Sunday, June 23, 2013


Prisoners of the Humanitarian

After my mother’s arrival in Site 2, I sent a letter to Heang informing him of our reunion. Heang was so happy to learn of our being together in a refugee camp. He said that he would try his best to sponsor us to live with him in the United States, which gave us some sense of hope, even though such hope for us was quite remote knowing what his life’s situation was. But it was nevertheless reassuring for us to know that we, at least, had some support while living in an isolated place fenced around with barbed wire. My other brother, Sokha, who at that point resided in the state of Ohio, had also provided us with some financial support.

Despite having been supplied with food and water, life in Site 2 was a bit depressing. One could not escape the feeling of being confined like a prisoner whenever one walked to the edge of camp and saw the barbed wire and the guard posts of Thai soldiers who kept watch over the camp’s residents day and night. However, the Thai authority which oversaw the camps seemed to sense that many camp’s residents had relatives living abroad and that they had money to spend. Therefore, to exploit the wealth that existed within Site 2, a sort of informal farmer’s market was set up on a strip of land within the premises of the camp where local Thai farmers and merchants could bring in produce, scrap meats, canned foods, dried goods, and clothes to sell to the refugees. The market was open only until noon time each day; and it was through this informal trade that we, refugees, could imagine what the outside world might look like.

For the rest of 1986, life for me was a bit less depressing after having been reunited with my mother and younger brother. Despite being confined within the premises of a refugee camp, we were able to establish some sense of normalcy living as a family unit. During this relative peace and comfort, I was able to devote much of my energy to educating myself as rigorously as possible. My plan was to skip one grade level every couple of years so that I could compensate for lost time. Everyday, I spent most of my spare time studying mathematics and other subjects with my friends who were one or two grade levels ahead of me. I would go to sit and listen to them while they were doing their homework and, if possible, ask them some questions. Though the subjects were sometimes beyond my grasp, I felt that I learned something in the process. This somewhat informal self-training eventually became the backbone of my educational background.

Toward the end of 1986, another life-changing event had befallen me. This time, it was another quest to reach yet another point of our journey. Om Ok’s son-in-law, Chantha, who had been working with the rebel’s intelligence services, learned that in order to be eligible to immigrate to another country we must be classified and recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those of us who lived in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border were not refugees; we were classified as displaced people. There was only one camp called Khao I Dang (KID) which was run by UNHCR. People could be recognized as refugees when they arrived and lived there for some time.

With this information, Chantha began to talk about the possibility of going to Khao I Dang to seek refugee status so that we would stand a better chance of immigrating to the United States. He said that it was pointless for us to leave everything behind and travel across so many perils to reach a place but stop short just as we were about to reach the end point. Khao I Dang was not that far and reaching it was not that dangerous compared to what we had faced leaving Cambodia for the border camp. Thus, with that powerful argument, Chantha had made a compelling case. Om Ok and Om Ky soon agreed with their son-in-law’s idea of moving to Khao I Dang camp. They began to make preparation and look for means to get there.

As soon as she learned that her only relatives in Site 2 were about to move to another camp, my mother began to worry about our fate. She, too, left Cambodia for the opportunity to go live with her sons in the United States of America, not to languish in a refugee or displaced people camp. Hence, my mother insisted that we, too, move to Khao I Dang. I was reluctant to go to Khao I Dang as it meant that my education would once again be interrupted and put on hold. After all of those painful and difficult efforts to gain a foothold in bringing myself back into schooling, the idea of letting it slip out of my life and future was too much for me to take. I initially refused to go along with my mother’s insistence to move to Khao I Dang camp. But, after seeing how sad and anxious she was, I relented.

Khao I Dang was located some 50 miles or so from Site 2. It was not within walking distance. But distance was not a problem for the human traffickers who would take us there. As long as we were willing to risk our lives and had the money to pay for our transport, the traffickers would take us anywhere we wanted to go in Thailand. It appeared that these human traffickers seemed to thrive wherever desperate people lived. In Site 2, it didn’t take long for Chantha to locate a small group of human traffickers who would take us to Khao I Dang for a fee. One morning in late December, 1986, we surreptitiously left our huts and went to a departure point where our traffickers arranged for their Thai counterparts to come pick us up and transport us to Khao I Dang. Vuthda, my good friend, and his family did not go with us as they were reluctant to take the risk of being trafficked in a foreign country.

The group of human traffickers with whom we entrusted our lives, were composed of three Cambodian refugees and several Thai nationals. Their operation was a classic case of caged birds and wild birds cooperating to exploit a common interest. Together, they created elaborate steps to bring us to Khao I Dang undetected, or maybe they already bribed the various officials for passages. Whatever they did, I was quite amazed to see that these human traffickers were very brazen in going about transporting us to Khao I Dang.

We slipped out of Site 2 at about five o’clock in the evening at a secluded area. There was a small gap in the barbed wire fence, made by either the human traffickers or smugglers for people to slip in and out of the camp. Two of the Cambodian guides led us through the forests while the third stayed behind inside the camp to give some sort of signals to their colleagues that it was safe to slip back into the camp. We walked on a rather well trodden path for about half a mile before coming to a stop under a thicket. Judging from the well-worn path, it appeared that we were not the only group of people who used that trail. There must be countless other people who went through that secret trail before us. From our hiding place, we could hear the sounds of automobiles traveling back and forth rather clearly. Hence, the road must be nearby. One of our guides went ahead to scout in the direction from which we heard the sounds of automobiles. About 15 minutes later, he returned and motioned for us to move forward. We walked for a couple hundred yards more and emerged at a small clearance on the edge of the forest where a pickup truck was waiting for us. The two Thai nationals who were driving the truck motioned for us to climb on board the truck’s bed quickly before we could be spotted by Thai border police. With fear and anxiety, we scrambled onto the truck’s bed in less than five minutes. Once we all packed into the pickup truck, the driver took off quickly. One of our Cambodian guides who spoke Thai came along with us while the other returned to the camp.

We traveled through several Thai villages disguised as farmers returning from their fields. To avoid suspicion from onlookers, all the children were seated in the middle of the truck’s bed while adults were sitting around them. At one point, our truck made a detour onto a dirt path where a man riding on a motorcycle was waiting to lead the way. A couple of miles later, we emerged back onto the paved road and continued on toward Khao I Dang camp. Our Cambodian guide told us that the detour was necessary to avoid a Thai police checkpoint. At about 7:30 p.m., we arrived at an isolated safe house located on a field adjacent to Khao I Dang camp. We spent the night in that house and remained there until four p.m. the next day, before preparation was made to get us into Khao I Dang. Through the house’s windows, we could see the light brown huts of Khao I Dang camp with our naked eyes. Located not far from our safe house was a small villa belonging to an affluent family who had a connection with the Thai monarch. During our stay in the safe house, we were invited to visit that villa, which some of us did. The owners gave us a tour of the house and we were quite impressed. Apparently, like Odom in Cambodia, the Thai human traffickers also had powerful people behind them. I presumed that the wealthy residents who had a connection with the Thai monarch must receive some payments from the traffickers for providing a protective umbrella for them.

At about 4:30 p.m. we made our way into Khao I Dang camp. After bribing a Thai taskforce who guarded a secluded area behind Khao I Dang camp’s hospital, our guides got a go-ahead signal to drop us off near a small bridge built over a dry creek. We walked along that dry creek and after passing under that small bridge for about a hundred yards, we reached the smuggling entry point where a wide gap in the barbed wire fence was made to enable people to walk in and out of the camp without hindrance. At this point, only our Cambodian guide remained with us to take us to another safe house in Khao I Dang camp, which belonged to a middle-aged couple known informally as the four aces family. The four aces were referred to their four beautiful daughters, one of whom was married to a Thai taskforce official in charge of guarding Khao I Dang camp. I had a glimpse of that Thai official and a couple of the beautiful daughters before being surreptitiously moved to hide in small group in different houses in the camp. At that point, I began to realize that life in Khao I Dang camp wasn’t what we had expected—a refugee camp with humanitarian protection.

(To be continued)

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