ratanakkiri province – The 14-year-old Montagnard asylum-seeker sat on the wet jungle dirt, looking defeated. His parents, Christian leaders in their village in Vietnam’s Pleiku province, fled in haste one night after hearing that Vietnamese soldiers were coming to arrest them, leaving him behind, he said.
“I want to find my parents,” he said in a weak voice.
The teenager, interviewed along with 15 other Montagnards from Pleiku hiding in Ratanakkiri’s dense forests on Friday, appeared to be in the worst physical condition of the tired and tattered group.
Blood trickled from wounds on his foot that looked infected. He rubbed medicinal oil on his belly, which was reacting violently to a diet of bush leaves and muddy water.
“My stomach is in a lot of pain,” he said. “I cannot walk.”
The 16 said they recently traveled for four days and four nights on foot from their home villages in Vietnam.
Mosquitoes and other insects swarmed their new jungle living space, but the group interviewed had no mosquito nets or shelter to protect them from the harsh storms that pound this province in the rainy season.
They eat what rice sympathetic local hilltribe villagers donate and what tubers, roots and fruit they can scavenge in the jungle. Their drinking water is collected from rainwater during downpours or sometimes from muddy puddles. At the jungle clearing where they gathered Friday, their rice sacks and pots were empty.
Members of the group said they were part of a larger group of 91 Montagnards that are huddled in small groups close together in the area. At least 10 are seriously ill with high fevers, they said.
They were separate from a group of 21 Montagnard asylum-seekers photographed in Ratanakkiri on June 6.
These groups are just two small satellites of what hilltribe sources in the province claim could be as many as 250 asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri province.
“Whoever believes in God, they will be arrested,” said a 36-year-old church leader from Pleiku, who appeared to be the leader of the 16.
They agreed that religious persecution was the primary reason they had fled. That, and their participation in the April 10 and April 11 weekend demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands.
Those demonstration were put down by police using tear gas, electric truncheons and water cannons to deter the thousands of Montagnards who tried to enter provincial capitals, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“We are scared to go back,” said the church leader.
Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said Sunday that Montagnards have no reason to flee Vietnam.
“In Vietnam, there is no oppression,” he said. “Everyone has the right to worship freely.”
When told about the group of 16 Montagnard asylum-seekers interviewed Friday, Nguyen Duy Hung said, “Maybe they make some excuses [to leave the country]. There is nothing like that in Vietnam, no oppression.”
Nguyen Duy Hung also saw no reason for the Cambodian government to allow the UN refugee agency to open camps to provide food and shelter to the reportedly hungry and sick asylum-seekers.
“Why open the refugee camps?” asked Nguyen Duy Hung. “For what? Vietnam is OK. Everything is normal.”
A Cambodian hilltribe minority member who has smuggled rice to Montagnard asylum-seekers said Friday that he believed Vietnam persecuted Montagnards because of their support for the US during the war in Vietnam.
The group of 91 Montagnards “fear they would be killed if they go back to Vietnam,” said the hilltribe man.
But if they don’t receive humanitarian assistance soon, they will likely succumb to malnutrition, said the man, who shares the same ethnicity as the people he helps.
“I urge more and more aid to be offered,” he said. “Otherwise, they will die of starvation.”
He urged the UN to open refugee camps in Ratanakkiri, but added that if they opened, “several thousand will come.”
As the group of 91 Montagnards struggled for survival in one part of Ratanakkiri, police in Ratanakkiri’s O’Ya-daw district entered the forests near Pathay commune on Thursday in search of another group of asylum-seekers.
Tipped off by a villager that asylum-seekers were hiding in the area, a group of more than 10 district police and border soldiers armed with AK-47 rifles scoured the jungles. As of Friday, police had found nothing, according to the district’s deputy police chief, Loy Thum.
Hilltribe minority villagers said Friday they feared for the safety of any Montagnard asylum-seekers that were hiding in the forests, and said they would do anything to continue helping them.
“If I know where [Montagnards] are, I don’t tell the police because police will arrest them,” one villager said.
“If I see a Montagnard, I will give rice and water,” he said defiantly