The Quest for Redemption (Cont.)
We departed for Battambang province in early January, 1985 on board an old bus. Because of too many potholes on the road, the trip took us all day long. After arriving in Battambang City at about 5 o’clock in the evening, Odom took us to a safe house where we would meet a man, presumably his uncle, who lived on the third floor. The next morning, we continued on our journey to the district of Serey Sauphorn (now the provincial center of Banteay Meanchey). During that leg of our journey, Vuthda and I were arrested by police who set up a checkpoint near Phum O Ta Ky. The police, rightly, suspected us of escaping to the border camps. I was so scared and thought of the worse consequence. But just as the police took us into their custody and ordered the transport truck on which we rode to go on its way, we saw Odom, who rode on a different truck, came to our rescue. Upon hearing Odom invoking his uncle’s name and telling them that we were his friends who were going to visit relatives in Serey Sauphorn, the police politely apologized and promised to send us on our way as soon as the next transport truck arrived. I was so relieved to learn that we would not be arrested and somewhat thankful to the dictatorial nature of a communist state where selected powerful individuals stood above the law.
After the debacle at Phum O Ta Ky, we took great precaution despite having a powerful man behind our back. Just before we reached Serey Sauphorn, Odom told the truck driver to drop us off in a village where another police checkpoint was set up near a highway and railroad crisscross. Odom seemed to know the area like the back of his hand. Within only a few minutes, he procured a horse-drawn carriage in which we would ride through the police checkpoint pretending to be local people going about their businesses. We rode that horse carriage all the way to Serey Sauphorn, which was located only several miles from that crisscross point.
Serey Sauphorn was a bustling smuggling town. It was the hub of both human and goods smuggling. From the town center to the border area the distance was only about 40 miles. Thus, after a lengthy, cross-country trip, we were finally near the end of our journey. But before we made our last move to complete our quest for redemption, we had to wait yet another period of time as it was January 7th, Victory Day, when the Khmer Rouge was toppled from power. To score political points, the Vietnamese soldiers used this commemorative date to launch attacks on the border camps and send their inhabitants scattering all over the jungles along the border. Unable to cross the border, we were forced to stay in Serey Sauphorn indefinitely to wait for the chaos to subside.
Towards the end of January, we received word from smugglers that new temporary camps had been set up along the border again. Before we could reach the border area, there was another police checkpoint, a tough one, located on the outskirt of Serey Sauphorn, which we had to cross. In a very elaborate scheme, Odom arranged for us to travel in groups of no more than two people. In the case of Vuthda and me, we had to travel alone pretending to be local merchants going to buy smuggled goods from the border area. Upon learning that I would be traveling across a notorious police checkpoint alone, I turned pale and started to have a panic attack. Odom took me aside, gave me a pep talk, found me two local merchants as companions, and a bicycle which I would use to ride to the border area. After making it across the police checkpoint, I traveled about 25 miles to reach a safe house in probably less than an hour. Fear seemed to give me the greatest motivation to reach the destination way ahead of my escorts.
We regrouped in a village called Nimith, a place where smugglers and human traffickers prepared for their perilous journey across the borderline. Odom came to see us one last time to ensure that we were in the good hands of experienced smugglers who would act as our guides to take us across the border. Because he brought us to the border area for almost free, Odom would not risk his life bringing us across the border himself. A major concern for him in traveling across the border area was that the bandits and rogue soldiers from both sides of the border, who ply their robbery trades along the borderline, did not discriminate between the weak and the powerful.
After spending a couple of days in Nimith, our guides told us that it was time to depart. We were divided into two groups. Om Kin and her two sons, Vuthda and Noeun, were under the helm of one guide, while Om Ok and I were led by another. Together, we joined a larger traveling group of about 50 people. The larger group was, in turn, led by three armed government soldiers who would escort us to the border crossing area for a fee, of course. Just before we departed, our guides told us to set aside a specific amount of money to give to the soldiers who escorted us.
At about seven o’clock in the evening, we set off on foot in a single file under the cover of darkness. Two of the soldiers led the way, while the third, with a B-40 grenade launcher, walked at the rear. In a strictly-enforced smuggling code of conduct, we all had to walk in complete silence. Thus, we had to stay close to our guides at all times as they would be the ones who showed us what to do when dealing with certain situations. After walking for several miles across the rice fields, we reached a forested area where the column came to a sudden stop. Because of the code of silence, information had to be passed in a whisper from the front to the rear as to what was happening. We learned that a small band of rogue Vietnamese soldiers were stopping the column to demand some payments. It was a dog eat dog world indeed. As the two Cambodian soldiers at the front negotiated with the Vietnamese soldiers, the one at the rear was concerned that his comrades at the front might have been neutralized. So he launched a B-40 grenade at a bush nearby to send a message to the Vietnamese soldiers that there was more firepower at the rear. Just as the B-40 grenade exploded, all hell broke loose. We all ran in different directions. In a panic, Om Ok and I, along with our guide, ran all the way back to the village. Since it was around midnight, we decided to stay in the rice field for the rest of the night and entered the village at predawn hours.
In the commotion, our two groups were separated from each another. However, by evening of the next day, the guide who was in charge of overseeing Om Kin and her sons, Noeun and Vuthda, returned to the village. He informed us that they all made it across the border safely and now stayed at a camp called Nong Chan. Upon learning of our colleague’s safe journey, we all felt relieved. However, anxiety still loomed over us as we pondered about our own trip toward the camp of redemption, or regret, depending on the situation we would be in while being there.
Om Ok and I stayed in Phum Nimith for a couple more days waiting for a suitable opportunity to cross the border. While we were waiting, our guide suggested that I should disguise myself as a trader going to sell and buy goods from the other side of the border so that the rebel soldiers wouldn’t give me a hard time crossing their turf. (For those readers who might wonder why I needed to disguise myself as a trader, it stands to reason that the rebel soldiers usually stopped people who were going to the camp to escape from Cambodia, to extort money from them. As for traders/smugglers, they were charged only a nominal fee). So to minimize the chance of being held for extortion, I needed to buy some Cambodian goods to take along with me to sell to traders on the other side of the border. The problem was that I didn’t have any money to buy anything. While we were pondering about what to do, Om Ok suggested that I take his money and used it to buy Cambodian tobacco, a kind of strong, pungent smelling product used by many ordinary Cambodian smokers, especially among those who spent time in wooded areas, as the smoke from this smelly tobacco acted as repellent to mosquitoes and insects alike. Besides, the tobacco could probably be used to curry favor among the rebel soldiers, who might give us some difficulty while crossing their turf. It was a brilliant idea. So with Om Ok’s money, I went to buy a small sack of tobacco from a local merchant along with some other provisions a cross-border trader might need.
After I had got my merchandise and transformed myself into a cross-border smuggler, our guide told us that the time had arrived for our departure. Once again, just before sunset, we went to a meeting place where a dozen or so people, most of them smugglers, were gathering. There were also three armed soldiers who would act as our escorts. Upon seeing Om Ok, the only elder among us, one of the soldiers came over to talk to him. The soldier asked Om Ok where he was from, as it was obvious where he was going. Om Ok told him that he was from Kompong Cham province. In a rather excited voice, the soldier told Om Ok that he, too, was from Kompong Cham province. At that instance, the two of them found a kindred spirit with each other. The soldier assured Om Ok that he knew the safest jungle route to go to Nong Chan camp and that everyone shouldn’t worry too much about the trip. It was a rather bold declaration by the soldier, but whatever doubt I had, I had to keep quiet, for it was prudent to stick to the code of silence.
(To be continued)