Unbridled joy: Brothers reunite 34 years after surviving Khmer Rouge genocide

  • Chhum Nget, 63, of Belchertown, right, embraces his brother Sambath Ngeth, 57, while at right, he hugs sister-in-law Sophern Oun during a family gathering to welcome Sambath from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. FOR THE RECORDER/DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget's extended family hosts a gathering to welcome Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget's extended family hosts a gathering to welcome Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget's extended family hosts a gathering to welcome Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget, 63, of Belchertown, right, embraces his sister-in-law Sophern Oun, during a family gathering to welcome his brother Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget's extended family hosts a gathering to welcome Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Chhum Nget's extended family hosts a gathering to welcome Sambath Ngeth from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. —DAN LITTLE

  • Peter Chhum, from left, Rithy Krouch, Sophorn Oun, Chhum Nget, Sambath Ngeth, Bunnath Ngeth, and Vuthy Chhum, gather to welcome Sambath from New Zealand on Tuesday in Belchertown. DAN LITTLE

  • Sambath Ngeth, 57, right, of New Zealand, and his wife Sophorn Oun, 55, left, embrace Sambath’s brother Chhum Nget, 63, of Belchertown, during a family gathering to welcome Sambath on Tuesday in Belchertown. The brothers have not seen each other since surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and fleeing a refugee camp to start new lives in separate countries. DAN LITTLE

For The Recorder
Published: 6/22/2016 10:38:38 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Chhum Nget squinted at the stranger walking up his driveway.

Chhum’s extended family, who had gathered at his Metacomet Street home for a barbecue Tuesday, fell quiet behind him.

Unable to speak, Chhum, 63, let out a shrill scream when he realized the stranger now in front of him wasn’t a stranger at all. Now face-to-face, he was staring into the eyes of a man he hadn’t seen in 34 years: his brother.

And yet, here he was — the younger brother who, three decades ago, fled the Cambodian refugee camp where they lived in order to start a new life, just as Chhum had done a few years earlier. The brothers resettled in different countries and had not seen each other since.

About two dozen family members, who all live within a mile of each other, had come to Chhum’s home Tuesday to welcome Sambath Ngeth, 57. Some of them had never met him. Everyone — except Chhum — knew of his arrival.

Sambath (who added an “h” to his last name upon relocating to New Zealand) had come to Belchertown for Chhum’s son’s wedding Friday. An unsuspecting Chhum was told his brother couldn’t make it, citing “passport issues.”

So Chhum pulled his brother into his chest, holding him tight, and wept.

No words were spoken. All that could be heard were the sounds of crying, accompanied by uncontrollable laughs and sobs and shrieks — unbridled joy.

Past lives

Here in Belchertown, the brothers were about 9,000 miles away from the place where they last embraced — Khao-I-Dang, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camp nestled near the Cambodia/Thailand border that was home to some 160,000 people attempting to flee surrounding countries wracked by war.

For Chhum and his brother, settling in the camp meant escaping the murderous Khmer Rouge, the Communist regime that ruled in Cambodia and was ultimately responsible for killing about 2 million people in the mid- to late-1970s before it was overthrown in 1979.

Other relatives at Tuesday’s gathering recounted their lives as captive Cambodians at the mercy of the cruel regime.

Seiha Krouch, 44, Chhum’s brother-in-law, remembers the blue bags put over the heads of children until they stopped breathing. He remembers neighbors who were buried alive. He remembers his father’s murder.

“People die left and right,” he said. Even when he and his family settled at Khao-I-Dang, “we could still hear the gunshots — the camp wasn’t far from the border.”

“You were safe,” said Elaine Kenseth, of Amherst, chiming in. “But you’re never really safe when you’re a refugee traveling.”

Kenseth first met Chhum and his wife, Rithy Krouch, 52, when she was volunteering with a church group to provide humanitarian aid at the refugee camp more than 30 years ago. She became their U.S. sponsor, and the three remained close.

By 1984, Chhum and Rithy secured Kenseth as their sponsor and immigrated to the United States, Chhum said, with Rithy translating. For years, Chhum tried in vain to sponsor his brother so that Sambath, too, could come to the United States.

But Sambath was not successful in his own efforts to secure a U.S. sponsor. He ultimately settled in New Zealand, where he lives now with his wife and grown daughter, he said.

‘That’s my brother’

Moments after the brothers’ reunion, they were nowhere to be seen.

Undetected by the rest of their family, the two quietly snuck away from the barbecue and sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the front porch. They talked about their respective home landscapes and of times spent as youngsters with family back in Cambodia.

“Now 34 years, I see my brother. My brother come to visit me in United States,” the elder brother said. “I’m really happy. I see him now. That’s my brother. … I cannot sleep, I’m so, so happy.”

Sambath smiled.

“Very exciting,” he said. “I want to see my brother now. Very happy. Everything happy.”

From the time Sambath appeared in front of the house, the brothers hardly let go of one another, cramming 34 years of hugs and moments that never were into one afternoon.


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