Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Her Wedding Weekend, Bride Gives Mom Gift

By Patricia Billinger
Weddings are typically a time for celebration, reuniting with family and giving gifts. When Rattana Phon got married in January, her mother flew in for the weekend. There in spirit and memory for the ceremony – but long missing in person – was Rattana’s maternal grandfather.

“She knew the day he disappeared: July 28, 1977. She has had no contact with her father since then,” Rattana said.

Rattana on her wedding day with her stepfather, mother and husband.
Her grandfather was one of the millions of Cambodians who disappeared during the Cambodian civil war and brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s.

Amidst the preparations for her wedding on Jan. 23, 2015, Rattana found time to find out more from her mother about her grandfather and to have her mother sign a document that, she hopes, could eventually lead to some answers in the long-cold case.

What Rattana had her mom sign was a Red Cross Restoring Family Links Inquiry that Rattana is launching on her family’s behalf. The inquiry is the first step in what can be a years-long process to track the last-known whereabouts of individuals who were separated from their families by war, disasters, migration or other humanitarian crises. The inquiry includes as much information about her grandfather as possible that could be helpful in tracing his path. It will be shared by the American Red Cross with the Cambodian Red Cross so that local Red Cross caseworkers in Cambodia can begin researching the case.

Rattana decided to initiate the case nearly 40 years after her grandfather’s disappearance because she just learned that Red Cross Restoring Family Links services existed. She recently moved to Colorado and decided to volunteer for the Red Cross while searching for employment. With a degree in International Relations, the Red Cross International Services program seemed like a good fit, and on her first day she was introduced to RFL caseworker Robbe Sokolove to shadow.

Rattana's grandfather.
 He was a professional volleyball player.
“I kept thinking about my mom because I knew about my grandfather in Cambodia,” Rattana recalled. “The caseworker was working a case that sounded very similar to my mom’s case, but I wasn’t sure if Cambodia was listed as a country with this service.”

Robbe shared a document with the list of countries where the American Red Cross has the most RFL cases, and when Rattana flipped through it she was surprised and pleased to see Cambodia on the list.

That was when she decided to pursue a case. She talked to her mom on the phone and learned more about her grandfather’s disappearance.

“The Khmer Rouge forced everyone to evacuate to the countryside. During that process, my mom was separated from her father. She knew the name of the village where he was, but about 1 year after he was evacuated, the Khmer Rouge took my grandfather away,” Rattana said. As he was being led past another village, he shouted to a villager to notify others about what was happening. “He shouted to the person, ‘let people know I’m being taken away, please let them know to take care of my children for me.’”

The man passed the message on to Rattana’s mom the following day. She never heard from her father again.

 Rattana said that although most of her family assumes her grandfather died, her mother has wondered.

 “My mom has always had this hope, she’s always had this small hope that she has carried with her,” Rattana said.

Although she thinks it is unlikely that her grandfather survived, it’s her mother’s hope that inspired Rattana to initiate an RFL case.

 Sometimes, the RFL inquiries reunite families that have been out of touch for decades; other times, the inquiries determine the final resting place of a loved one. And sometimes, in countries where large numbers of people were “disappeared,” the trail goes cold at the victim’s last known location.

 Rattana hopes her Red Cross inquiry will uncover some additional informational that could provide closure for her mom.

 “The last known information we have about him was that he was taken away – what happened after that? I just want my mom to have peace of mind,” Rattana said. “This is something we can do to give her peace in her mind to know what happened to her father.”

Read more about the work of the Red Cross in Cambodia.

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