The Jungle of Refugees (Cont.)
The day of reckoning arrived in the afternoon of April 12, 1985. Some rebel soldiers at the frontline came to inform residents in the camp that attack from the Vietnamese soldiers was imminent. Immediately, people started to panic and everyone was leaving his/her hut to seek shelter in the canal which was, at that point of the year, devoid of any water. We were also going along with other people as it was our first experience dodging bullets in the battlefields along the border. Upon reaching the canal, we saw Thai border guards, dressed in black, standing along the canal’s bank with automatic rifles in their hands to prevent people from crossing into Thai territory. Unable to go any further, we all settled either in or on the bank of that canal waiting for the Vietnamese attack. Just as everyone was pushing toward the canal, we heard a couple of explosions on the edge of camp and saw some smoke going up. At that point, people started to cross the canal into Thai territory even though the Thai border guards were pointing their guns at them. We, too, were going along with the flow. We went about a few hundred yards into Thai territory before coming to a stop, for there were no more explosions being heard. From a vantage point, I saw a couple of white men, presumably UNBRO’s staff, negotiating with the Thai military officers. About 15 minutes later, someone with a bullhorn microphone made an announcement telling people to return to the camp and spend the night there waiting until tomorrow when UNBRO would bring in trucks to transport us to a new place. After being told to stay put, we went back into the camp and spent a nervous night there.
Next morning, at about 9 o’clock, we were told to leave the camp in an orderly manner and come to a designated area where transport trucks were coming to pick us up. As we climbed on board one of the trucks, I was a bit jumpy about my fate. In 1979, I once listened to news broadcasted by Voice of America radio (VOA) that Thailand had trucked hundreds of Cambodian refugees from the region around where we were now, brought them to a mountain cliff near Preah Vihear Temple, and forced them to go back into Cambodia where many of them died from lack of food and water or stepping on landmines. For me, that truck ride was also a somber reminiscence of the Khmer Rouge’s transport in the mid 1970s, a trip to the unknown.
Our truck ride took us through many Thai villages. Coincidentally, April 13 was the beginning of a three-day celebration of both Thai and Cambodian New Year. So people in the villages by which we passed were in a festive mood. They cheered and waved at us as if wishing us to have a safe trip to wherever we were going. We traveled for a few hours before the trucks took us to a wooded area where some sorts of crude accommodations were being prepared for our arrival. As we disembarked the truck, I saw familiar water tanks with UNBRO logo on them being placed at strategic locations where people could come to get water for their consumption. Upon seeing those UNBRO water tanks, I breathed a sigh of relief as it appeared that we were still under the care of a United Nations agency.
The new location in which we were resettled was called Site 2 camp. It was situated on the base of the Dangrek Mountain. As I subsequently learned, Site 2 was a huge complex composed of many small camps. Because we left Nong Chan camp so abruptly, our new location had not been prepared yet. Hence, we were lodged in a forest for the time being. That night, it rained cats and dogs, and we all sat miserably under a blue tarp plastic sheet. We spent several days in that forest in which I witnessed a robbery, a casualty of shooting by a Thai security guard, and a beating of Cambodian refugees by a Thai soldier. Life as a refugee in the jungle was really tough. But, being helpless as we were, there was nothing we could do to ensure our safe existence except for praying to a higher being for protection.
Once the new location for our resettlement was ready, we were ordered to move there on foot as it was within walking distance. Our new camp was still called Nong Chan, except that it was part of Site 2 camp. Site 2 camp was further divided in two: North and South. Site 2 North was composed of 5 small camps, Nong Chan, Ampil, Dangrek, Samlor Chhnganh, and Sok Sann while Site 2 South was composed of only one large camp called Bang Phou or Rithy Sen. The whole Site 2 camp complex housed some 200,000 Cambodian refugees. It was a sprawling complex.
As soon as we got settled down in the new camp, I began to look for places where I could begin my English language study. UNBRO had provided support for schooling of Cambodian refugee children for up to the fourth grade, which was the primary level based on Cambodian curriculum. However, some Cambodian camp authorities decided to informally build a secondary school to teach students from grade five to seven. Thus, there were some schooling activities going on in the various camps in Site 2. With some help from my friends, I was able to find a number of private English courses being offered in different shapes and forms. To satisfy my thirst for learning and maximize my chance for success, I decided to enroll in two private basic level English courses concurrently. To also revamp my education in Khmer, my native tongue, I had additionally made attempts to go back to school. One of the challenges for me was that I had been out of school for 10 years now since the day the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. I had forgotten most of the subjects, especially arithmetic and geometric formulas, which were needed to pass a placement test. In a rather vain attempt, I went to different schools in the camp to apply for admission to attend school without having to take a placement test. Starting with grade five, I went to see the principal of the secondary school telling her of my situation and pleading with her to let me attend grade five without having to take a placement test. It was to no avail. Dejected, I went to one of the primary schools located in Ampil camp and asked if I could be admitted to attend grade four without having to take a placement test. The principal insisted that I must take the test if I wanted to go back to school. Unable to convince those school principals to let me attend classes without taking a placement test, I reluctantly took the test and failed miserably. The teacher who administered the test gave me some fourth grade level geometry and arithmetic problems to solve. I failed to get even one of them done. I still remember one of the problems vividly -- it was finding the area of a rectangle. Seeing that I was not capable of attending the fourth grade, the teacher suggested that I should attend the third grade, if I wanted, and he would enter my name on the roster. I agreed with his suggestion and went to sit with the third graders for the rest of the day. As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that I was out of my element. The classroom teacher was about my age and all the students were looking at me in amusement. After the class was dismissed at noon, I went home and made a resolute decision not to return to attend that third grade class again.
Despite all the disappointment with my attempts and failure to go back to school, I decided to make one last attempt to attend the fourth grade. This time, I went to seek enrollment at the Nong Chan’s primary school which had just been built and resumed teaching its small numbers of students. To my absolute relief, the registrar did not ask me to take a placement test. Because of my mature look, he just probably assumed that I was ready to sail through the fourth grade. The only question he asked me was whether I belonged to any rebel force regiment. After I told him that I had never joined any rebel force, he gave me a piece of registration paper to fill out indicating the place where I was born and date of birth. While filling the registration form for school enrollment, I made a quick calculation between my age and the age in which a student would be allowed to take a high school exit exam to receive a diploma. Traditionally, Cambodian students must not be older than 18 years old when they were taking an exam for their high school diploma. I was 21 years old at that point and still attending the fourth grade. Without giving it much thought, I decided to roll my age back 5 years, and put my date of birth in 1969 instead of 1964, my actual birth date. At 16 in the fourth grade, I would still be a couple more years older than the age limit of 18 when all students must take the exam for their high school diploma, provided that I made it to the eighth grade without failing. I should point out that to make up for time lost during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Cambodian education curriculum from elementary through high school was shortened to eight years instead of twelve.
Aside from running short on time to make it through high school, I also had another problem to contend with. My new date of birth fell on the same year of my younger brother’s, Buntha, birth date. He was born in 1969. But Buntha was living in Cambodia, and the chance for us to reunite and be together again was remote, anyway. Besides, if we were to reunite and had to sort out our ages, officially, I didn’t think Buntha would mind giving up a couple years of his age to give me a chance to educationally redeem my life. Thus, with a quick fix on my date of birth and an admission to attend the fourth grade, I gained a new lease on my education and my future.
At 21 years old, I was probably the oldest fourth grader in the world. Also, I was probably one of the most ambitious persons to dream about becoming a writer and writing books in the English language, of which I had just begun learning the ABCs. Naively, knowing that I had an opportunity to learn and acquire knowledge, I thought I was going to eventually fulfill my dream. I had never thought about failure; and it somehow didn’t cross my mind. I was so preoccupied with preparing myself to engage in education that I completely forgot about where I was, and how I was going to overcome the obstacles I would encounter. For me, it appeared that ignorance was really bliss.
(To be continued)