The thousands of "boat people," the tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees and the incredible killings and oppressions in Cambodia prompt distant sympathies in us here.
We want to help, but the numbers and events are abstractions in most of our lives. But for Khen Chen, who has lived among us in Washington for 17 years while her heart and mind often have been on her Cambodian homeland, a vigil recently ended.
For four years, Khen waited for word. While she drove from her Arlington town house to her job in Southwest Washington, she often thought of her father. "It's been so long since Cambodia fell in 1975. I waited and waited to hear any news from home. I saw a lot of refugees coming, hoping that perhaps the phone will ring and I will find out that my parents also escaped."
Those of us who were her friends saw her lose the smile from her eyes, the sauciness from her stance.
In the decades of turmoil that have embroiled Southeast Asia, perhaps nowhere were events more tragically felt than in Cambodia, the tiny, war-shattered country wedged south of China between Thailand and Vietnam, which was destroyed in what the Nixon administration called "a sideshow in Vietnam." Now its once-queenly capital city is deserted; its people confused, scattered.
Seventeen days ago, Khen's vigil ended.She returned home from an atfernoon's shopping. Her husband, Chun, told her that a letter from a childhood friend who had escaped to Thailand had arrived. It said that her father, Ang Khead, had been taken by the Khmer Rouge to be killed in January 1976.
Then, in August 1977, her mother, a younger brother and a sister were killed. Kehn felt as if she were choking, and her little hands fluttered to her neck. Her once-taut face, already going puffy under the strain of years of not knowing, collapsed.
The magical, mystical relationship that exists between fathers and daughters transcends nationality and culture. Khen mourned for all her family, but it was her father for whom she pined. "I feel helpless, because now I don't have a father anymore," she says. "I would never know a complete happiness unless I had a father to share it with me. But to be murdered in cold blood . . . I feel bitter . . . that man could inflict such pain."
Her father had been a teacher, a scholar who read and wrote in Cambodian, French, Russian and English. He was one of the first Cambodians to attend an American college, Iowa Teachers College, in 1954.
He had strictly supervised Khen's penmanship and studies, fed her ego and calmed her childhood fears. "When it was quiet, he'd make me go to a neighbor's house to bring this or that, just an excuse to see how I'm getting along with my being afraid of ghosts." He encouraged her independence in a culture that relegated women to traditional roles.
"One time, he told me, 'When you grow up you will get a job and save the money . . . to build a house.' I told him, 'I don't need to because, look at mother, she didn't need to work and she had a house.'"
In the late 1950s, he moved his family from Siem Reap Angkor, home of the famous Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat, to Phnom Pehn, with its wide boulevards and glowing flowers. He worked at the American Embassy. Then he opened a small business as a tour guide (one of his biggest attractions was a giant boa constrictor) and interpreter for tourists and foreign correspondents in Phnom Penh.
He translated "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn" and other books from English to Cambodian.
Khen came to study in America in 1959, returned home briefly and resettled in Washington in 1962. She has broadcast into Indochina for Voice of America for the last 17 years; nothing on Indochina escaped her eyes. "I was homesick for them. I'm sure they missed me but they heard my voice eee-vry-day, eee-vry-day. But I never head their voice. I only got letters, saying that it's not wise to come home now.
"I used to pretend that everytime I broadcast, I talk to them. Even if I read the news, it is like sitting there and telling my father or telling grandma what's going on in the world."
In 1974, after 12 years, Khen finally was able to return to Cambodia to see her family. It was a joyous homecoming. For the first time, her parents met her artist-husband, Chun Chen, whom she had married in Washington, and her little girl Samini, 4, named after a Washington friend named Sam.
"Every morning my father and Chun went to the market to have breakfast - sometimes noodle soup or rice with meat or vegetables," Khen says. He managed to buy her a golden bracelet that she admired. He told her as they boarded the airplane for America, "Do not wait another 10 years before you visit."
"But he knew I did not choose to stay out; it was under political suppression that we were labeled traitors when we went to America."
In April 1975, Khen received the last letter that she would receive from home. Two months later, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and began to empty the city and all other towns held by the government. One of Khen's brothers and a sister escaped to Thailand on the last flight from Cambodia. They could not persuade their father to leave. "They will not do anything to an old man," he told them. "I am in no position to threaten or be harmful to anyone. This is home and we're going to stay."
Cambodian family roots go deep. Families are to share with grandparents and clans. A little Cambodian girl without parents dogged Khen's footsteps as Khen helped the Red Cross during the 1975 Babylift. The Chens "decided she would be our daughter." Cynthia Chen now is 6 years old.
Last October, the Chens adopted Khen's cousin, Yim Sot Ronnachit, 16.
He had been rounded up with his entire family and several others by soldiers of the new regime, Democratic Kampuchea. Men, women and children were tied up and bashed in the head until they were dead. The boy fainted, and left for dead, recovered consciousness later in a ditch, partially covered by bodies. He escaped after a long walk to Thailand, but his father, mother, five brothers and 27 other families were killed.
The Cambodian debacle has been called the foreign policy side to Watergate, and Khen's story reminds us how little people suffer the big tragedies that stem from decisions of leaders. "Since my father is gone . . . really half of me is gone. I just now try to pick up the pieces of my life," she says. CAPTION: Picture 1, KHEN CHEN . . . "I feel helpless"; Picture 2, Khen Chen, left, poses with her present family, from left, her husband Chun; Samini, 8; Cynthia, 6, and her cousin Yim Sot Ronnachit, 16, standing at the rear. By Ken Feil - The Washington Post