PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Reality TV has a bad name for showing the lives of vapid, shallow people. But one Cambodian TV program uses the format for good.
Heng Keo Nita hosts the reality show “It’s Not a Dream”, which seeks to reunite families separated during the country’s turmoil of the Khmer Rouge. In less than four years, as many as two million Cambodians were killed. Millions more were scattered across the landscape.
Metfone, sponsor of the show on Cambodia’s Bayon TV, modeled the program after a similar post-war show in Vietnam.
Equipped with TV vans, cameras and a small team, Bayon’s investment has paid off. In addition to winning high ratings, the show has helped real people.
“It’s Not a Dream now has helped over 56 families who were separated since the war,” Prak Sokhayouk, the program manager, said of the show which started in 2010.
“We had over a thousand families listed on our program since it initially started, but we have to go in the order of registration,” Ms. Sokhayouk said in an interview. “We only ask for patience because there are too many people and not enough resources.”
“The Cambodian Red Cross has also helped over a thousand families since the war,” said Ms. Sokhayouk. Many Cambodians are still searching for loved ones lost during the war.
The music starts with a dramatic tune, the lights are low and the camera focuses on host Ms. Nita. Wearing a green and white dress, she stands on stage, surrounded by faces of a generation who survived the Khmer Rouge.
With her is a lady named Rom, short for Chhouksrom. Since filming her story on the show about looking for lost family members two years ago, she is finally meeting people claiming to know her before the war.
Crying while walking on stage, three women in sarongs slowly clutched their shirts and repeatedly asked: “Do you remember me? I know you.”
Ms. Rom could barely believe her eyes. Then one woman fainted abruptly in front of her.
The crowd was silent and in tears. On stage, the 49-year-old Rom stood stunned and bewildered as the TV crew rushed to help the lady who claimed she cared for her as a baby.
Awakened and reunited, the family sat down as the hostess softly asked them questions about their history, filling in blank pieces of memory that Rom has desperately longed for in her search for her family. Aunts, great aunts and second cousins sat next to Rom, but none of her immediate family members were there.
Still uncertain of the strangers claiming to be family, Ms. Rom was in a state of disbelief.
“Thirty percent of me wants to test them, and ask what happened to my family,” she told Khmer Times.
Three week later, Ms. Rom says she now believes that the people she met onstage a month ago are her real family members.
“Humans want to belong to a family. I have been searching for mine like a baby bird looking for a worm,” she recalled saying on TV. Now, she may have found two siblings in the United States. Her search for relatives continues.
A Cambodian Tale
Roth Siyan, a 57-year-old woman from Phnom Penh, is also looking for lost relatives – a younger brother and sister who were taken to re-education camps when she was forced to do hard labor in Pusat Province in 1975.
Ms. Siyan looked long and hard for her family after the war, only to discover that her elder siblings had passed away. Slowly losing faith of ever finding the only two members of her family who could have survived, she regained hope after seeing an episode of “It’s Not a Dream.”
Her youngest sister, Sreyeun, typically sported boy’s clothing, her tomboyish ways leaving her with a motorcycle burn on her leg, Ms. Siyan recalled. She was only eight years old the last time she saw Sreyeun.
She says her little brother, Jean Sok Yet, would be in his forties now. He was shy as a child and often stayed away from crowds. Ms. Siyan thinks the children would not remember their countryside home, but only their house in Phnom Penh near the Kap Ko market.
“I think they must have been adopted and taken outside the country,” Ms. Siyan said with a soft voice.
Although the waiting list is long, she hopes the show will be seen in international countries where many Cambodians fled during the Khmer Rouge takeover.
Ms. Siyan has waited 30 long years to be reunited with her siblings. Now she hopes she only has to wait a few more.
Roth Siyan hopes the show will help her find her two younger siblings. KT Photo: Nou Sotheavy
An elderly woman breaks down in tears as a family reunites onstage. KT Photo: Nou Sotheavy