Years of civil war and a genocidal regime have resulted in countless separations of Cambodian families. And as time goes on, many survivors have already lost hope of seeing their parents, siblings or children again. Likewise, Bun Sen, a Cambodian woman who survived Khmer Rouge but had to live in abject poverty after the end of the ultra-Maoist regime, used to think that she would never reunite with her beloved sister Bun Chea after almost 50 years of separation. But, one day, an incredible miracle happened. Taing Rinith meets Bun Sen and hears how she finally got her happy ending.
One day in 1973, at the peak of the heated civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the US-backed Khmer Republic, a small village in Kampong Cham was targeted in an air attack. Many of innocent villagers were killed or injured, many others lost their homes.
As the attack came to an end, 51-year-old Bun Sen, with her husband Meas Bun, a farmer, and their six children, tearfully watched their house being swallowed by the fire caused by aircraft machine guns. The assault had taken everything they owned.
Losing the only home they’d ever had, the family decided to move to a new place where they could find new land and timber to build a shelter. They also had to leave straight away for fear of another attack, leaving Bun Sen with no time to say goodbye to her beloved elder sister, Bun Chea, who lived with her family in a faraway village.
“Until my sister got married, we used to be inseparable,” Bun Sen, now 98, tells GT2. “We went everywhere together and shared every piece of food we had, even a tiny piece of fried banana. But back then of course, staying alive was the most important thing.”
In the following two years, Bun Sen and her family wandered from place to place in Kampong Cham, but before they managed to find another place to call home, the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. Like the majority of Cambodians at that time, they were trapped in a life of forced labour and fear, under the watchful eye of the Angkar.
“There is nothing that can describe our hardship at that time,” Bun Sen reveals. “My only son was killed by the Khmer Rouge after he criticized a Khmer Rouge cadre and my second son became a soldier and went missing in the battlefield. My husband was driven out of his mind through grief and later disappeared. Later, I realised he had died because his ghost came to me.”
In spite of all the hardships and grief she was suffering, Bun Sen prayed every day for the safety and welfare of her beloved siblings, especially Bun Chea, although her hope to be reunited with them became fainter by the day.
After the collapse of the brutal regime in 1979, Bun Sen, despite longing to see her hometown and family again, decided to go to live in an area near the Cambodian-Thai border in order to receive a piece of land handed to her by the new government. She planned to restart her life as a farmer, but unfortunately, a crop failure left her unable to pay her debts and she was forced to leave for Phnom Penh.
Reunited at last
Life was still a struggle in the capital’s Steung Meanchey district, and Bun Sen, living with her youngest daughter by then, was forced to scavenge through trash on the street to survive. The meagre income did not allow her to visit her hometown.
“Even if I could, I didn’t want to go,” she confesses. “I would have been very embarrassed showing up in front of my relatives because I didn’t have any land or home to call my own. Plus, I thought all my siblings must have passed away already so there was no other reason for me to try and return.”
But Bun Sen’s luck changed for good when she met Scott Neeson, the former President of 20th-Century Fox International and the founder of Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).
“I first met Granny Bun Sen in 2004 and we’ve been supporting her ever since,” he says. “She was the first ‘yeay’ (Granny) I met when I came to Steung Meanchey and she became my eyes and ears on the ground. She would tell me about new kids in the area who were at risk and families who needed help.”
“I always trusted her. We get along famously. When she became very sick, she was in hospital and told me that she was dying. I arranged for the other grannies in the community to visit and sing songs to her for two days. Afterwards, Granny Bun Sen told me that she wasn’t ready to die after all and she rallied and got better.”
Ever since, Bun Sen has been enjoying both her new life and telling stories from the past to children at CCF. But she began to think that the only way she could reunite with Bun Chea, her dear sister, was in her next life, if that existed.
Making up for lost time
In January this year, Hoy Leanghoin, CCF’s Community Outreach Manager was surprised when he found out that Bun Sen had not visited her hometown even once in 47 years.
“She often talked about her home village in Kampong Cham, which is only about 120km from Phnom Penh,” Leanghoin says. “By the time she told me did want to go back, she was scared because it was now very hard for her to travel because she was wheelchair bound and unable to walk.”
“Something like that is not unusual among elder people who lost their families in the war and are struggling to support themselves now. There are also those who were abandoned by their children and simply hope to see their hometown again before they die.”
Two weeks ago, he offered to arrange for Bun Sen to visit her home village. Although Bun Sen does not remember where she used to live, her daughter, now in her 60s, had not forgotten.
Bun Sen was very happy during the trip, especially when she found out that some of her relatives are still alive. Then, in the afternoon, as Bun Sen sat on a bamboo bed at a relative’s house, she saw an elderly woman approaching the house. Her back was a bit crooked, but she could still walk by leaning on a walking stick.
Trembling and her eyes filled with tears of joy, Bun Sen suddenly recognised the woman, crying out, “Sis!” It was Bun Chea, her long-lost sister.
The two sisters could not run to one another, like something shown on a drama, but, Bun Chea, now 101, started walking faster to reach the bed and embrace her sister, as both dissolved into tears. The other relatives and CFF staff who were there could not hold their tears back either. It was the first time they had met in nearly 50 years.
As the pair filled in the missing years, it emerged that Bun Sen, similarly to Bun Chea, had lost her husband during Khmer Rouge and thought her sister had also died in the war.
“We had 13 relatives killed by Pol Pot and we thought that she [Bun Sen] had been too. It has been such a long time. We talked about her but I never thought we would see her again,” Bun Chea says.
Making up for the lost time
Bun Chea had also been living a hard life, relying on fellow villagers’ generosity.
Bun Sen immediately asked Bun Chea to come to live with her under her CCF roof, but she has been unable to because she has to take care of her mentally ill 50-year-old son.
Still, CCF has promised to help them make up for some of the lost time. This week, they arranged for Bun Chea to visit Steung Meanchey to see her sister again. They also had a city tour, visiting the riverside in Phnom Penh by the Royal Palace, Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine and the Norodom Sihanouk Memorial. Together, the sisters freed some birds for good luck and prayed to the shrine for more time together and to be sisters again in the next life.
CCF has promised to make another visit happen in April.
“After this poignant reunion, we want to do the same for all the elderly people in our Granny programme,” Leanghoin says. “Our resources are limited, but we will do whatever we can.”
Although Bun Chea is already a centenarian and Bun Sen almost one, the two sisters strongly hope that they will have more time together.
“Both of us are devoted Buddhists and never do anything bad, so we are blessed with long lives,” Bun Sen says. “But, without Scott, his organisation and his staff, all of this would never have happened. I am really thankful.”