The Jungle of Refugees (cont.)
In a society where a child’s success became a bragging right of the parents, my success of becoming one of the top three students on test scores gave teachers at Nong Chan Primary School some senses of pride. To reward my good performance, the assistant principal allowed me to attend English courses taught by Father John Kennedy Bingham to the school staff, hoping that upon my completion of secondary school education I would return to teach at Nong Chan Primary School. To those who might wonder who Father John Kennedy Bingham was, he, as the name suggested, was related to the famous Kennedy family of America.
I started the first year of my secondary school education some time in December of 1985. As one of the top students who received high score on the entrance exam, I was chosen to become the classroom’s major. Because UNBRO did not provide support for secondary school education, the Cambodian camp administrators had to divert some of the building materials, mostly bamboo and thatch, from other building projects to construct several rudimentary classrooms for us. As for educational materials such as textbooks, notebooks, pens, and pencils, we had to rely on charity organizations. COERR, Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, was one such organization which provided us with much needed support.
As students, we did not have the luxury of possessing textbooks. Only teachers were given textbooks for teaching. Hence, we had to write down our lessons, either copying them from the blackboard after our teacher, or writing them down onto our notebooks as our teacher dictated them to us. As the classroom’s major, I was frequently given the tasks of writing our lessons on the blackboard for my classmates to copy them down while our teacher was preparing other lessons.
Soon after I started my first year at the secondary school, my younger brother, Buntha arrived in the camp. Without dilly-dally, I arranged to have him attended school immediately. Buntha had already reached the seventh grade when he left Cambodia. Our secondary school had one seventh grade class, two sixth grade classes, and six fifth grade classes. However, Buntha was a bit reluctant to attend the seventh grade as I was lagging behind him in the fifth grade. Thus, he decided to enroll in the fifth grade with me. I should point out that the secondary school curricula in the refugee camp was somewhat more advanced than those being carried out in Cambodia, for they were modeled after the free world countries such as Thailand, Singapore, and the U.S.; whereas in Cambodia, they were restricted by Communist ideology. For instance, students in Cambodia at that time could not study unsanctioned foreign languages such as English or French, while their counterparts in the refugee camp could study any subject. That was why Buntha decided to roll back his grade level to fill in the gap.
After having his name registered, Buntha was placed in the same class with me. Hence, I had another competitor who was my younger brother. As a class major, I was expected to maintain good standing academically, which meant that I should score higher than my peers on the various subjects we studied. It was tough, given the fact that I had not had a solid basic educational background. As a result, I found myself frequently being beaten by my little brother, academically.
By about mid 1986, my mother had finally made it to one of the rebel’s military camps, which located about 70 miles from where we were. Despite the isolation of Site 2, where all civilian refugee camps under the control of a rebel group called the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) were relocated, people inside Cambodia, who had troubles with the Cambodian communist government, still trickled into those rebel military camps to escape persecution. The rebel forces periodically made arrangements to transport those civilian people to Site 2 in their military trucks, which brought soldiers every month or so to visit their families who lived in Site 2 camp complex.
Upon learning of my mother’s arrival in the rebel’s military camp, we immediately tried to find ways to get her to Site 2 as soon as possible. Om Ok’s son-in-law, Chantha, at that point, had joined the rebel’s intelligence services called KISA, Khmer Intelligence Services Agency, as a desk officer. Using his connections, Chantha asked the rebel officers at the frontline to help send my mother to Site 2 as soon as possible. However, before the officers could locate my mother, she had been robbed by some foot soldiers who guarded the camp. According to a witness, from whom we learned afterward, the rebel robbers took my mother aside and ordered her to take off her clothes to see if she hid any valuable in the private areas. It must have been a humiliating experience for my mother. But she said nothing to us about the incident.
In an attempt to right the wrong and punish the culprits, their officer summoned those who guarded the area where my mother was robbed to stand in line and had my mother pointed out the ones who robbed her. But, my mother was too smart to make enemies in the jungle where only jungle law prevailed. She told the officer that it was rather dark, and she couldn’t recognize the faces of the people who robbed her. To amend the misdeed of their soldiers, the officials in charge of the military camp put my Mom in a special car and brought her to Site 2 immediately.
(To be continued)