everyone was forced to work in the fields and anyone who might be a threat was tortured into confessing treason and then killed. There are mass graves like this all over Cambodia, more than 20,000 have been documented so far each linked to a prison or torture centre. And if the scale of it is mind-boggling, the way people died is even worse. Often to save ammunition people were not shot dead, instead their heads were smashed with wooden clubs or farm tools. They fell into ditches they had dug themselves.
SIV HONG (Translation): So maybe my dad they pick him up and put him here. I don’t know which one.
REPORTER: Is that what you are thinking?
SIV HONG: Yes. Because there are a lot of skulls you know. They didn’t put name in there.
Hong tells me how her father died. He'd fallen out of a tree trying to gather coconuts and was no longer able to work in the fields, so a Khmer Rouge soldier killed him.
SIV HONG: He chopped my dad and my dad fall, like a tree and all the blood come out just like fire, just like water.
REPORTER: You were standing there? You were standing there watching?
SIV HONG: Yes, I was standing there yes. I really don’t know what to do. I’m really scared you know but I don’t know what I’m doing because I’m young.
REPORTER: How could people do this?
SIV HONG: I don’t know what idea they kill for, but they like to do that.
We are heading out to Kampong Chnang Province, this is rice farming territory and fingers crossed we are here to meet sister Bo. It is a long way from Texas. Bo heard her sister's original appeal and contacted the ‘It's Not A Dream’ hotline. She knows a reunion is imminent.
REPORTER: What will you say to her?
BO (Translation): That even if she is poor she is still my sister.
She says that after meeting her sister, she will feel complete.
BO (Translation): I look at other people, they have siblings and stayed together with their parents. But I lost mine. I live without any brothers and sisters.
Bo is a rice farmer. She's led a hard-working but happy life. She's married and has four children but she says she always felt haunted by the past, even though her memories of it are foggy.
BO (Translation): We ran away from the Pol Pot regime, it was only the two of us.
REPORTER: You do remember your sister?
BO (Translation): Yes, I remember her name is Hong.
REPORTER: You don't remember her face?
BO (Translation): I don’t remember clearly. I was young.
The next afternoon I visit Tuol Sleng in the capital known as S21. It was once a school, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of their main torture centres, anyone accused of plotting against the regime was brought here, along with their families and brutally tortured. At least 17,000 people came through these doors. Only a handful survived.
You see the instruments of torture or the pictures of death, you think about the atrocity, the dreadful act but when you see these images of prisoners alive and terrified, you think about the person, the individual loss of life, and that's, in a way, much more overwhelming. Not all the culprits went unpunished, the Cambodian government, together with the United Nations, has created a special court to hold to account the leaders who masterminded the Khmer Rouge atrocities. The trials are ongoing and televised but many people feel disillusioned. After eight years only three people have been convicted. One of the people who testified was Prak Khan, a former Khmer Rouge soldier.
PRAK KHAN (Translation): Back then they had the power to give us orders, we had to do it.
For three years this soft spoken man was an interrogator at S21 who tortured hundreds of people.
REPORTER: After you tortured people who would happen to them?
PRAK KHAN (Translation): After it was done we put them back in prison. Whenever it was the day to kill them they would all be collected together.
REPORTER: We have spoken to one person who lost her family and when I ask her about how she feels about the Khmer Rouge she can't understand how people like you did what you did. What explanation would you give her?
PRAK KHAN (Translation): Let me tell you how it was. The rule at that time if you didn’t follow any of the orders that were given they would kill you.
When the regime fell, most Khmer Rouge soldiers, like Prak, melted back into society, sometimes living side by side with their victims. Prack product's wife Vorl tells me she only found out about her husband's past several years into their marriage.
REPORTER: How did you feel when you found out?
VORL (Translation): I felt scared, my relatives owned businesses. Many of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
REPORTER: Do you forgive him for what he's done?
VORL (Translation): I don’t know. How can I get angry? We already had five children.
Whether Prak Khan and people like him should be allowed to live in peace or should be pursued through the courts has been the great dilemma facing this country ever since the end of Khmer Rouge. But modern Cambodian government seems clear - it does not want to pursue people at his level. They say reconciliation demands people now living together. The big day has arrived, Sokha is leading a rehearsal.
SOKHA YOUK: Because I am very excited with the show. I’m wearing a different pair of shoes.
REPORTER: By accident?
SOKHA YOUK: Yes!
First to arrive, Hong and her daughter.
REPORTER: How are you feeling today?
SIV HONG: Very happy, excited too much..
While the team have confirmed nothing, Hong clearly suspects she's going to be reunited with her sister.
SOKHA YOUK (Translation): Try to answer with what you can remember.
Sokha takes her through the questions on the show, but she's also lowering Hong's expectations, suggesting she is just here to make another appeal.
SOKHA YOUK (Translation): Every answer will help my team to find new leads.
The subterfuge maintains the element of surprise. This is, after all, television.
SOKHA YOUK: We always get blamed after the talk show “Oh you cheated, you lied”, but they’re saying those words with a smile.
Next up is Bo. It's the first time she's back in Phnomh Penh since she was forced to leave with her family 40 years ago.
REPORTER: Are they going to be kept up here in the boardroom? Away from anybody else?
Unlike her sister, Bo knows they will be reunited today.
REPORTER: You look very serious. How are you feeling?
BO (Translation): Scared.
WOMAN (Translation): Don’t be scared, act normal. I think you’re worried
BO (Translation): I’m scared.
The audience are in. Everybody is in their place. The lights are on. It is showtime.
HOST (Translation): I would like to welcome you again to ‘It’s Not a Dream’
Hong is invited on stage and starts talking about her life.
SIV HONG (Translation): In 1975 they evacuated and separated us from each other.
Just behind the set Bo hears for the first time the story of her family and their separation.
HOST (Translation): You ran away with your younger sister. How difficult was that for you?
SIV HONG (Translation): Very difficult, there was nothing to eat.
The host invites Hong to look at the screen for a special message.
BO (Translation): My name is Bo. I was separated from my older sister.
HOST (Translation): Do you remember her?
SIV HONG (Translation): Yes.
HOST (Translation): Do you want to meet your sister who you haven’t seen for nearly 40 years?
BO (Translation): I’ve been waiting for you sister.
HOST (Translation): Are you both feeling happy?
SIV HONG (Translation): I’m so happy, nothing can compare to this.
HOST (Translation): Look at these. Do you know the people in these pictures?
This is Hong and Bo's family in 1975. Hong recognises them immediately, but she's never seen these photos before. Hong and Bo have been reunited, but it has just become clear that there is an even bigger surprise.
HOST (Translation): Hong and Bo must be wondering who else is still alive and gave these photos to our programme?
TOI SUYMOY, MOTHER (Translation): Siv Hong and Bo, I’ve tried to find you many times but couldn’t. I miss you very much. If you hear this, hurry up and find your mother.
HOST (Translation): Do you recognize the person in the video?
SIV HONG (Translation): Yes, she is my mother.
HOST (Translation): Do you two want to meet your mother?
SIV HONG (Translation): Yes, we want to.
SIV HONG & BO (Translation): Mother!
TOI SUYMOY (Translation): I was so worried thinking about you.
I'd met Toi before the show. Under the Khmer Rouge she had watched five of her seven children starve to death. Then came news her husband had been killed.
TOI SUYMOY (Translation): I lost hope. I just walked looking for relatives and never found any.
She never knew what happened to her two remaining girls. The hope they had survived became her reason to live.
TOI SUYMOY (Translation): I always imagine their faces as if they were small, like in the photos.
REPORTER: Yes, thank you! What do you think?
TOI SUYMOY (Translation): I feel happy and excited, very excited.
REPORTER: What happened when your mum came out? Did you have any idea?
SIV HONG (Translation): I don’t have no idea. I thought she’d already died. I meet my mother back.
BO (Translation): I don’t want us to separate, we want to be together like a family.
A new set of relatives are introduced, and the whole family pose for a portrait, together for the first time in 40 years. The big question is - what now? And they don't seem to have any idea. They don't know where they are sleeping tonight, how they are all going to stay together, or what the future may bring. But you feel certain that they are staying together, one way or another.
26th May 2015