I can’t remember when the first time I met Uncle Sombath Somphone, but I remember well my first time I met Auntie Shui Meng. I was around 4-years-old and running around in front of my grandmother’s house in Thakhek, Khammuane province. I spotted a woman smiling at me and said to me that I had beautiful eyes. Later, I remembered that my mother took me to Uncle Sombath’s house and asked if I wanted to live with them and I agreed. I lived with uncle and auntie until now.
Somchit was the name that Uncle Sombath gave to me. When I grew up, I asked him why he gave me such an old fashioned name. He said my name back then was Noy, which was too common. He told me that my name means that “being as your heart wishes” or “be as what you wish.” I came to realize later that I also had a full name given by my own father, Phonephansa, which has never been used.
I have lots of memories with my uncle. Since I was a child from kindergarten, throughout my high school and my college life, he was the main family member raising and teaching me. He always tells me that raising a person has never been easy. I think the most difficult time for him raising me was when I was in high school. At that time, Auntie Shui Meng was away for 4 years for her work mission for UNICEF in China. Uncle Sombath was the one who take me to school and picking me up, sometimes with his motorcycle and sometimes with his old Jeep. He’s the one who make sure I have food to eat, waking me up, making sure I’m organized, making sure I ate breakfast, making sure I kept myself busy, making sure I made the right decisions.
Late 2011, I was 26-years-old and it was the year that I returned to Laos; after five years of living and working on my Master’s degree in Bangkok, Thailand. The whole time I was abroad, I hardly had contact with my uncle. It was very common for us not to write or talk to each other for a while.
2012 was the year that Uncle Sombath felt very good about his life, after more than 30 years of working very hard in the development field. It’s the year that he was officially starting his retirement. He was working so hard, waking up at 5:00am and going to bed late, and preparing for the International meeting of The 9th Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9). He expressed a lot excitement and how he was honored to be appointed to such an important position as part of the national meeting committee for AEPF9. To be honest, at that time, I had little knowledge of how important the meeting was. During the AEPF9 meeting around October of that year, uncle Sombath was still very busy. Every day, during our family time, at dinner table, he would talk about what happened and issues related to the meeting. Without any involvement in the meeting and having not followed up with my uncle working for many years, I could only listen, even though I couldn’t catch up with the whole situation of what was going on with my country. All I know is that my beloved country, Laos, is growing and developing very fast and the living condition of our people were getting better and more modern. I also know that my uncle had so much love for our country. He always told me that whatever we do, as development workers, we have to follow the policy of the government. He said our government already has good guidance, but we as citizens, we just need to help make the policy become practical.
I might not know everything about my Uncle Sombath, but I’m one of the closest people to him as his family member. Not all of my memories of him are good. We had a lot of arguments than others in the family. I grew up with most the teaching from him, both perspective on my personal life and professional life, most of the time I resisted to listen to him. I never think my uncle is special, for me he’s just a normal person. I couldn’t understand why so many people respected him or went to him for advice. After what happen to him in December 15th 2012, I came to realize the reasons why.
I still remember very clearly, our last talk on the morning of December 15th, I was the only one who spent the most time with Uncle Sombath that day. The conversation was about teaching me how to make dry beef seen hang (since I have zero skills in cooking). He said it was easy to make and he prepared all of the ingredients for me. He said I could keep it and eat for a long time. By the afternoon, I took him to his office, to play his usual table tennis game, as well as to pick up his old jeep to take it home. He said he was on his way home. Later that evening, he never returned home, and I never heard from him again. It was unusual for him and against our family’s rules to not return when we said we would.
After his disappearance, my life changed completely. I had to take on more responsibilities and make all kinds of decisions that I never know how to. It’s the most difficult part for me. I realized that no one in this world could guide me to the right decision as good as my uncle. No one could replace him. Whatever I’m doing now, I keep thinking: what if Uncle Sombath is here, what would he do?
Nearly 4 years since his disappearance, I can still picture the nightmare very well on that day. I still can’t believe that he’s not with us anymore. I still couldn’t believe that someone would actually take him away from our family. I still couldn’t believe that a normal person as him, could be harmful to anyone. When I think about him, I could never stop thinking of what’s the reason behind his disappearance. I still cannot accept that I will not get to see him again. Only thing I have is faith. I still have faith that he is still alive somewhere and we will meet again. I will wait for him, I will do whatever I can while waiting, so that when he comes back we will have many things to talk about. I will not let his sacrifice be worth nothing. I will do my best as his family member.
Somchit (Sombath’s niece)
August 30th is International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED) defines enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction” or other deprivation of liberty by a state actor “followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.” Enforced disappearances affects families of missing loved ones, who struggle with uncertainty about their well-being and whereabouts.
On December 15, 2012, Sombath Somphone, a well-known and highly respected leader in sustainable development, was last seen stopped by police in Vientiane. Almost five years later, he has yet to return home to his family. The Laos government has led investigation efforts and continues to claim no wrong-doing. Amid international pressure by human rights groups and UN representatives, Sombath’s family continues to advocate for accountability and ask for his safe return. For more information, visit www.sombath.org.