In 1980, 17-year-old Tor Vichet was press-ganged into serving in K5, a band of Cambodians working under the Vietnamese to fight resistance forces on the border.
He had been grabbed by Vietnamese troops at his village in Chamnorn commune, Banteay Meanchey, and thrown into a truck ready to be transported to the Thai border.
K5 was already notorious. The troops were assigned to the heavily mined jungles of the northwest. Under-supplied, underfed and fighting in appalling conditions, men and boys died by the thousands.
Tor Vichet resolved to escape.
At the time of Tor Vichet’s escape, thousands of Cambodians were fleeing to the borders. The country was in the grips of a famine, and since the Khmer Rouge regime had fallen, it was possible, though still perilous, to move around.
In the last 40 years, civil war and totalitarianism has made Cambodia and its neighboring countries into a land of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people battled starvation, walked through minefields and carried their wounded across the frontier in the hope of making a better life.
In early 1992, some 370,000 Cambodians were repatriated from border camps under the terms of the Paris Peace Accords, but elsewhere the migration continues. In Phnom Penh today, 24 Vietnamese who fled across the border in Mondolkiri province are seeking asylum from what they claim is persecution in their homeland.
For Tor Vichet, the journey began on a night when he and the others were confined to Chamnorm commune’s office. They convinced their Cambodian guards to let them escape, and at 5:30 the following morning they slipped away.
They headed out on foot but 100 meters from the commune office, they were sprayed with machine gun fire. The Vietnamese had been tipped off
“Luckily the rice paddies were flooded to the waist and we ducked into the flood water,” he said.
The Vietnamese then shelled them with mortars.
“We escaped by a hair’s breadth. We were very frightened, but we had to risk it for freedom.”
Tor Vichet survived his encounter with the Vietnamese, but his ordeal wasn’t over. As the group made their way through fields near the village, they chanced across a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers and were forced to join them.
Wherever Tor Vichet went with them, they were reviled, and villagers often tipped off the Vietnamese about their presence. Tor Vichet hated the Khmer Rouge as much as he hated the Vietnamese. They had blood on their hands, he thought. He did not want to fight with them, but he had no choice.
Six months later, he escaped again. He told his commander he had spotted a group of Vietnamese, and with four of his friends, he set out to ambush them.
But instead of following the Vietnamese, the men fled to another camp on the border, the headquarters of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. For the next three years, he fought with the beleaguered, anti-communist movement in an effort to overthrow the Vietnamese.
It never occurred to him to seek asylum in a third country.
“My main purpose was to join the resistance forces to liberate the country from Vietnamese aggression,” said Tor Vichet, who is now a computer technician in Phnom Penh.
“I have never had any intention to go abroad. If everyone wanted to go abroad, who would liberate the country from the Vietnamese?”
Many of those who made it to the frontier died as they attempted the crossing.
Long Vudthy made the crossing with a group of 160 people in 1979. They walked 14 days from Takeo to the Thai border, traveling at night when it was cooler and when there was less chance of encountering troops.
“There was only one path through the jungle,” he said. “If you travel at night, you can’t stay on the path.”
The group repeatedly lost their way in the darkness. Near the border, four people in the party strayed off the path and were killed by land mines. Three others and a baby were captured by the Vietnamese.
“Sometimes we had to jump over dead bodies,” he said.
When the refugees reached the border camp, many found life as arduous as life at home.
In 1979 Rhone Saran was living with his mother in Battambang. The pair were starving, so they fled on foot to the Thai border in hopes that they would be able to get enough to eat.
They went to Nang Chan, one of a cluster of civilian refugee camps led by the KPLNF leader and former Cambodian prime minister Son Sann. But in 1985, the Vietnamese shelled the camps and forced them to move to a new location across the Thai border— Site 2.
At the time the Thai government, pursuing objectives of realpolitik, was giving support to the Khmer Rouge while doing what it could to undermine their opponents.
Site 2 was surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence and patrolled by Thai troops, making the inhabitants virtual prisoners. Every day at dusk, foreign relief agencies would pack up and leave, and at night the refugees were shelled by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese.
The Thais argued that the men would become soldiers if they were fed, and so they were denied food offered by the relief agencies. The men bribed their way back into occupied Cambodia to scavenge for wild vegetables and firewood.
If they were caught, they were stripped to their underwear and savagely beaten.
“The Thai soldiers treated us very badly,” said Rhone Saran, now a 37-year-old English teacher in Battambang town.
Long Vudthy managed to get a job working with an NGO teaching people about AIDS. He was paid a ration of rice and canned fish. His brother worked as a teacher.
“We had some income,” he said. “We did not have to go outside the fence. We did not have to leave the camp, so we could survive.”
Others weren’t so lucky. Long Vudthy said he saw men shot down just outside the precincts of the camp. “They stayed there until the UN agencies came to collect the bodies,” he said.
There were formal schools at Site 2, although often there were no classrooms. Many from the camps say they got better educations there in the 1980s than they would have if they were living in Cambodia.
Long Vudthy earned a baccalaureate and learned to read and write English. In 1992, after 13 years on the border, he decided to return to Cambodia in 1992. Eventually he found a well-paid job, married and had five children.
“I have a plot of land, I have three cars, I have a high salary and I can send my children to school,” he said with evident pride. Life now is “10 times better than in the camp.
While he was at Site 2, he passed up an opportunity to migrate to the US, a decision he said he never regretted.
“Even though we went through many decades of civil war, I still love my country more than my life.”