Khmer Rouge separated Cambodian twins re-unite after 42 years
By: Andrew Jilani
On a sweltering hot day in April 2018, Fr. Unly Son (Son) was hurriedly getting ready to welcome his twin brother, Unly Sat (Tao) and his family to Cambodia after 42 years. He was constantly on phone with Tao to determine approximate time of their crossing from Thailand to Koh Kong, Cambodia. Dressed in beautiful Thai colored shirts and dresses, Tao, his wife, daughter and her husband emerged from the sea of people crossing the border. Son was the first to greet them with kisses and hugs. The rest of us followed and holding cold water bottles in our hands we drove to the local church to enjoy a sumptuous meal. Son was meeting Tao for the first time in Cambodia. The family was exuberating joy in every interaction.
Son and Tao are short in height. Son appears to be a bit older and outgoing. Tao is shy and has an incessant smile. They were born on October 6, 1961 in the village of Chamkar-Tieng in Takeo, Cambodia. Later, the family moved to Kop-Thom village in 1962, near the Thai border. An uncle had bought a farm there and married a local woman. As a young boy, Son helped on the farm and recalled, “Our family was not rich, but we had enough to live by”.
Fleeing Cambodia during Khmer Rouge
When Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975, they also captured the village of Kop-Thom and ordered 1000 families from the village to cut wood and build huts in forest. Son remembered being scared at the sight of Khmer Rouge with guns “I and Tao were only 14 years old then”.
In Khmer Rouge camps, Son said, “As a family we were separated and often hungry”. As a result, families would often form small groups to find food. One day, Son joined a small group of people which gradually grew to 10,000 and they escaped to Aranyaprathet, a Thai village. Son got separated from his parents and Tao in 1975 and recalled, “I was very sad.”
Son becomes Buddhist Monk in Thailand
An older brother who was a monk in NAKKORN SAWANN pagoda in Thailand encouraged Son to become a monk. The possibility of a stable life appealed to Son and he joined the pagoda in 1976. Son said, “I prayed, chanted, collected food and cleaned the pagoda. As a monk, “I followed Bhudia’s teaching on nonviolence, meditated and showed gratitude to others.”
While Son was at the pagoda, his uncle encouraged him to move to a refugee camp in Aranyaprathet so he could move to another country. Son, his two brothers and their wives applied, and their applications were accepted for Canada in July 1979. On January 20th, 1980 they left for Montreal, Canada. As they left, they had no information about Tao, parents, and sister. Son recalls being sad as they left for Canada.
Son settles in Canada and becomes a Catholic priest
Son did not like Canada, “It was cold, and I did not understand the culture and French language”. He continued, “I longed for the warmer weather, food and not knowing about Tao’s was not easy”. The family was determined to make it in Canada and a Catholic family sponsored them. In March 1981, Son’s parents and the younger sister also arrived in Canada. The parents told Son that they could not find Tao and thought he was lost. Hearing this, Son was very sad.
Son regularly attended the local church and a Cambodian priest encouraged him to become a priest. Son studied for a year in France in 1991. In 1992, he moved back to Cambodia and studied in Battambang seminary for 6 years and was ordained as a priest by bishop Emile in Phnom Penh on Dec 9th, 2001.
Tao makes Thailand home
In 1979, war broke out between Vietnam and Khmer Rouge and Tao did not know where his parents were. Someone told his father that they have seen Tao in Sisopan. Upon hearing about Tao’s news, his rushed to Sisopan and brought him back to Neameat. Tao said, I was very happy to see my parents and sister.” As the war intensified, four of them escaped to Thailand.
In Thailand, a farmer offered Tao a job. Tao recalled, “I enjoyed the farm life and learned Thai language”. One day while he was removing a fallen tree, he saw a Thai woman (Dao) with two buckets to fetch water from the well. Tao helped Dao and the two become friends and Tao fondly recalled, “Our friendship blossomed into marriage”, and they got married in 1982.
After 10 years in Canada, Son returned to the refugee camp in Thailand in 1990 and looked for Tao. Son asked many people about Tao but did not get any information. In 1992, Son made radio announcements about Tao but had no luck. However, Son was relentless to find Tao.
On January 7, 2017, Son got a call from a friend who was with them in the refugee camp who told Son that a common friend Leang has Tao’s phone number. Son recalled that “January 7th, 2017 was the longest day in my life” as he waited for Tao’s number. As soon as he got the number, he called Tao. Son said, “I was anxious and happy as I told Tao that I was his brother”. Tao instantly recognized Son’s voice. The twins talked for the first time after 42 years.
Son and Tao reflect on their reunion
Son is overjoyed for his reunion with Tao. He recalled,” We were separated in Khmer Rouge camps, uncertain about our future in refugee camp and struggled in Canada”. Now I want to share my life with Tao, saying, “I missed Tao a lot”. He points out,” I do not want to share material things with Tao but the message that God is for all”. Tao added,” I was able to be hopeful during separation”. Tao continued, “my strength came from Buddha’s teachings to be kind to others”. Now, “I am no longer alone but part of the bigger family in Canada, US, France and in Cambodia”.
- Fr Son is a Catholic priest in Cambodia. Tao and his family are Buddhist and live in Thailand.
Andrew Jilani is from Pakistan. He learned Vipassana meditation in Sri Lanka. He holds a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, iUSA and implements education projects among refugees, girls and in improving literacy, including in Cambodia.