A Canadian professor born in Cambodia who had long assumed his father had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge says it was a recurring dream and the visions of a psychic that helped him find his father alive, after 36 years apart.
For decades, the last memory Prof. Sorpong Peou's had of his father, Nam, was from 1975, when Peou was 17. He had watched his dad being thrown into the back of a truck by the Khmer Rouge, assuming he would return in a few days.
But as the stories emerged of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields, Peou realized something terrible must have happened.
"Day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, we concluded he must have been executed," Peou told CTV's Canada AM Thursday from Winnipeg, where he now lives.
Peou and his family were taken away as well and forced into labour. For three-and-a-half years, they toiled in the camps. And while most of Peou's days were filled with despair, he still dreamt of the gentle, loving father he remembered.
Even after Peou, his mother and his six siblings were able to escape to Canada in 1982 as refugees, the dreams continued. Peou began a quiet life in Canada, excelled at school and eventually became the head of the politics department at the University of Winnipeg. But all the while, the thoughts of his father never left him.
Then in January, 2010, the dreams became more insistent.
"I had the most vivid dream of my father, chitchatting with him, walking with him. And he kept saying, ‘I'm still alive,'" Peou remembers.
"Then, my youngest brother reported to my mother that someone, a psychic, told him that my father was still alive," he says.
The brother hadn't gone to the psychic to talk about his family; he had a business problem he wanted help with. But the psychic kept asking, ‘Where is your father? Do you see your father?' The brother, who had been only five years old when his dad disappeared barely remembered him. He told the psychic his father had been taken away and killed. But she kept saying, "No, no, no, something is telling me now that your father is alive."
Then a sister went to visit the same psychic without telling her she was related to the brother. The psychic said the same things to her.
Even though Peou says he doesn't believe much in psychics, the woman's visions along with his own dreams persuaded the family it was time to send one of them to Cambodia to look for their father.
Another of Peou's brothers went out. The first trip yielded nothing, but the psychic told him to return. So on the next visit, the brother visited another village and asked around, showing a picture of their father as a young man. The villagers directed him to an old, weakened man begging for money.
At first, the man insisted there must be a mistake; his family was all dead. But eventually, the man and the brother realized they were father and son. After 36 years, the family was reunited again.
Last month, Peou went to Cambodia himself to visit the father he had missed so badly for more than three decades.
"It was a very emotional moment," Peou remembers. "My father and I embraced each other. My father wept uncontrollably, saying to me that now he can die in peace."
Peou learned his father had never forgotten about them either.
"For all those years, he had kept thinking about us. He had assumed we were all dead, so all those years were a torment for him, having lost seven children and his wife. He was a broken man… I cannot describe the kind of suffering that he went through. So it was a very emotional moment, but very joyful as well. There's a lot of pain but a lot of joy."
Peou learned that his father had eventually remarried and had six more children. But his father, who had once been a government official before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, had lived in poverty ever since.
"It was heartbreaking for me to see where he lived and how he lived," Peou says.
"It was very painful to know the kind of poverty he lived through all those years. At the same time, we are now so thankful that we have him back."