Friday, August 2, 2013

WAR AND GENOCIDE

Deliverance (Cont.) In the second week of April, in which we Cambodians, as well as Thais, were celebrating New Year, a friend of mine named Por Sararith took me to see the festivities and classical dance performances in Site 2 South. While going from place to place, we ran into a 23 years-old blonde, beautiful Australian journalist named Lyndal Barry. Sararith told me that he used to strike up conversations with Lyndal and found that she was a very friendly, cool young lady. Seeing that she was walking alone, Sararith and I walked up to her and introduced ourselves, as we frequently did when meeting foreigners in the camp to polish our English language skill. Lyndal was happy to find someone to talk with amid a sea of Cambodian refugees. Upon learning that we, too, were wandering around to see the festivities, Lyndal asked if we could act as her guides and take her to see different places and activities in Site 2 camp for the rest of the day. We were more than happy to accept her request as it gave us opportunity to practice our English language conversational skill at a more intimate level. Using my bicycle as a means of transportation, I asked Lyndal to ride behind me on the back saddle and took her to visit different places in the camp, accompanied by Sararith who was riding on a small BMX sport bike. After taking her to visit several places in the camp, Sararith and I took Lyndal to my house to relax and have some refreshment. Just as we were about to take her to the camp’s headquarters where she would get a ride back to her hotel in Thailand, Lyndal asked me if she could stay in my house overnight to see and feel how life was like in a refugee camp at night. I was a bit startled to hear Lyndal’s request. However, my naiveté got the better of me when I agreed to let her stay in my house overnight. The Thai military taskforces who oversaw Site 2 did not allow foreigners staying in the camp overnight because it was difficult for them to ensure their (foreigners) safety. But Lyndal was a journalist; and journalist sometimes took risks unnecessarily. I, too, had dreamed of becoming a journalist some day since I was a third grade student in the early 1970s. Just before I met Lyndal, I had read a book by a former Cambodian elementary school inspector named Ith Sarin who, in 1973, had crossed a political divide to the enemy’s side and written a journal to describe his experiences. Thus, having Lyndal stay in my house overnight in a refugee camp, where such action was forbidden, was a risky thrill that I somewhat found irresistible. All humanitarian aid workers and visitors who came into the camp every day had to leave by 3:30 p.m., or four o’clock at the latest. Therefore, with Sararith and Buntha as my helpers, we created an elaborate charade to fool our neighbors into thinking that the six-foot tall blonde Caucasian woman who came to visit me had left. At exactly 3:30 p.m., I openly walked Lyndal out of the front door, took her around the block, and surreptitiously sneaked her back into my house through the back door. After performing the charade, I closed my house’s front door and had Buntha sit in front of it to watch out for visitors who might drop by. He was to knock on the door three times, if he felt that someone was coming to pay me a visit, and try to stall the visitors as long as possible while I was sneaking Lyndal out the back door to hide in Ratha’s, my trusted friend, home which was located a couple of yards from us. Once we managed to put everything relatively under control, Sararith went to inform his single mother, Malay, that he would be spending the night at my house without telling her what we were up to. Hiding a six-foot tall blonde haired woman in a refugee camp was a challenging enterprise. Anyone who had lived or visited a refugee camp knew how dense the place was as far as spaces were concerned. People lived within feet of one another. Hence, Lyndal and I spent the rest of late afternoon sitting quietly inside my house. We waited until dark to have our dinner. After dinner, Lyndal conducted an interview with all three of us, asking us to tell her our life stories under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia prior to coming to the refugee camp, and in the refugee camp. We spent about two hours talking with one another in a very low voice. I was the last to give Lyndal an interview. Because I was several years older than Buntha and Sararith, my memory of life under the Khmer Rouge regime was better than both of their memories. Therefore, Lyndal and I continued to talk late into the night. Once we were ready to go to bed, both Buntha and Sararith were sound asleep, one in a hammock while another was sleeping in a bed designed for one person. In the heat of excitement of having a young Caucasian woman staying in the camp illegally, I forgot about our sleeping arrangement. She was supposed to sleep in the small bed while the three of us boys would sleep in the larger bed which we used for the interview, as it gave us a larger space to sit inside a mosquito net. Not wanting to wake the two guys up to swap places, I asked Lyndal if she would mind I sleep in the same bed with her. She said no. So I laid a checkered scarf in between us to mark the boundary and slept next to her. For those readers who might suspect that there must have been something unbecoming that happened between us, I must confess that I was too timid to take advantage of the situation. The night was peaceful and calm. As morning arrived, we had to keep Lyndal hidden in the house until nine a.m. when some humanitarian aid workers started arriving in the camp. At that point, it would be okay for her to go about the camp as she could pass on as one of the aid workers. In the meantime, I asked Buntha and Sararith to keep her company while going to buy sandwiches for our breakfast. At about ten o’clock, Sararith and I took Lyndal to interview a couple of Khmer Krom people (ethnic Cambodians who lived in Lower Cambodia, now part of southern Vietnam) at a small pavilion located in front of Nong Chan camp’s administrative office. After the interview, we returned to my house to have lunch and relax for a couple of hours before sending Lyndal off to the outside world. Just as Lyndal and I left the house at about two o’clock in the afternoon, I ran into another friend of mine, Sary, who was bringing a vagabond old woman to see me. Upon taking a closer look at the old woman, I was shocked to discover that that vagrant woman was my mother. What a surprise! I froze and stopped everything I was doing. Overjoyed and with tears welling in my eyes, I grabbed my mother’s hand and walked her into the house while thanking Sary profusely for his assistance to her. Sary told me that he saw my mother wandering about the camp trying to find me. Once inside the house, I asked my mother how she managed to come to Site 2 camp, given the fact that it was located at least 100 miles away from her residence at Ta Tum camp. My mother told me that she met an old woman who could speak some Thai, and using the New Year’s celebration (Thais and Cambodians celebrate New Year on the same date) when police checks on travelers were relaxed, they sneaked out of the camp, disguised as poor Thai villagers, and hitch-hiked their way to Site 2 camp. Once they were out and about on the roads, a Thai military officer took pity on them and let them ride on the back of his jeep all the way to an area where Site 2 camp was located. After being dropped off, my mother and her traveling companion walked the rest of the way and sneaked into Site 2 along the many gaps in the fences. Unbelievable! My mother’s story of being helped by the Thai military officer was like a lost sheep being rescued by a wolf. In hindsight, the story of my mother, an illegal Cambodian vagabond, being assisted by a Thai military officer probably should not be a surprise to anyone because the area, which Thais called Issan, where many Cambodian refugee camps were located, used to be Cambodian territory before the 16th century. Many inhabitants living in the Issan region of Thailand were and are ethnic Khmers who still have a sense of kindred with their brethren in Cambodia. Hence, the discrete assistance offered by the Thai military officer to my mother and her traveling companion was probably not something out of the ordinary as he, himself, might have been an ethnic Khmer. After getting my mother settled in the house, I took Lyndal back out to send her off to her residence in Thailand. As we reached the main road, I teasingly told Lyndal that we almost get caught by my mother sleeping together last night. She smiled acknowledging my mischievous sense of humor. Just as she was about to get inside her car, Lyndal and I gave each other a hug and promised to keep in touch. After sending Lyndal off, I went to the market to buy some new sarongs and shirts for my mother as she had nothing but the clothes on her back. I asked my mother to discard her old rag-tag clothes which she reluctantly let go because they were the clothes that enabled her to disguise herself and make the perilous journey of about one hundred miles or so across Thailand safely. I sent a letter to Heang immediately informing him of our reunion. Like us, Heang was quite relieved to hear the good news of our reunion. He told us that things were looking good for us as the U.S. Government had allowed refugees who lived in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border to resettle in the United States. Thus, after being reunited for a second time during our sojourn in the various refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, we were sort of hopeful that our lives would not turn toward another stressful situation. (To be continued)

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