ESCAPE FROM ASIA IN CRISIS (Part 6)
By Lily Bond
Editor’s Note: Born in New Zealand, the author lives and teaches in Thailand. Although fictionalized, this story closely follows the real-life stories of two Asian immigrants.
Until late 1979, Linh’s family lived a laboring-trading lifestyle. With no chance to attend school, Linh learned lessons at her mother’s side.
In Vietnam then, a growing hatred emerged towards anyone of Chinese ancestry. Meanwhile, Vietnam waged war against Pol Phot’s regime in Cambodia, known as Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, Phnom Penh fell to the Vietnamese who set up a puppet government.
Some of history’s atrocities happened then. The Vietnamese had backing from the bigger Communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union. Due to the united Western hostility to communism, including that in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge secured covert support from the United States and Britain (whose people provided training on using landmines) in the 1980s. The West’s support of the Khmer Rouge delayed Cambodia’s recovery for another decade.
Being Sino-Cambodians in Vietnam turned increasingly difficult for Linh’s family. Finally, to avoid capture and imprisonment or being returned to face sure deaths in Cambodia, they fled again, this time to a refugee camp on the border with Thailand.
After days of rough travel, they reached the Nong Samet Refugee Camp. When they arrived, exhausted and suffering from serious malnutrition, the camp already held 200,000 residents.
For the next few years, the horrors of camp living almost outweighed the previous suffering. All the border camps were ruled by former Khmer army captains, ruthless men busy racketeering and hoarding the food aid sent by other countries for the refugees.
One such man, In-Sakhan, controlled the Nong Samet Camp. As big as many cities, the camp gave him a powerful base from which to trade and smuggle into deprived Kampuchea. Rivalries between the camps made them almost like war zones. Aid agencies tried to get food to the people in the camps by circumventing the “warlords”. When this proved impossible, they gave up, leading to starvation and more malnutrition for the inhabitants.
When armed conflict erupted between the warlords, In-Sakhan was defeated. In May 1980, all refugees in the Nong Samet camp had to move to another site, one with poor drainage and with landmines left behind from a previous conflict.
Yet the move helped the refugees because they got a new leader, Thou Thon. He became a model of strong, yet considerate, civilian leadership. According to aid workers Linda Mason and Roger Brown, who knew him in 1980: “The Khmer refugees in Nong Samet Camp owed much to him. He had organized the camp -- building roads, digging ditches, cleaning up. He had eliminated much of the thievery that had kept the refugees nervous and frightened. He had helped to organize an efficient distribution system so that everyone received rice…. He was a hard worker…. When he had organized the building of the feeding center, he did not just tell people what to do. Instead, he climbed up on the roof and started nailing down the lattice work on which the thatch would be placed. When ditches were dug, he was there with a hoe.”
Thou Thon sanctioned no banditry. After three miscreants boasted in the market about their violent activities, they were “executed”, their throats cut by Thou Thon’s constabulary. Then the problems with crimes and extortions in the camp declined dramatically.
Linh’s family survived due to the camp’s change in circumstances. Even so, Trung felt very angry and so weary of difficult conditions. Ambitious and unwilling to remain a refugee indefinitely, he began planning to escape.
Personal Recollections by Aid Workers
Several aid workers have described their experiences at Nong Samet Camp. Dr. Louis Braile said: “There was really a palpable difference between Nong Samet and KID (Khao-I-Dang Holding Center). Perhaps it arose from the wilderness atmosphere. Perhaps it was the presence of the ancient ruins, or perhaps it was the fact that these people, unlike the KID residents, had little hope of expatriating.”
Dr. Steven H. Miles, medical director for the American Refugee Committee, wrote: “Relief at the end of the Khmer Rouge has been replaced by fear of the present. There is a hard hopelessness here, much more so than in the past. Escape is not possible. Violence and corruption are pervasive. War is certain. Fear, a sense of extreme vulnerability, is the omnipresent emotion. My experience of Nong Samet in 1983 was overwhelmingly, searingly sad.”
According to Robert C. Porter Jr. of the American Embassy in Bangkok: “The Khmer camp at Nong Samet... always held the most exotic fascination and excitement for me.... A tall forest provided welcome shade. The stone ruins of an old Angkor-style Buddhist temple gave it a particularly Khmer air. While its early military leadership was among the more corrupt, disruptive and despicable, the camp was unusually well organized and tightly run.... It had an interesting population and a lively market. For a time in 1979 and 1980, it was the most populous Cambodian city on Earth, far surpassing the then-reawakening, but still tiny, Phnom Penh.”
As Ha’ng and Anh Em waded through the water, they held hands. They had nothing else to grip.
Anh Em’s cheeks bulged from her swollen, damaged gums. Their clothes were rags, their hair was knotted and their bodies reeked of sweat and urine, exactly like the others struggling beside them. Once on the beach, everyone stood there -- hungry, exhausted and confused. What next?
Gradually, some earlier “settlers” in this new place came onto the beach. Soon everyone talked animatedly in Chinese.
Before long, policemen with guns arrived too and started to create some order. Everyone had to get into family groups and queue up so that the police could check papers and match the newcomers with any relatives already there.
A powerful wave of emotions hit Ha’ng. She firmly believed and desperately hoped that Phat and Me would be here somewhere. It felt like her heart had resumed pumping and her nerves had started feeling again.
When the police reached Ha’ng and Anh Em, the girl explained that they had no forms of identification since everything had been in her brother’s care when they were inadvertently separated. She gave their family name and described Phat and Me to the patient policeman. When he asked around, everyone shook their heads. No one knew of Phat and Me. There were suggestions: “They may still be on the way. Be patient. News will get through.”
With everyone somewhat sorted and many families reunited with missing members, the crowd moved up the beach, through trees and to the campsite. As the only ones not connected to anyone else, Ha’ng and Anh Em tagged along at the end of the line. Ha’ng wished that she could be numb again, which she much preferred to the sharp pangs of isolation.
With the camp still being set up, everything looked makeshift and temporary. Wooden structures with some corrugated iron roofs or tarpaulins provided the shelter. Communal washing and cooking areas with hand pumps in the middle were marked by corrugated iron fencing. Then 11 years old, Ha’ng had no idea exactly how long she might need to live there.
The first night in the camp proved miserable. Everyone else from their boat had found a designated area in which to sleep by bunking in the shelters of their relatives with whom they had reunited. With no such relatives, Ha’ng and Anh Em had nowhere. Too weary to protest, they lay on the ground to sleep under the coconut palms and stars. As dawn broke, they awoke, mosquito-bitten, hungry and parched with thirst.
Then the priorities were food and water, followed by a shower, new clothes and a place to sleep. So where was breakfast in this strange place?
Slowly and stiffly, they started to walk through the camp. After asking about food, they learned that none would be available until an aid ship could arrive in five days with new supplies.
Anh Em’s gums were so sore that she could not eat anything solid, but still urgently needed sustenance. They found a fresh coconut on the ground. A helpful man cut it for them so that they could drink its contents. Then they begged from families who cooked rice and dried fish. Ha’ng received some morsels, merely appetizers, not a meal.
The dream of reaching America never had looked more distant. Ha’ng felt like a castaway, someone lost forever on a remote island.