Ratanakkiri province – Eight-year-old Rahlan Dan has been living in a tiny jungle clearing for more than 10 days since trekking to Ratanakkiri province with 13 other men, women, and young children who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands on June 18.
Her face, arms, back and chest have broken out in a red, inflamed rash. Her mother says the child’s skin is not used to the torrential rain, the stifling heat and the thick dampness that envelops this patch of dim jungle. The lack of water for her daughter to bathe in has aggravated the skin irritation.
Rahlan Dan, like the three other children and nine adults that huddled together on Friday night, had their last bath in a muddy stream the night they entered their forest hiding place in late June.
Like frightened animals they have not dared to venture out, afraid that the Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities hunting them may be watching the river sources, knowing that the asylum seekers must eventually emerge sometime to collect drinking water and clean themselves.
On Friday and Saturday around 80 out of a group of 85 asylum seekers were interviewed and photographed. They are separate from the 42 Montagnard asylum seekers interviewed in the province since June 6.
Wearing a scruffy blue cardigan and mud-splattered yellow track suit pants, Rahlan Dan shyly squatted beside her apologetic father, 35, who carried her here on his back during the two-day trek across the Cambodian border.
He said he was worried about Rahlan Dan and his three other children, aged 11, 13, and 14, who sat watching him wide-eyed below a sheet of green tarpaulin where their hammocks were slung.
“I don’t know how long we can live like this,” he said.
“The serious problem is disease, mosquitoes, malaria, not enough food to eat and the rain. I have only been dry once since I arrived here,” he said. He said he was thankful on Friday for the three dry, hot days that had passed.
Retrieving a folded bundle of official arrest papers, he explained why they had chosen life as a fugitive family in Cambodia’s jungles over the home and village they left behind in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province.
Detained by police in December 2003 for 10 days on suspicion of helping other Montagnards cross the Cambodian frontier, he had been under constant police surveillance since the Easter weekend demonstrations when thousands of hill tribe members confronted Vietnamese authorities to demand rights to their ancestral lands and freedom to practice their Protestant faith.
In the wake of the protests, he feared he would again fall under the suspicion of authorities and they would again arrest him. A second detention in prison would likely be far longer than the first, he said.
“If they arrest me again they will not release me from prison,” he said.
For a poor Montagnard family, sending the breadwinner to prison was an even more severe sentence for the family left behind who would have to scrape to survive.
“Living in the jungle [with my family] is better than living in a village where the parents are taken away,” he said.
In a tiny clearing in the wild foliage that pressed in on all sides of their family tent, Rahlan Dan has built a miniature, stilted dolls’ house of tree branches with a roof of green leaves.
Squatting behind her father’s knee and with her dirty hands hiding her face, she said, “I made the house like we have in our village. It’s my dream of my house.”
“Here I am happier than at home because there are no soldiers,” she added, speaking in Jarai.
Though the 14 arrived together, one 31-year-old man has been living apart from the group in an even more inhospitable thicket of trees and bushes.
After falling sick with a fever shortly after arriving in the province in late June, it was decided he move into a forest version of quarantine. With an unknown illness and with places for urinating and defecating limited for the asylum seekers, the sick must leave the healthy in order to prevent the possible contagion of others.
On Friday, the man appeared to have had a reprieve from the illness that had left him prostrate and unable to speak for days.
Sitting up beneath a green sheet of tarpaulin in a thick of bushes where the air was heavy with flies and the acrid smell of urine and human sweat, he said his recovery was due to sympathetic villagers who had smuggled him a bottle of saline solution and a drip.
Though the burning in his stomach and the hot and cold spells that wracked his body had not totally abated, at least he was feeling hungry, he said. His story of flight was like the more than 120 Montagnard asylum seekers who have now been interviewed in the province in the past five weeks.
In Vietnam, the Montagnards have been deprived of their land and their religion is suppressed, he said. And since the demonstrations, the police crackdown has forced already desperate people to flee.
His gaunt face perked for a moment when asked to respond to claims by Prime Minister Hun Sen that he does not exist and that if he does exist, he was part of a separatist movement prepared to fight against the Vietnamese government.
“We came here so that the international community would help us. We did not run here to join an army to fight against Vietnam,” he said.
He would not return to Vietnam until the problems that had made him flee have been solved, he said.
“We just want freedom like it says in the Bible. And we want our ancestral lands,” said a 38-year-old Jarai asylum seeker later on Friday night. He, with almost 30 others, emerged from their hiding places to write down their names, ages and addresses in Vietnam, to prove to the world that they exist and need help.
“We are not looking for an autonomous zone or independent state…. We are not separatists. We just want the state to own its land and that the land that belongs to the hill tribes belongs to the hill tribes.
We have owned it for generations,” said another.
“If we stay in the Cambodian jungle we will die. If we go back we will die. We want the international community to help us,” he added.
Rohlan Banh, 11, and her six siblings, aged between one and 17 years, sat on a blue tarpaulin, their heads bowed in prayer as they prepared to eat their morning meal of rice and boiled cassava leaves on Saturday morning. One month in Cambodia, and the diet has not changed for this family of seven children and two parents. Flies and the smell of humanity in hiding were oblivious to the three youngest larking around the tents. The strain, however, was more visible physically and mentally on their elder sister, Rahlan Banh.
Her forehead and fringe wet with perspiration, Rahlan Banh’s 40-year-old mother, with her one-year-old infant strapped to her back in a hill tribe blanket, said her daughter has had a fever for one week already. They don’t have enough to eat and they can’t wash, she said of her children.
“They see the valley but we can’t take a bath because we are afraid of the police,” she said.
Though the three youngest scrambled around in the confines of the family tent, the fear of capture by police has begun to take a mental toll on the older children.
“In my village I never had a problem. But since I have been here I have been sick,” said Rahlan Banh, who began to rub tears away with the sleeve of her shirt before breaking into inconsolable weeping.
Her 14-year-old sister moved forward to speak: “I am very worried about our safety here. Our living conditions are terrible. I can’t speak about our difficulty,” she said.
As his children finished the rice and boiled leaves that on tasting had no flavor but left a dry straw-like sensation in the mouth, their father said, “I feel so much pity for them.”
Siu Chiem, 7, stood with arms folded in the jungle clearing with 18 adults and children, the youngest being an 18-month-old baby girl, whose sweating mother breast-fed her child. One asylum seeker jotted all their names and addresses in Vietnam.
“The baby cries all the time. It’s thirsty. There is no wind in the jungle, it’s stuffy all the time. We can’t take a bath,” said the woman, whose child had the same angry rash on its face as Rahlan Dan.
Siu Chiem said she was bored after 14 days in hiding in Ratanakkiri.
“There is nothing to do. We just keep quiet. We don’t do anything. We are afraid to make noise because they will hear us and arrest us,” Siu Chiem said.
Siu Doan, 4, had at first hid from the visitors but perked up and followed his older sister’s lead.
“I am afraid like my sister of the police catching my parents,” he said, adding, “I’m also afraid of the ants biting me.”
Two of the adults with the group had been in hiding in the forest in Vietnam since 2001 and 2002 respectively and had crossed into Cambodia two months ago. They denied strongly they were separatists.
“Whatever [Hun Sen] says we will keep hiding. We have empty hands, we do not have weapons,” said the man, who fled to the jungle in 2001 after the first Montagnard demonstrations that led to the flight of more than 1,000 asylum seekers.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said on Sunday that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the government have signed an agreement on the asylum seekers already. There are two problems, he said one is the asylum seeker and the second is the Montagnard military force.
The government will accept asylum seekers but military personnel are “not acceptable,” Khieu Kanharith said.
“They want to get independence in central Vietnam and in Cambodia: Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri, Mondolkiri and some of Laos’ provinces. They want to form the independent state of Champa,” he said.
Commenting on the more than 80 asylum seekers interviewed in Ratanakkiri over the weekend, he said that information should be sent to the Ministry of Interior and the UNHCR. On Friday, UNHCR officials said they had received no information on reports that the government had decided to grant access to asylum seekers in hiding in Ratanakkiri province.
With reports from local hill tribe sources that one asylum seeker died late last month from eating poisonous mushrooms in Ratanakkiri, and with aid organizations either unwilling to believe that asylum seekers are in dire need of assistance or officially prevented from distributing assistance, it is probably a matter of time before more fatalities.
One 20-year-old woman emerged from the jungle on Saturday evening burning with fever. Asked whether she wanted to be taken to a Cambodian hospital she said yes. When told there were no guarantees that she would not be arrested, she declined.
Taking what medicine was offered to try and alleviate the fever, she retreated into the jungle as night descended.
“I am really worried about her health,” was all her husband could say as he followed his sick wife into the darkening night.
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