The cameras were rolling and a studio audience looked on but the emotional reunion of a daughter and her father, torn apart 30 years ago by Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, was no act.Sem Savoeun sobbed as she embraced the father she thought was lost forever on the new Cambodian hit reality show "It's Not a Dream". And she did not mind the intrusion -- in fact without the programme, she said they never would have met."I tried to find my dad but I never had much hope. I never expected this moment," Sem, 42, told the slick young host of the popular show, in an episode that aired on commercial station Bayon TV in July."I feel overjoyed to have a dad again."Her family is one of hundreds of thousands in Cambodia that were separated during the Khmer Rouge's rule of terror. Modern society was dismantled and family ties were of no importance to the hardline communist movement.
Sem's father Saing Va said he made several attempts to look for his daughter, but he failed to track her down after she was sent to live with an aunt and then got lost in the chaotic final days of the brutal 1975-79 regime."I didn't know where she had gone, whether she was dead or alive," the 65-year-old farmer told the audience, wiping away a tear.Sem was just a child when the regime came to power, emptying cities, abolishing money and schools and forcing much of the population to work in labour camps in a doomed bid to create an agrarian utopia.Up to two million people died from starvation, overwork or execution before the regime was ousted from the capital by Vietnamese forces.Many survivors have spent decades trying to locate missing relatives, often with little to go on besides their own memories after the Khmer Rouge destroyed reams of official documents.Sem was separated from her father in 1977, not long after her mother succumbed to an unknown illness under forced labour in the southern province of Takeo.
"After my mother died, my grandfather took me from Takeo province to live with my aunt," Sem told the show's presenter. "That was the last time I saw my father."
Her time with her aunt in the southwestern province of Preah Sihanouk abruptly came to an end shortly before the fall of the regime as they fled the fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops who had entered the country."When I was told to move, I just kept running until I realised I had lost my aunt," she said. "After that, I was without any relatives. I went from place to place living with people I didn't know."Sem, who now runs a small shop in Preah Sihanouk province, went on to get married and have six children of her own, but she said she always felt lonely not knowing any of her relatives.She had been too young to have much knowledge about her past and after countless search efforts she finally decided to reach out to the TV show."I was just seven or eight years old at the time. I didn't remember exactly where my village was," she said.As Sem told her story, a screen behind her showed how the programme's researchers tracked down her father.The team travelled from village to village in Takeo, talking to elderly people who might remember Sem's family and checking the records of local authorities.
Eventually, they found not only Sem's father but also her aunt, who joined Sem on stage for the one-hour show's second emotional reunion.Backstage at the studio in the Cambodian capital, the producer of "It's Not a Dream", Prak Sokhayouk, told AFP she was "so excited" to see Sem's happy ending.
Since its inception last year, the show has received hundreds of requests to help find missing persons dating back to the Khmer Rouge era, she said.
"We have successfully worked on 10 cases already," she said, adding that the idea for the show came from a Vietnamese programme that helped locate people who had disappeared in the Vietnam war.Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) which researches Khmer Rouge atrocities, said it was still common for Cambodians to be looking for relatives they lost track of during the regime."Family is the strength of Khmer culture and many don't want to believe their relatives are dead," he said.Besides the "It's Not a Dream" show, Cambodians also regularly use radio or state television broadcasts to put out a call for those still missing.The DC-Cam is compiling a list of the names of those confirmed to have died under the regime. It has collected nearly a million names already and plans to publish them online and in print by 2013.Youk Chhang, himself a Khmer Rouge survivor, said it was important for Cambodians to know the fate of their loved ones, "so they can really begin to heal and move on".
After the televised reunion, Sem spent a few days visiting her new-found father and relatives.Getting to know her family has changed her life, she told AFP.
"I have a happy life now. Before, I had no one. But now, after finding my father, I have hope for the future."