ratanakkiri province – Five asylum-seekers huddled around the dying stub of a candle in the inky darkness of a Ratanakkiri night. They said they were hungry and sick. But mostly they appeared terrified when they were interviewed Monday night.
The three women and two men aged from 15 to 30 years old, have been in hiding in Ratanakkiri province since June 29, after an 11-day trek on foot from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province.
They said they fled without their families in a group of asylum- seekers that left the province on June 18 and has since split up. Members of the Jarai ethnic minority, they said they left Vietnam’s Central Highlands to escape religious persecution. More are hiding in the Ratanakkiri jungles, said the asylum-seekers and the villagers aiding them.
They constitute 42 Montagnard asylum-seekers interviewed and photographed in separate groups in Ratanakkiri province in the past month.
Terrified of detection by a ever tightening Cambodian police presence in the area, the group have remained in hiding, protected by locals, unable to go anywhere or do anything as they wait for a chance to slip into Phnom Penh and the promised protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Their movements were so curtailed that they were forced to relieve themselves in their cramped, immediate surroundings, said the three women aged 15, 18 and 20 years old and the two men aged 19 and 30 years.
Though they know severe penalties will be exacted by Cambodian security forces who have orders to hunt and summarily deport Montagnards, local hill tribes are protecting the five and are providing them with food, water and clothing.
With aid agencies cowed by government pressure and even King Norodom Sihanouk’s recent offer of aid apparently shrinking amid government claims that the asylum-seekers do not exist, the villagers and the Montagnards said they were losing hope.
“No organizations have come to help,” said a local man, 44, who said he was incurring debts from helping the asylum-seekers. “I have no one to help me,” he said.
Three weeks on the run and eating what food can be spared by local helpers, the five devoured a small offering of peanuts and dried bananas. One of the group, an 18-year-old woman, turned away and promptly threw up the food. She said she is suffering from fever. The others reported diarrhea and stomach pains. As they spoke, the five huddled closer together, visibly frightened at having to trust visitors they did not know.
Describing the police crackdown on the Montagnard protests for land rights and religious freedom on April 10 and April 11 demonstrations, the 30-year-old man said, “the farmers were small, the police were big.”
Hunted by authorities in Cambodia, the group’s fear was palpable. After several minutes of discussion, they hushed suddenly as a woman and a man nearby—but concealed by the darkness—began to argue.
For several tense minutes, the group sat in silence, their knees drawn up to their chests, their eyes downcast in resignation. The argument subsided, and the group relaxed again.
At least 200 others are hiding in the forests, another villager said.
“When I went to help them, I saw people here, here, here,” he said, pointing into the darkness .