Prisoner of the Humanitarian (Cont.)
During our stay in Khao I Dang camp, Om Ok and his extended family found a couple of empty houses, whose occupants had been accepted to resettle in a third country, and settled there, while my mother, Buntha, and I went to lodge with a friend named Saiy. After talking with our friends and neighbors, we quickly learned that as new comers to Khao I Dang camp, we were considered illegal residents and would frequently be rounded up by the Thai security taskforces. All illegal residents who had been rounded up would eventually be sent back to the border camps. UNHCR could not protect us and would not grant us legal statuses. What a dilemma! We went from one refugee limbo to another.
Our friends suggested that, for the time being, we should live separately, which was easy for us to find a place to hide within the house, or rather hut. Saiy, who had offered us shelter, had a hiding place for one person in his hut. He came to occupy that hut after its original owners left for a third country and discovered that hiding place by accident while he was cleaning the kitchen area. It was a large, empty water jar placed underground below the stove. Saiy pulled a piece of metal sheet, which was placed under the stove and over the mouth of the water jar to the side and showed us where the hiding place was. Saiy told us that it was common for houses in Khao I Dang camp to have hiding places as it was the only way for illegal residents to remain there and escape arrest when the Thai security guards conducted their round-up raids.
With this grim information of what life in Khao I Dang camp would be like, Buntha and I went to seek shelter with our other friends and left our mother staying with Saiy, for his house already had a place for her to hide should a raid occur. Buntha went to stay with a mutual friend, named Eang, while I was lodging with another, named Kol. All people who lived in Khao I Dang camp were required to wear name badges whenever they went about their business. Those name badges were given to them when they became legal residents. However, people didn’t always remember to wear their name badges; therefore, many of them went about the camp without wearing their name badges. Taking that lax attitude to our advantage, Buntha and I surreptitiously went to see our mother every weekend. It was the only time that we could be together while living in Khao I Dang camp.
One day, Kol brought me an old name badge belonging to someone who had left for a third country. He told me that I could use that name badge to escape one arrest, for if I were stopped by the Thai security guards to check for my legal status I could present the fake name badge to them. And if they still suspected that I was living in the camp illegally, the Thai guards would only keep the name badge and let me go home to get family documents to claim it back from their headquarters. There were no pictures on name badges; only different colors -- green and pink, to indicate when the name badges were issued. Everyone who had left for a third country was supposed to surrender his or her name badge along with other family documents to the camp’s authority. But the name badge, which Kol had obtained and given to me somehow got lost in the bureaucratic process. After possessing that fake name badge, I decided to go back to attend the secondary school in Khao I Dang camp.
It was late January 1987 when I walked into the campus of Khao I Dang secondary school, which was formally named Angkor Wat Secondary School, to register my name for enrollment. To my surprise, the school officials did not inquire whether I was a legal or illegal resident. They just added my name to the enrollment list. I told the registrar that I would like to enroll in the eighth grade, which was two grade levels above what I had learned in Site 2. Once again, I was told to take a placement test before I could officially attend the eighth grade. Thus, with some knowledge obtained through my informal training by sitting in and watching the upper classmates doing their homework in Site 2, I humbly accepted the challenge of taking a placement test. To my yet another surprise, the teacher who came to administer my placement test was a former teacher from Site 2 camp. I used to see him teach the seventh graders when I was attending the fifth grade in Site 2. After I greeted him, he acknowledged that he used to see me in Site 2. He handed me the test and left the room to let me work on it. I started with the math section solving a series of two variable equations before moving on to more challenging problems. About 15 minutes later, the teacher returned to check on my progress. He looked over my shoulder and, after seeing that I was struggling to figure out how to solve geometric problems dealing with triangles, took the test from my hand and showed me how to solve them. Afterward, he told me to go attend the eighth grade, and that was the end of my testing ordeal.
I attended the eighth grade at Angkor Wat Secondary School for six months before misfortune took me away from schooling again. During my stint at that school, I once again sought help from classmates who were willing to give me a hand. I met a number of good friends there who would help me with both academic studies and looking out for my safety. Whenever they heard rumors that Thai security guards might come to conduct searches for illegal persons in the school compound, my friends would tell me to go home and skip classes for that day. Though most of the time the rumors of round-up raids had never materialized, many of my friends admonished me to take precautions because they witnessed the searches had taken place before.
Living in a place illegally with the knowledge that one could be arrested any time put a lot of stress on my mental well being. I tried my best to instill normalcy within my life. At school, I interacted with my classmates as if I was a legal resident and tried to hide my anxiety as much as I could. Throughout the six-months period I spent in Khao I Dang camp, the school had been a place where I sought solace. I tried to persuade Buntha to attend school as well, but he was too fearful to walk about the camp because the school was located rather far away from where he lived. Hence, to comfort each other mentally, Buntha and I took one risk each week to gather at our mom’s house and had meals there as a family. We would spend the entire day with our mom talking among ourselves. Sometimes, we just sat quietly in the house to keep company with one another until evening when we went back to our separate shelters.
One Saturday evening during our weekly reunion in July, 1987, my mother asked that we all spent the night together at her house as she had never seen or heard of any Thai security round-up raid in that area since the day she came to live there. After weighing the risks, Buntha and I decided to spend the night at our mom’s house. It was a fateful decision. At about midnight, we heard the sound of a pickup truck coming to a stop in front of the house. Saiy, our host, peeked through a small hole on the door and found that there were Thai security guards jumping off the pickup truck. Instantly, he knew that a round-up raid was about to take place. Saiy tried frantically to get us into the hiding place. But there was a problem with space as the hiding place was built for only one person to hide, and there were three of us. So a quick decision was made that my mother and Buntha would squeeze into the hiding place while I stayed outside to face the inevitable arrest. After having my mother and Buntha hidden inside the empty water jar underneath the stove, Saiy told me to crawl under a bed and stay there in case the Thai security taskforces overlooked that area. I crawled under our bed and stayed there nervously waiting for the search to occur. About five minutes later, I heard a knock on the door. Saiy opened the door and three armed Thai soldiers along with two Cambodian interpreters entered the house. They asked Saiy if there were any illegal residents staying with him. In a rather vain attempt to hide me, Saiy said no. But his lie was exposed when one of the soldiers shined his flashlight on me. Another soldier pointed his M-16 rifle at me and using it to motion me to crawl out from under the bed. One of the soldiers pointed his finger at Saiy’s face in an angry gesture for telling him a lie. But, the soldiers didn’t give him a hard time despite their anger. They only took me to the pickup truck where several other illegal residents were sitting inside under the watchful eye of an armed guard. The soldiers motioned for me to climb onto the truck’s bed and sit among other arrestees while turning around to look for more victims. After making several more arrests of illegal residents, the Thai security taskforces called it a night and brought us to their headquarters to be processed for incarceration.
Among the people who were arrested along with me that night, there were a few women and children. We were taken to the Thai taskforce’s headquarters, which was located across the street from the prison near the main entrance to the camp. After having us register our names, we were ordered to walk across the street toward the prison. Several armed soldiers with their guns held at a ready-to-shoot position escorted us there to ensure that no one escaped. I should point out, at this point, that most refugees knew how indiscriminate the Thai soldiers were regarding our lives. We could be shot and killed for even the most trivial infraction. To the Thai soldiers who guarded us, a refugee’s life was as disposable as a piece of trash.
(To be Continued)