The Jungle of Refugees
Nong Chan camp was located on a strip of no man’s land straddling the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Based on personal survey of the areas I realized that both Thailand and Cambodia had dug small canals, about 15 feet wide, along their common border. In between and along those canals, they left a strip of land, about one mile wide, as a buffer zone. The actual border was somewhere along that one mile wide strip of land. Besides acting as a buffer zone, that strip of no man’s land was where rebel forces and bandits based their operations. It was also where Cambodian refugees were forced to stay. Based on what I learned from the camp’s residents, there were many camps, like the one we were in, scattering along the one mile-wide strip of that buffer zone border. Each camp was named after either the Thai or Cambodian village near which it was located. For instance, Nong Chan camp was name after a Thai village. It used to be located several miles to the north of where we were, but after the Vietnamese armed forces shelled the camp earlier in the year, people moved to the current location to get away from the artillery barrages. To get as far away from the Vietnamese artillery range as possible, the new Nong Chan camp was situated along the eastern bank of the Thai-built canal. All the refugees were strictly forbidden to cross to the other side of that canal, since it would be absolutely on Thai soil there. To bring relief supplies to the Cambodian refugees, UNBRO, United Nations for Border Relief Operation, had to build an earthen bridge across the canal so that trucks could bring water and food to feed the desperate refugees. Only a small clinic was allowed to be located on the western bank of the canal (Thai soil) opposite the camp as most of the doctors, nurses, and medics, who came to provide medical help to the refugees, were international volunteers.
Life in the camps along the border was harsh. People could be killed for just being out and about in the forests. Dangers were everywhere. One could be robbed, raped, and abused in every way imaginable. After all, we were in the jungle and under the protection of heavily armed rebels. Hence, under such condition, jungle law tended to prevail. Given the fact that there were so many armed men walking around without any effective law to regulate their conduct, the refugee camp and the surrounding jungle became a volatile ground for violent crime to occur. However, despite the apparent lawlessness, security in the camp was relatively well-maintained. Aside from domestic violence and occasional kidnapping, we rarely heard of people being robbed or killed inside the camp. The only real danger was when one ventured outside the camp to trade or forage for firewood in the forests where armed men, rebels and bandits alike, were lurking about.
There were about 20,000 people living in Nong Chan camp. It was a fairly large camp. New comers, like us, appeared to arrive in the camp almost on a daily basis as was evidenced by the fact that new huts were erected on the camp’s perimeter. As soon as we arrived in the camp, we immediately sent letters to our relatives in the U.S. to inform them of our whereabouts and the situation we were in. The main concern for all of us was money to buy food, without which we would starve to death in that jungle no man’s land. There were of course food rations being distributed to refugees by UNBRO to stave off starvation and calamity in the camp. But those food rations were given to women and girls only. All the men and boys who lived in the camp had to fend for themselves. I did not know who set such a policy in place; but that discriminatory practice lasted until the day I left for the U.S. in 1989.
Among the four of us, only Om Kin, the sole female, was qualified to receive food ration, a 14 pound sack of rice and five small cans of tuna, from UNBRO each week. Therefore, we had to find some way to get some more foodstuffs to feed the rest of us men. Luckily, a lot of families in the camp had many females in their numbers which enabled them to receive more rations than they could consume. As a result, we were able to barter or buy foodstuffs from other camp residents rather easily as long as we had the money. Some kindhearted residents even gave us their surplus ration on a weekly basis.
It took about a month or so for correspondences via air mail letters to reach each other, depending on how promptly our relatives in the U.S. sent their replies. After sending a letter to my brother, Heang, I was waiting anxiously for his response. In the meantime, as a dependant, I was made to take care of the household chores such as going to fetch water from the water trucks, which arrived at the edge of camp from about ten a.m. to two p.m., or going to find wood in the forests nearby to be used as fuel to cook our meals. I must say that every time I went to find firewood in the forest, I was scared of landmines. But it was a chore that somebody had to do. And I was made to be that somebody. So with prayer, I carefully went to collect firewood in the forest once every few days.
By late February, we all received letters from our relatives in the U.S. As expected, along with those letters, there was some money for us to buy food. Heang sent me $50, a tiny sum. But I wasn’t disappointed because I had been living without any money for a couple of months. The small bits of gold, the only currency I had, had been given to Odom, our trafficker, since we were in Phnom Penh. After experiencing what it was like to live without money to buy even the most basic things such as shoes (I lost my shoes during the debacle on my first attempt to cross the border and had to walk barefoot for about a month) the $50 I received from my brother, while converted to Thai currency, baht, which was being used in the camp, was a significant amount for me. I gave Om Kin about $30 worth of Thai money to help defray our monthly costs of foods and used the rest to buy myself some second hand clothes as I had been wearing the same clothes since the day I left home.
In his letter, Heang told me that he could not sponsor me to come to the U.S. because he was now legally no longer my blood brother. He had come to the U.S. as one of the sons of an elderly woman. Therefore, he had officially no other parents or siblings. His new name now was Wattana Sar. However, he would continue to find ways to help me come to the U.S. to reunite with him. Upon learning of my brother’s situation vis-à-vis my situation, I was both distressed and in despair. I had come a long way, crossing so many perils, just to learn that where I wanted to go was no longer possible. But a refugee camp was not a place for despair; it had already been a desperate place.
After learning of my fate, I sent another letter to Heang telling him that it would be okay for me to stay in the camp indefinitely. However, I would like to learn some skills while being stuck here doing nothing. One of these skills was the English language so that if I were lucky to be able to come to the U.S., which was now beyond my wildest imagination, I would at least have some ability to communicate and make a living there. In his response on the next letter, Heang agreed to my suggestion and sent me some more money to pay for private English courses which were being offered informally by some camp’s residents who had acquired English language skills from interacting with international volunteers.
Om Ok and Om Kin, on the other hand, had better news than me. Their children, who were living in the United States as well, were very excited to learn of their presence in the refugee camp. Their children were telling them to stay put while they were preparing paperwork to send to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand requesting approval for their parent’s immigration to the United States. Because Om Ok was here alone without his wife, Om Ky, who was my father’s older sister, his children asked that he arranged to get her to the camp as well. After receiving request from his children to bring his wife to the refugee camp, Om Ok sent a letter to Odom asking him to go all the way to Kompong Cham province to fetch his wife. Since Odom went to Kompong Cham province to fetch Om Ok’s wife, I decided to send a letter to my mother as well informing her of my safe arrival in a refugee camp. In my letter, I mentioned nothing about my plight in the refugee’s limbo lest my mother worry.
After getting letters informing my relatives on both ends of the universe sent, my anxiety had somewhat subsided. Therefore, I began to look at some bulletins advertising English courses being offered. However, before I was to begin taking English courses, word came around that the Vietnamese soldiers were preparing to attack the camp again. It was early April, the driest time of the dry season, which made it easy for Vietnamese troops to move their tanks and artillery batteries around. Reports from the frontlines indicated that a significant number of Vietnamese tanks had been moving to the area where our camp was located. Upon learning of the Vietnamese troops’ movement, everyone was on edge and prepared for yet another flight. Using money Heang sent me, I went to the market and purchased a backpack along with a small blanket, a hammock, and some other provisions one might need to survive in the jungle. I packed all my belongings into the backpack and kept it within easy reach just in case we needed to run away from the Vietnamese artillery shells in a hurry.
(To be continued)