O’Yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – Some came barefoot with infants strapped to their backs in hill tribe blankets. One man staggered out of hiding, burning with fever and sweating with exhaustion Many more of the 79 Montagnard asylum seekers who appeared out of a mid-morning downpour on Tuesday came in groups of four and five, nervously approaching human rights workers, UN refugee agency staff and government officials.
The group was the largest yet to emerge from their hiding places in O’Yadaw district, where they have languished with little access to food, clean water and medicine since fleeing to the Ratanakkiri jungle from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
From Friday to Sunday, 44 other Montagnards seeking asylum presented themselves to government officials and staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, while three more asylum seekers appeared Monday night in Banlung town. A total of 126 Montagnards are now under the protection of UNHCR in Ratanakkiri province.
The ragtag troop of infants, young children, men and women ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s plodded through Lum village in O’Yadaw’s Pok Nhai commune, carrying plastic shopping bags and backpacks, which contained the essentials that sustained them for weeks and months in the surrounding jungle.
Members of the Ministry of Interior delegation, who had been sent to Ratanakkiri last week to investigate reports that Montagnards had sought refuge in the province, registered surprise and a degree of empathy, as mothers and their children and visibly sick people arrived through intermittent rain showers to meet authorities who have guaranteed safe passage for them to reach UN protection.
“I am really happy to leave the jungle. Thank you, international community, for coming to help my family,” said a 30-year-old father of three children who arrived with his 11-year-old daughter, Siu Chiem, strapped to his back.
The child, who had not eaten in nine days, was ghostly pale and unable to walk out of their camp, located several kilometers away in deep jungle, her father said. Pale faced and glassy-eyed, Siu Chiem was admitted several hours later to Ratanakkiri Referral Hospital with what doctors said late on Tuesday night was possibly typhoid fever and malaria.
A second 30-year-old asylum seeker, who stumbled into the rendezvous point with the UNHCR and could only walk with the support of others, said he had battled a high fever for two weeks. He was also admitted to hospital Tuesday night with what doctors suspected was typhoid fever.
As her father was questioned by O’Yadaw district police and Interior Ministry officials, who photographed and registered the names and Vietnam addresses of all the asylum seekers who emerged Tuesday, Rahlan Mi, 11, said: “”I was afraid they would catch my parents in the jungle.”
“Here is better than the jungle,” she said.
Her 30-year-old father said: “Thank you everyone for helping us. If my children had lost their parents they could not live.”
One 11-year-old girl cried as her family and the other asylum seekers packed up and began a short march to a nearby mud road where two ramshackle trucks were waiting to take them to the UNHCR site in Banlung.
“I am not afraid. I just miss my grandparents at home,” she said.
As the trucks pulled out of Lum village, local minority Jarai members who had supported them in the jungle by sneaking them what food they could spare shook hands and waved at those departing.
O’Yadaw District Governor Bun Than, who was present as the asylum seekers emerged, declined to comment.
“Government leadership was critical to the success of bringing these people in today,” said Cathy Shin, UNHCR protection and field officer, who oversaw the transfer of the asylum seekers from Lum village to Banlung town.
Arriving in Banlung town Tuesday night after more than four hours of tough driving on hilly provincial roads that had been turned to treacherously deep mud pools following a rainstorm Monday night, the asylum seekers were housed at a second site near the former UNHCR office where 47 asylum seekers have been placed. One of the trucks carrying the asylum seekers was badly damaged during the journey to Banlung and could not continue.
More asylum seekers are still in hiding and will be collected by the UN in the coming days, said Pen Bonnar, provincial director of local human rights group Adhoc, on Tuesday .
“A lot of children in [today’s] group were in places very hard to reach. I am very happy because we saved a lot of people who lived for months in the forest,” he said.
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