One thing that has been so helpful to me in recent months has been the opportunity to get away from London and spend time enjoying the entirely different rhythm of life in a village in Lancaster. It’s low on cafes, but rich in many other things that have helped me find my feet and begin to look for a way forward. Hence, I’m writing this in the study of my friend’s house – they’re away and I’m spending a few days here alone, enjoying the space to walk, read and think. I’ve also watched the odd bit of TV, and have just finished watching Unreported World’s 40 Years to Find My Family, in which Krishnan Guru-Murthy reports on a reality TV show in Cambodia that reunites family members forcibly separated by the Khmer Rouge, the murderous communist regime that was in power during the 1970s.
The programme ends with a moving reunion between two sisters Hong and Bo who are then given a further surprise when their mother they had not seen since they were young children is brought onto the set. Their mother, who had seen her five sons die, and learnt of her husband’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, had been unsure if her daughters were alive.
Before the climax of the moving reunion of the three women, Guru-Murthy explored the horror of the torture and execution of millions at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of whom would later simply return to their communities to live side by side with neighbours whose families had been their victims. One soldier who had tortured many prisoners before they were executed only told his wife about his past after they were married. She had lost family members under the murderous regime, and when asked if she forgave her husband, she hesitated before saying ‘How can I be angry, we already had five children”.
Over four years, more than 1.7 million people lost their lives, but only three so far have been convicted for the crimes they committed. Although the trials continue, broadcast on TV, there is frustration with the apparent reluctance of the government to bring the perpetrators to book. The emphasis of the government on reconciliation, Guru-Murthy suggests, has been translated by some as brushing the events of the past under the carpet.
Focused as I am on how we move on from tragedy, what is necessary for ‘good’ grieving, what facilitates us moving on, how after losing everything we can face the future and hope, and rebuild, I felt very moved by the fact that so many people still don’t know what happened to their relatives. The idea that forgiveness and demands for reconciliation can be somehow imposed on them, seems incredibly unjust.
The Khmer Rouge had a policy of forced separation for families, and the depth of suffering was evident in the words, tears and facial expressions of those who told their stories, including Hong and Bo. While Hong who had gone to America to live remembered seeing her father killed in front of her, her younger sister, Bo, could not remember anything of her childhood, having evidently blocked out the memory.
With little or no government resources allocated to helping families be reconciled, it is left to a small team working on the reality TV show to undertake the massive task of helping the millions of people find their family members.
The reunions were orchestrated for maximum effect and it makes great TV, as well as doing a great public service, although it did appear that the happy, yet bewildered family were simply ushered out of the studio afterwards, with no idea of where they should go or what they would do now that they were reunited. This maybe sums up how little thought is given to the process not only of finding lost relatives, but to what is needed if people are going to rebuild their lives. The trauma and sorrow goes on, even if people like Bo had wiped out of their memory, and the government would prefer to bury the past. The film left me with the impression that there is much to be dealt with before the people of Cambodia can truly move on.