With the help of a local NGO, these two Cambodian sisters who thought each other had died met again after almost five decades of being apart.
Bun Sen, 98, and Bun Chea, 101, have been separated since 1973, two years before the Khmer Rouge regime took over Cambodia. During Pol Pot’s four-year rule, two million people perished in the southeast Asian nation.
After losing her husband to the Khmer Rouge, Bun Sen settled in among the communities around the former garbage dump in Steung Meanchey, Phnom Penh. She is one of the first grandmothers to join the local NGO Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) in 2004. At the time, she was earning money by collecting trash in the streets. She was also caring for several children who had been abandoned at the garbage dump.
Through their Granny Program, CCF supports Bun Sen by providing her with a stipend, food, and housing. A much-loved member of the group, she is also one of the “special grandmothers” in the organization who educate children about lost customs and values.
After 47 long years, Bun Sen had long given up hope of seeing her older sister again and the rest of their family. She would often talk about Kampong Cham, the village where she used to live, and dreamed of going back there someday. However, Bun Sen is unable to walk and uses a wheelchair, which meant that it was difficult for her to make the journey.
“I left my village a long time ago and never went back. I always thought my sisters and brothers had died,” she said.
But through the efforts of the local NGO, the two sisters found each other again.
CCF tracked down Bun Sen’s family in Kampong Cham and discovered that not only her 98-year-old sister, Bun Chea, was alive, but their 92-year-old brother was, too! The group arranged Bun Sen’s trip to the village to reunite with her sister.
“To be able to hold my older sister means so much. And the first time my younger brother touched my hand, I started crying,” Bun Sen said.
She reconnected with her old family and met new ones that she didn’t know about.
Bun Chea also lost her husband to the Khmer Rouge, leaving her as a widow who had to raise 12 children. She, too, believed that her younger sister didn’t survive.
“We had 13 relatives killed from 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,” she said.
The two sisters have a lot of catching up to do in the 47 years that they’ve been apart. In fact, they’ve already had a second get-together organized by CCF. This time, it was Bun Chea’s turn to visit Bun Sen in Steung Meanchey. That day, they went on a city tour around Phnom Penh.
“Without CCF, I would have had no chance to find my older sister,” Bun Sen said. “I am so happy.”
Now that they’ve found one another, these two sisters vow to never lose each other again.