À la Recherche de Monsieur Tan

Sophia Wöhleke

2016 - 2020

Cambodia; France

À la Recherche de Monsieur Tan depicts my search for a man who once lived in my neighbourhood in Marseille. Monsieur Tan came to France in the late 1970s to escape the Khmer Rouge and genocide, to be allowed to remain, he made himself out to be ten years younger. Monsieur Tan made his living as a mechanic out of an old backstreet garage. In his mid-seventies and still working, he would reflect about life as he was fixing Vespas, sat on a stool he had built himself. He preferred using original parts, and, seemingly nothing was beyond repair for him. He lived his life quietly but with care and sincerity. One day, Monsieur Tan had to close the garage. He disappeared. My search moves from France and Italy, to Cambodia and Thailand examining the possibilities of a life.

From going to Cambodia to meet Monsieur Tan’s son and and to connect a place to some of his memories, my search brings me to Thailand where remains of old refugee camps serve as a reminder of a harsh reality, À la Recherche de Monsieur Tan is only partly a physical search but also an effort to gain understanding and closure.

My search remains unresolved to the public. Monsieur Tan’s fate remains somewhat ambiguous and moves from fact to fiction in an effort to respect his privacy. The project includes Monsieur Tan’s own words, his voice keeping authorship over his own story.

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  • Monsieur Tan’s son works as a driver for the Post Office. There are a total of 25 Cambodia Post branches in the country. Alongside a handful of other drivers, he delivers mail from the head office in Phnom Penh to other branches in the country. When I get there he is on the road.
    I do not know when he will be back.

  • T: My father? He was a mechanic like me.

  • On 17 April 1975, Pol Pot’s forces took Phnom Penh and installed the Khmer Rouge regime. All cities were evacuated, schools were closed, religion and private property forbidden. The ‘Year Zero’ was declared. Contact to the outside world was abruptly cut off and Democratic Kampuchea created. The Khmer Rouge had plans to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic and began implementing steps towards that. Urban dwellers and intellectuals, religious and minority groups as well as an ever widening group of people who were deemed unsuitable by the regime were targeted and relocated into labour camps in the countryside. Mass executions, malnutrition and famine, disease, forced labour and extensive purges intensified with time. The Khmer Rouge controlled family relations, parents were responsible for corrupting children. Children were indoctrinated and forced to partake in genocide.

    A former school, Tuol Sleng Centre or S-21, was one of 196 Khmer Rouge run prisons and torture centres. An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned here between 1975 and 1979, to this date there are only twelve known survivors. After torture and interrogation, prisoners were taken to the Killing Fields, where they were executed and buried. Analysis of close to twenty thousand mass graves has shown that at least 1,386,734 people died in this way. Prison guards and executioners were often teenagers.

    Now, many of the graves remain untouched and should one happen to come across human remains, one should please contact an official staff member. Signs bear the words ‘Please do not walk across mass graves’.

    Approximately 1,7 million people lost their lives in the Cambodian genocide, that number represents about one fth of the country’s population. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia led to the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

    In 2018, the Cambodian and international judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia officially ruled that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime had perpetuated genocide whilst in power. This was the first official ruling of the sort, convicting two senior gures of the regime. Pol Pot lived out his days in the last Khmer Rouge stronghold in northern Cambodia. He died hours after a communiqué had been released that he would be handed over for trial. Prime Minister Hun Sen is himself an old mid-level Khmer Rouge turned defector. Many government figures today share similar backgrounds. Hun Sen has ruled out other trials that could prosecute mid-level participants of the regime.

  • T: In 1987, I thought my son could come over and I sent money but he didn't come. I sent fifty thousand over there at least.
    He thought that over here you could make money easily, you see, because I worked a lot to be able to send money over. Then, he didn't come to Marseille.

  • T: I was born in the countryside, four kilometers from the Mekong.

  • T: To leave Cambodia, we had to walk through the forest. Like that. Clandestinely, early on, in 75 or 76. From 75 onwards, there was Pol Pot.
    On foot, with three or four other people. Some died. If anyone was caught, it was over.
    We had to think we have to come, that we had to leave. If we were found, then we were dead. If we were not found, we could be happy. That’s the way it is. (Laughs)

  • Khao-I-Dang Holding Centre was a refugee camp in Thailand. It was opened to accommodate people fleeing the Khmer Rouge. It was opened by the UNHCR in November 1979 after just four days of preparation at the foot of Khao-I-Dang mountain. KID was set up as a temporary holding camp, with the intention to either repatriate people to Cambodia or for them to obtain visas to third countries. Khao-I-Dang became the main camp from which people could obtain visas to emigrate, this stimulated illegal entry and smuggling. As a result, armed forces heavily guarded its borders. To this day, one can find landmines. 

  • T: It took us a week to get out, in the forest. Cambodia then Thailand. I stayed in a camp for a year and then I came to Marseille.

  • T: But without friends or family, no one could come with us just like that, no one could know. It was difficult to come here. Like me, you see, for me, family is over. There are only four left.
    In my family before? We were fifteen.