Thursday, July 11, 2013

WAR AND GENOCIDE

Prisoners of the Humanitarian (Cont.) Khao I Dang camp’s prison was a rather unassuming structure built like a long house of indigenous American Indians. The whole structure looked more like a cage than a prison. There were four cells, two of which were used to incarcerate illegal refugees while the other two smaller ones were used to keep Thai soldiers who committed infractions. There were no walls between the partitions or around the building structure for that matter, except for barbed wire juxtaposed with bamboo poles to keep male and female inmates from commingling with one another. All the females and children under the ages of ten years old were put in one large cell while the male prisoners were put in another. At the time when I was incarcerated, there were about 50 male inmates in a cell designed to hold about 40 people. Thus, sleeping spaces were very tight. For the rest of the night when I was arrested, I sat in a corner and cried quietly, feeling sorry for myself and the misfortune I was in. Next morning, which was a Sunday, the day that inmates were allowed to have a few minutes to meet with their relatives, Saiy came to visit me and brought me a blanket. He discretely told me to feel the edge of the blanket and gave me a coded message to take precaution. Just before we parted, I asked Saiy to bring me a hammock when he came to visit me next week. Because the prison was very crowded, that hammock would give me the flexibility to sleep anywhere in my cell as long as I could find a spot to tie it. Just before I examined the edge of my blanket, a fellow inmate told me that the Thai soldier who acted as prison chief was very mean and cruel. He forbade inmates to send any letters outside. We were also not allowed to tell relatives to bring us any money. Anyone who was caught with such contraband would be punished severely. After learning of the prison’s rules and the consequences, I decided to wait until night time to inspect the edge of my blanket. Feeling it with my hands, I found several pieces of papers rolled like cigarettes imbedded in one hem of the blanket. Without untying the thread, I pushed one of the roll-around papers near the corner edge of the blanket out and found that it was a 100 baht bill of Thai currency. It appeared that my mother had altered one edge of the blanket and sewed it back loosely with the rolled 100 baht bills in it, so that I would have some money to buy food if or when I was sent out of Khao I Dang. After taking all the money out of the blanket’s edge, I faced yet another dilemma on how to hide the money in case all the inmates were searched. The only available place I had was a tiny pocket located within a larger pocket of my only pair of jean pants. So to keep my money from being discovered by the prison guard, I folded the 100 baht bills several times until they fit into that tiny pocket and hid them there. All the inmates in Khao I Dang camp prison, except for women and children, were abused daily by the lone Thai soldier who oversaw that prison. He ordered the other Thai soldiers who were being imprisoned there to conduct the daily abuses on his behalf. Each day we, refugee prisoners, were allowed to get out of our cells only once during the afternoon when the abuses in the form of push-up, grasshopper’s hopping, and many other military drills were being conducted upon us. We were sometimes made to do push-ups to the point of utter exhaustion, when many inmates fell flat on their stomachs. After the soldiers abused us to their heart’s content, the prison warden ordered us to gather at a bathing area and sprayed us with water from a hose as a means for us to take a bath. Beside the regimental abuses, there were also individual abuses of inmates. Occasionally, an inmate got beaten up for not having his pair of shoes put together properly. I remembered seeing an inmate being ordered to sing a song by the Thai soldiers almost daily; and sometimes, that poor inmate had to sing for them several times in a day. Each time he sang the song, the Thai soldiers would find flaws in his singing and ordered him to hit his head with his own knuckles five or ten times for each mistake. They sometimes ordered him to knock his head even more if the sounds of his knuckles smacking on his head were not convincing enough. It was so sickening. But what made these abuses even more disgusting was that it happened in a refugee camp under the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency tasked with a duty to protect basic human rights for refugees. I spent a total of 21 days in Khao I Dang camp’s prison. After more inmates were being sent there, the prison became overcrowded. Thus, to make room for new comers, all the illegal refugees were sent back to the border camp. We didn’t know to which camp we would be sent; but all of us prayed that the Thai authority would not send us to camps controlled by the Khmer Rouge, where their reign of terror continued unabated. When the appointed time arrived, two transport trucks came to park in front of the prison. The Thai taskforce’s soldiers, who were charged with transporting us, came to the prison’s door with a list of names. They called us one by one to come out and get on board the trucks. After all the inmates were taken on board the trucks, the drivers took off quickly, and I was once again being transported to an unknown destination. There were some armed guards who stood at the back of each truck to prevent inmates from jumping off and escaping. We spent about three hours sitting quietly in those fast-moving trucks before they came to a stop in a refugee camp located in northeastern Thailand. Upon disembarking, we learned that the camp was called Ta Tum which was controlled by a rebel faction loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Though it wasn’t Site 2 camp, a place where most of us would want to go, everyone breathed a sigh of relief as we learned that we were not at a Khmer Rouge’s camp. Prior to being sent back to the border camp, I had made friends with a few fellow inmates who, like me, were arrested for living in Khao I Dang illegally. Hence, after our arrival at Ta Tum camp, we banded together and tried to figure out ways to return to Site 2 camp where we used to live. One of my friends, Ly Kim Sour, found an old acquaintance who worked in the intelligence services for the rebel group, who was in charge of Ta Tum camp. With the help of Kim Sour’s friend, we learned that we could be traveling back to Site 2 camp with military officials for a fee. The cost was about 50 dollars per person. None of us had that much money at hand; therefore, Kim Sour asked his friend to assure the people who were in charge of transporting us back to Site 2 to wait until we arrived in Site 2 where he would get the money to them right away. With mutual trust among these pseudo-human traffickers, Kim Sour’s request was accepted and within just one week upon our arrival at Ta Tum camp, we were on our way back to Site 2. We traveled with a mix of Thai and Cambodian rebel officials who were on a mission to Site 2 camp for meetings or whatever business they were conducting. It appeared that these officials were not engaging in human trafficking in its purest sense but rather illicitly doing us favors for mutual benefits to all—we were able to travel illegally from one place to another safely while those officials would get some money to spend, maybe for a nice dinner in Bangkok or Aranyaprathet. Upon arriving in Site 2 camp, I went to stay with a friend of mine named Koy, who was living with his mother, Sunphan, and an aunt, Samnam. Koy’s mother lent me the $50 I needed to pay for my trip from Ta Tum camp and helped me settle down to put my life back together. My first order of businesses was to send letters to both, my brothers Heang and Buntha, informing them of my whereabouts. Before long, Buntha sent me a letter, along with a human trafficker to meet me. In his letter, Buntha told me that the person who came to see me could bring me back to Khao I Dang camp to reunite with him and Mom. The memory of abuses in Khao I Dang camp’s prison was still fresh in my mine. Thus, I told the young man Buntha sent to fetch me back to Khao I Dang that I needed some time to think about going back to reunite with my brother. I wrote a short note and gave it to him to bring back to Buntha. In the meantime, I discussed my life’s situation among my close friends, and they all advised that I should stay put for the time being, waiting for suggestions from my brother, Heang, regarding what to do next to solve our separation dilemma. Several weeks later, I received a letter from Heang telling me to stay put for the time being. After learning of my ordeal in Khao I Dang camp’s prison, Heang was reluctant to have me risk another imprisonment. Hence, with a somewhat settled matter related with our family separation, I decided to return to school and seek re-enrollment. (To be continued)

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