PHNOM PENH — After a four-year reign that killed one-quarter of the population, the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, leaving many families disbanded and unable to reconcile the past.
Like many in her generation, Seak Mala's childhood was anything but normal. Separated from her family during the genocide, she found herself alone-no parents, no siblings or aunts when the regime collapsed.
While she and one uncle were born only a year apart, it has been decades since she last saw him, though she retains fond memories.
“We used to play together and we used to fight with each other," says Mala. "Just like regular kids.
“My life so far has been very difficult," she adds. "Living as an orphan without parents was never easy, with no one to support or guide me. When I fell over, I had to get back on my feet by myself. It was so difficult. When I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes."
Now, almost 35 years later, Mala is hoping a new reality TV show can help fill that void.
Called "It’s Not a Dream," the popular program is bringing the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide to television screens across the country by reuniting long-lost relatives before a live studio audience.
In a country that has never provided a national service to reconnect families torn apart by violence and political strife, Mala asked the show for help and was invited to have her story featured.
Arriving at the studio to be interviewed, producers didn't tell her that they had found one of her family members: Sarom, her long-lost uncle, who was waiting backstage.
As the cameras zoomed in on Mala, the show’s host asked her: do you want to meet your uncle?
Brought on stage, Sarom embraced his niece for the first time in more than three decades.
While these tearful reunions make for captivating television, the show’s producer say it is not intended to be classified as entertainment.
"Many, many people still need this type of service to search for their family," said producer Prak Sokhayouk. "Right now we receive more than one thousand cases from people in Cambodia to apply for our services."
Still, she’s aware of the demands of a national television audience.
"It’s a reality show but it’s also a drama," she said. "Because we need to show it to the audience; we need to make it interesting for the audience to watch."
But for people like Mala and her uncle Sarom, the show provides a life-changing service that enables them to get to know each other again and fill in the gaps from the last three decades.
This time, however, without the cameras.