Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Escape from the killing fields

Family reunited with dad they thought was dead

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Prof. Sorpong Peou's last memory of his father Nam had been watching the Khmer Rouge throw the elder man into a blue truck in 1975 to be taken to execution in the killing fields of Cambodia.

Sorpong Peou was 17 and terrified he would soon die just like his father. And seeing him hauled away was his last memory of Nam Peou until the two embraced in Phnom Penh last month.

For 36 despairing years, the father thought his wife and seven children had been murdered; the family believed their father and husband had died.

"It's a complicated story, a complicated life," Peou said quietly, sitting in his Lindenwoods home. For the past year, Peou has been the chairman of the political department at the University of Winnipeg.

"My life has been a long journey, from being a survivor of the civil war, to being a survivor of the killing fields, to being a refugee in Canada," said Peou.

Back to 1975: Peou's parents and their seven children, Sorpong the eldest, his dad a government official in a country torn by civil war, were struggling to survive in a country gone mad. The Americans had withdrawn, the government fell, and the Khmer Rouge began the systematic murder of the two million most-educated of Cambodia's seven million citizens.

"Those who survived had to pretend we were uneducated," said Peou, forced to become a slave labourer pulling a plow. "Young men were forced to pull plows, because there weren't enough oxen... starvation, no medical care, I was close to death so many times," recalled the 55-year-old Peou, who has a wife and two children.

Someone witnessed his father Nam Peou executed, Peou said, and that much was true. "Definitely -- he was taken away for execution. He was thrown into a ditch, bodies on top of him, but he didn't die."

Peou's father fled, was captured again, tortured, and then somehow got away into the jungle on the Thai-Cambodian border, believing his family was dead.

They weren't, but they were living through hell.

Those next three years were depicted in the film The Killing Fields, which Peou has been able to watch only once. "It made me feel as though I was still there... but not real enough."

Real life was far more horrific than anything in that film, said Peou.

When the Vietnamese army swept into Cambodia in 1978 to drive out the Khmer Rouge, Peou found out later, "We were on the execution list."

Instead, miraculously, the Vietnamese army freed them. "International security is my field. I wrote my thesis on UN peacekeeping, with the focus on Cambodia," said Peou, interrupting his harrowing tale for a brief moment of academia. Vietnam portrayed that 1978 invasion as a humanitarian intervention, and Peou is willing to call it that, or a liberation or even salvation, though, "I'm always skeptical of the motivation when it's one single country."

Peou and his mother and six siblings made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and came as refugees in 1982 to Ottawa, where they all became Canadian citizens, and he began his climb to academia through a PhD at Toronto's York University.

Peou later taught in Singapore and in Tokyo, and it was in Tokyo in late 2009 that things got really strange.

After relating unthinkable horrors for an hour, his voice at times quavering, juxtaposing the tranquillity of Lindenwoods with the Cambodian jungle of the late 1970s, Peou was suddenly lost for words -- he is a spiritual man, but has no belief in psychics, Peou said several times.

But, still, how to explain what came next?

Start with the night-long dream Peou had in Tokyo on Christmas Day in 2009, a dream in which he walked and chatted with his father, and in his dream his dad told Peou he was alive.

Then his brother visited an Ottawa psychic to get advice on a business matter, only to have the psychic tell the brother that Nam Peou was alive.

Skeptical, a sister went to the psychic without revealing the family connection, and then Peou's mother went, and they all heard the same story about Nam Peou's having survived.

Pooling their money, the family dispatched a brother to Cambodia, where he put up thousands of posters of Nam Peou's photo as he looked 40 years ago, and scoured countless Thai border villages and former refugee sites.

And then, came the day that Peou's younger brother saw an old man in the street, who looked at one of the posters and said, "This man looks like when I was young."

The old man was 85, his memory shattered by years of deprivation and torture. The old man was certain his family had died in the killing fields -- he'd remarried, and now had another six children. The old man resisted believing the Canadian of Cambodian heritage standing before him, Sorpong Peou's younger brother, was his son.

The family back in Canada similarly resisted believing immediately that this old man was their father, said Peou. This man had a mole on his face, his father had had no such mole; this man had perfect fingernails, his father had a lifelong split nail on one thumb.

The mole had developed during a near-fatal illness, it turned out, and the perfect nail had grown back in after the Khmer Rouge had pulled out Nam Peou's fingernails one by one.

Little by little, his father's memories emerged, and mutual doubt turned to mutual amazed belief, as Nam Peou and his family talked by telephone and over a period of time he remembered and related things that only Nam Peou would know about his wife and children -- they realized that they were all really the family that had known happiness in Cambodia four decades before.

Peou's mother moved from Ottawa to Phnom Penh to be with her husband and his new family, along with one of Sorpong Peou's brothers, who owns a thriving seafood business in Phnom Penh and cares for them all. Reluctantly, "My mother has to accept that he has his own family," Peou said.

In June, Peou went to Phnom Penh and embraced the father who once upon a time would come home each day to his young family and "would pick us up and kiss us like a baby... a truly gentle man who would not kill a fly, a devout Buddhist."

Peou doesn't try to explain how any of this came about.

But as his story spreads, others wonder, is someone dear to them still alive in Cambodia, Peou said: "People start to have hope now."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2011 B1

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