luot village, Bokeo district, Ratanakkiri province – On a shaded wooden platform outside his new bamboo home, across the red dirt road from the one in which he was born 50 years ago, former Khmer Rouge soldier Romam Luong pressed a button on his new favorite possession and grinned.
From the black plastic tape recorder, a rhythmic melody in his native Tampuon language played as Romam Luong described the feeling of returning home.
“In the jungle, I lived like a monkey,” he said of the remote forests in Virachey National Park where his and three other families hid for 25 years from Vietnamese troops they still believed were occupying the country. “Here, they communicate freely, walk freely…. I can listen to a radio, listen to music.”
The song was punctuated by coughing inside the house from his wife and four children—the same hacking cough and fever that have plagued most of the returnees. Romam Luong looked up and smiled.
“I like the radio very much,” he said.
In 1979, four young couples and four children fled into the woods from the approaching Vietnamese, leaving behind a society in which the Khmer Rouge had abolished currency, religion and education.
On Nov 15, they walked out of the jungle and into the modern world—at least as much of the modern world as has reached rural northeastern Cambodia.
Those who left as young adults said they were thrilled to be back among their families and by the often confounding changes that occurred in the world in their absence.
A strong desire to return compelled the group to end their years in hiding, returnees said last week. With morale flagging and supplies running low, the group decided to approach Lao authorities for help. If they were unsuccessful, they reasoned, “at least we could see something different before we die,” former soldier Ly Moun said.
Lao authorities contacted provincial Governor Kham Khoeun, who sent messages to the hill tribe members’ home villages in search of surviving relatives.
When Romam Bam heard her brother was alive, she hired a motorbike taxi and sped toward the provincial capital of Banlung. Meeting for the first time in 25 years, she and Romam Luong touched each other’s heads and hands and cried for joy, Romam Bam, 53, recalled. He inquired after their parents and wept again when she told him they had died, she said.
“I thought he had died, because he was missing for so long,” she said last week, echoing the sentiments of most of the group’s relatives.
Despite the stories of joyful reunions, there are signs of difficulty in the group’s reintegration to village society.
After years of relative health in isolation, sickness is now pervasive. Several returnees complained of fever and fatigue. And during a talk at the Krala village meeting house with 23 returned hill tribe members resettled in O’Chum district, raspy coughs echoed up and down the wooden bench as children and adults spit phlegm onto the dirt floor.
“There’s so much dust here,” said Ly Moun’s wife as she nursed their 5-month-old infant.
For the children born in hiding, their entry to the village is not a homecoming but a completely new—and often frightening—way of life, their parents said.
Romam Luong’s children and grandchildren shrank from visitors to their hut, their dark eyes piercing the shadows as they retreated toward a back wall. Outside a group of local youngsters kicked up clouds of red dirt, their voices rising into excited shrieks and giggles as they played.
“The young children in the village, they play, they are happy,” Romam Luong said, observing the village youths. “They are not like my children.”
Abandoning the secrecy of the forest has come easier for the adults than the children, the returnees said.
Children were told from birth to cry and speak as little as possible to avoid detection, their parents said last week. When babies cried they immediately were put to their mother’s breast to silence them.
Through a combination of security fears and the Khmer Rouge ideology they brought with them to the jungle, the families did away with the traditional religious beliefs and practices that mark village life. When the oldest man in the group died five years ago, his body was buried without ceremony, Ly Moun said. As the children grew up and married each other, the matches took place with little fanfare other than copious amounts of traditional rice wine fermented in the jungle.
“We ask the girl…do you want to love this boy for life? They ask the boy, will you love this girl for life?” said Chalat Chakov, 35. “If the answer is yes, they start drinking.”
Despite habits left over from the Khmer Rouge, the former soldiers said they were not sorry to hear of the regime’s fall. They did not learn that at least 1 million Cambodians perished under the regime until provincial authorities in Ratanakkiri told them, they said. They spoke of the news a month later with little emotion.
“The Khmer Rouge regime seemed more difficult than the jungle,” Ly Moun said. “In the jungle, I had more freedom. Living in the Khmer Rouge’s time, we did not have enough food. We were never full. Some people snuck into farms to steal potatoes; in the jungle, there was no stealing.”
Today, returnees healthy enough to work have already returned to the rice fields. Their houses are built or are under construction using materials donated from provincial authorities, local NGOs and the community.
After years on the run, it is good to be home, the hill tribe members said.
“It’s very different from before. Really, far different. People can freely exchange goods…they can buy and sell,” Ly Moun said. “It’s amazing. I enjoy it like them, too. Nobody disturbs anyone.”