The Quest for Redemption (Cont.)
As darkness fell upon us, we set off toward the border camp quietly. We walked for a few hours before coming to a stop at one point in a forested area. The soldiers told us to sit down in a single line when they made their round to collect an escorting fee from us, one by one. As a gesture of respect or pity to Om Ok, they did not take a fee from him. After collecting all the fees from us and dividing those fees among themselves, the soldiers took us further into a thick forest. We walked for the rest of the night without stopping. By about four o’clock in the morning the soldiers brought us to a small clearing and told us that we had come to the border crossing area. To avoid running into the rebel forces, the three soldiers could not take us any further. Therefore, we were left to cross the border alone. With some of the seasoned smugglers leading the way, we trekked ahead while it was still dark. About half an hour later, we reached a freshly dug canal marking the Cambodian border. As we walked up the canal’s bank, we saw a lot of trenches dug beside it. Immediately, someone realized that we had walked into a Vietnamese soldier’s outpost. So we made a hasty retreat into the forests. Apparently, that outpost was not guarded at night. It was probably being used during the daytime only. We were also sort of lucky that no one had stepped on a landmine, as that kind of outpost usually had landmines planted around it.
After making a detour, our group finally found a crossing point where we had to wade through knee-deep water to make our way across the canal. While crossing the canal, I took a quick look at it and imagined that it must have been dug by the K-5 workforces as there was no way to bring excavating machines into those dense, isolated jungle areas. It was early in the morning. Hence, we made our way across the canal quickly to avoid being spotted by soldiers from all sides and bandits alike. After we crossed the canal, we walked right into a group of rebel soldiers, the non-communist forces, as they called themselves, who had set up camp under a thick jungle canopy. The rebel soldiers stopped us for inspection lest we carried any contraband, a pretext to extort money from those who might have valuable goods such as snake skins to trade with their Thai counterparts. During their searches, one of the soldiers found sausages in my bag and asked if he could have a couple of links to cook for breakfast. I agreed to his request and tried to break a few sausage links for him but was unable to break it as I needed a knife to do so. Without giving it much thought, I gave all the sausages, about 10 links in all, to the soldier, which he accepted with delight. Once the inspection was finished, the rebel soldiers let us go on our way. While we were walking away from the soldiers, our guide walked next to me and whispered in my ear that I should not give things to those rebel soldiers readily. My generosity could make them think that I was not a real smuggler. To avoid the suspicion, he suggested that I blend in with the smugglers and walk ahead toward Nong Chan camp while he and Om Ok followed behind, for Om Ok was too slow to keep up.
Before reaching Nong Chan camp, I had to go through a couple more of the rebel checkpoints. The last checkpoint, which was located just outside the camp’s perimeter, was reputably the toughest one to get through as rebel soldiers who guarded that checkpoint would conduct a thorough inspection and imposed heavy taxes on smuggled goods which they deemed valuable. They even built holding places (prisons) to keep escapees from Cambodia until significant cash payment was made before allowing them to enter the camp. After learning what were going on at each of these checkpoints from a fellow smuggler, I began to realize that the conceptual definition between rebel or liberation forces and bandits was a blurred line. Practically, it was a matter of survival. In these jungle no man’s land, the rebel forces needed material and monetary resources to survive. To this end, they had to find ways to acquire material and monetary resources from those who traveled through their area of influences as much as possible to sustain their existence, which was not easy given the fact that the smugglers and escapees who were the main sources of their incomes also had tricks of their own.
Just as we were approaching the last rebel checkpoint, one of the smugglers told everyone that he knew a back route which could bring us into the camp without having to go through the checkpoint. In unison, everyone agreed to follow him. Thus, I, too, had to follow him. We walked in the forest for about ten minutes and, voila, a refugee camp was right in front of us. There were no fences or any kinds of obstacle to prevent us from entering the camp. We just walked right in without attracting even the slightest attention from the camp’s residents. It was normal, I guessed, for people to go in and out of the camp at will.
As soon as we entered the camp, everyone went separate way to go to wherever his or her lodging was. Consequently, I was left to fend for myself. After a few minutes of wandering aimlessly, I stumbled upon a small market in the middle of the camp. To avoid being seen as a new comer and helpless person, who could be taken advantage of by bad people, I decided to ask a man, whose hut located at the far end of the market, if I could leave my bag of smuggled goods with him for a while as I was trying to locate my relatives. The man agreed to let me leave my bag in his hut. So without the burden of my smuggled goods, I blended in with the camp’s residents and walked about to try to find Vuthda, Noeun, and their mother, Om Kin. By sheer luck, after turning a couple of corners, I ran right into Vuthda and his mother sitting under a small hut without any walls around it. I was so relieved to see them.
After going through all of those perilous attempts, we finally made it to a refugee camp. The date was January 27, 1985, exactly one month after I left home. Vuthda asked me if I saw his brother, Noeun, who went to look for us at the camp’s entrance. I told him that I was following a small band of smugglers who entered the camp through a back road. Just as we were talking about them, Noeun, Om Ok, and our guide had also arrived. We all finally breathed a sigh of relief, at least for the time being.
After Om Ok’s arrival, I asked Vuthda to accompany me to retrieve my bag of smuggled goods, which was nothing but cheap Cambodian tobacco. Using the market as guidance, I eventually located the hut and the man with whom I left my bag of goods. I thanked him for safeguarding my bag and asked him if he would like some tobacco for smoking because I didn’t have anything else beside tobacco in my bag. The man politely declined my offer. We returned to our hut and, afterward, I untied my bag to take all the tobacco out to give to Om Ok. As soon as I opened my bag, I realized that a significant amount of tobacco was missing which would explain why the man with whom I left my bag declined to accept my gratitude. It appeared that he had already appropriated some tobacco out of my bag before hand. Well, the theft was trivial anyway. Thus, I kept my mouth shut and pretended that nothing happened.
(To be continued)