Marijke and I met you in Laos some 19 years ago. You may remember that we were expecting our first child then. A few months later, the baby was born and we called her Lorea, meaning ‘flower’ in the Basque language of Northern Spain. Not too long ago, Lorea turned 18 and so I decided to send you an update of what has happened to us since the day we said ‘see you later!’ back in 1997 after a lovely trip through your beautiful country.
In spite of your many responsibilities, you took us to see Luang Prabang and some lovely sites in the area. On the way back from Kwang Xi Waterfall, we chatted for hours standing on the back of the tuktuk – one of my most memorable and, believe it or not, comfortable rides ever! Maybe because of the fact that we were both born in the deep South of our respective countries, but I really felt I had met a soulmate in international cooperation .
After we’d said goodbye to Laos and a few weeks later to Asia, we left for the Netherlands. Waiting for Lorea to be born, I put dozens of pictures of fond memories of Asian people, food, landscapes and experiences into scrap albums. Lorea was born on a pretty autumn day but two months later we left for Ecuador as Marijke had found a position there with a Dutch organization. I landed a job with the UN. Jobwise however, Marijke wasn’t very happy and so she applied for a position in the Netherlands with a focus on South America and – was accepted!
Settling in ‘back home’ wasn’t easy but eventually we did. In spite of her international background, Lorea grew up a typical Dutch toddler and I found a challenging position with a human rights organization also focussing on the Americas. In 2001 our second daughter Claudia was born.
Marijke is still active in the field of international food security while I currently work for an organization supporting children with disabilities. Soon I will leave for Bolivia and Brazil and when I return, Marijke will leave for Tanzania. Earlier this year the four of us enjoyed our summer holidays in Florida – as hot as Laos but without the good food. One of the reasons we went there, was to celebrate Lorea’s graduation. No doubt to a large extent due to the experiences she had in Laos, Ecuador and elsewhere, she has just started her studies in the field of international tourism. Claudia already announced that, like you, she wants to study in the USA. We’ll see where they will end up but you can safely say they are infected with the travel bug!
As you see, it is only a matter of time before at least one of us returns to Laos. We are looking forward to see you, Shui Meng and all of your family again!
With warm regards, Frank Bron
September 14, 2016
For many countries in Asia and Latin American, this week marks the International Week of the Disappeared (IWD). For this reason, I have been thinking about you even more these days.
Last night I found it difficult to fall asleep thinking about you, and this morning I woke up feeling terribly depressed. I tried to calm myself with meditation, but it was difficult to get into a state of calm when I was so agitated. My mood went from sadness, to anger, and despair! I asked myself what did you do to deserve such injustice when all you ever did was to be a good person and use your knowledge and skills to improve the lives of ordinary Lao people and Lao communities.
After my meditation session, my mind calmed down and I felt a little better. I started to reflect on what you have always told me when you were around. You told me that you have never tried to change the world or change the government system because that is obviously beyond your ability. You said your life goal is only to do your little bit to give back in some little way to the family and the community that have raised you, nourished you, and taught you to become the person you are. And indeed that’s all you have always done – give back wholeheartedly with humility, with humour, and with generosity.
I saw the way you worked – whether you are with ordinary farmers, teachers, students, development partners and colleagues, government officials, or even high-ranking people – you always treated each and everyone with respect and courtesy; you also always chose to listen first and seldom spoke a lot. That has always been your way of dealing with people – open-minded, open-hearted, and never opinionated. I guess that is why you have such a large following among people in the development community, and among so many young people from inside and outside the country.
During this week, the International Week of the Disappeared, as we remember you and all those people who have been forcedly disappeared, I choose to put aside my despair and sadness. I choose to remember all the good that you have done. I believe that you were disappeared because you tried to live up to your principles and your integrity. And it is your “goodness”, and your ideas of “people-centered development” that were deemed so threatening that some people chose to silence you by disappearing you.
Sombath, while I will continue to feel the pain of your absence, I know that your work and what you stand for will continue to inspire people, Lao and non-Lao. I will continue to demand for truth and justice for you, even if all I get is a wall of silence.
Sombath, my love, stay strong, and I too will stay strong for you and for all those who have been forcedly disappeared.
Love you so much, Shui Meng
Sombath speaking about integrated agriculture
Sombath worked closely with Quaker Service Laos (QSL) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He made significant contributions to their programs, including the Rice Integrated Farming Systems (RIFS) project.
A “History of Quaker Service Laos Development Work 1973-1999″ mentions the RIFS project, and how it evolved into The independent Participator Development Training Center (PADETC) .
While QSL staff wrote a plea to the Lao government soon after Sombath’s abduction, subsequent requests to contribute their thoughts about Sombath and his work have been unanswered.
Those who worked with Sombath are encouraged to share their experiences by writing a Letter to Sombath.
My dearest Sombath,
Today, February 17, is your birthday. If you have not been disappeared, we should be celebrating your 65th birthday today, and you should be enjoying this day surrounded by your family and friends. Even though I don’t know where you are, I still want to send you all my love and prayers for a very happy birthday.
At this time of our life, you and I should be enjoying a quieter and more restful life together. I remembered so well what you told me shortly before you were snatched away that fateful night of 15 December 2012, more than 4 years ago. You told me that you really looked forward to your retirement and to spending more time working in the garden growing our own vegetables and fruit. You also told me that what you really want to do is to spend time reading and writing. You said that you needed time to organize your notes, your photos, and the bits and pieces of writing here and there you have started, but never quite had time to finish. I remembered how I had laughed and said “Yes, you should do that before the termites make a feast of your lifework!”
Indeed, after your abduction, we tried to retrieve all the notebooks, and pieces of paper you have left in the PADETC office and at home, and we found that the termites did destroy quite a few of your files and papers. But there are still many files and folders that are quite intact.
Dearest Sombath, we have kept what we could save from the termites and they all still awaiting your return. You have spent so many years working so closely with so many Lao communities, and you have gained so much knowledge and perspectives on so many aspects of development that I am sure you will have a lot to share on issues ranging from sustainable development, appropriate education, indigenous wisdom, and engaged buddhism. Your insights and vision would most certainly benefit many people in Laos, in and outside the development community. You will especially have a lot to share with the young people of Laos, who you truly love and care so much about. You have always involved the young people of Laos in all aspects of your work, as you feel that their engagement and their creativity and ideas are so necessary for the shaping of the country’s development. Sombath, so many young Lao people continue to remember you and wish that you will come back soon.
Sombath, I hope that wherever you are, you will continue to use your wisdom and knowledge to benefit those around you. Knowing you, I truly believe that you will know how to survive and how to make the best of your situation. You have a great natural ability to work with people around you, and you are always able to bring out the best in people no matter who they are.
So, my love, on this day, I wish you “Happy Birthday” and I pray that you are healthy and happy. I also pray that you will come back soon so that we can celebrate your next birthday together.
Love you always, Shui Meng
My dearest Sombath,
Today is the last day of 2017. For four years now I have been waiting desperately for news of your whereabouts and your safe return. This time of the year should be a time for family gatherings to send off the old year and welcome the new. But for you and I, there is only longing and waiting.
For you, wherever you are, I hope and pray that you are well and in good health physically, emotionally and spiritually. I can only hope that your innate kindness, sincerity, and good humour can win you friends wherever you are and whoever you are with. I hope they will treat you well and will be won over by your humility, your wisdom, and your deep spirituality. I hope they will find your wide-ranging knowledge and skills useful to them and that they can benefit from your advice and service. I hope and hope that they will somehow find it in their hearts to see the kind of person you are, and they will one day set you free to come back to us. (more…)
Dear Uncle Sombath,
I have not written to you in a long time, since you disappeared. That hit me inside, in my heart. It made me wonder what I should do about my work, because you were always my role model, ever since I was a PADETC volunteer while in secondary school.
The first time I saw you was when you explained your work to a group of youth volunteers from Vientiane. At that time, Pui Duangkhae was the team leader mobilising volunteers who were interested in learning about the environment in Phu Khao Khwai. We met at the bamboo garden, and you and Uncle Outhin briefed us before we went to the park. Your words at that time greatly impressed me. You said we needed the forest, but the forest did not need us. Those words made me think that we must preserve and care for the forest, and it was the beginning of my journey as an environmental volunteer. We started by removing garbage from the steams in the Phu Khao Khwai Protected area in 1996. (more…)