Ratanakkiri province – Jarai hill tribe member Ksor knows the jungle that surrounds his village like city people know the streets of their town.
What appears to be an impenetrable barrier of trees, thorn bushes and creeps hides a warren of generations-old hill tribe paths and their even more elusive hiding places. The sun barely penetrates these areas of the jungle by day and at night the darkness is total.
But twice each day for weeks now, Ksor, 25, has slipped out of his village in the first hours of morning and again in the early nighttime and entered the jungle to bring supplies that he and other minority members can spare in their efforts to assist some of the reported 250 Montagnard asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Ratanakkiri province.
With a mound of cold rice wrapped in banana leaves hidden beneath a krama tied backpack-style around his shoulders and a battered army canteen filled with boiled cassava leaves, he steps quietly through the jungle, every so often stopping to listen and take stock of his direction.
Turning off a path that only he could see in the forest of green and brown, he stooped into a thicket of thorn bushes no higher than his knees. Bent doubled, he moved on until his path was blocked by a two-meter-high wall of foliage. He pushed through to emerge in a small clearing where a family of seven children and two adults were sitting on blue plastic sheeting.
Ksor greeted each with a handshake before squatting and presenting their first meal of the day. Arranging themselves in a circle, their 40-year-old father, who like almost all the Montagnard asylum seekers is a Christian Protestant, began a prayer in the Jarai language before eating. Ksor, who is also a Christian, joined in the low murmuring of their worship.
He and a small group of other young men from his village have made this daily journey despite the threats of arrest and punishment that have been made by district officials who have warned of serious repercussions if they do not cut off the asylum seekers lifeline of food, water and medicine.
“I am frightened. But I dare to come here even at night to help them. I feel so much pity for them,” he said as the family finished eating and he collected his belongings for the return journey to the village.
“They are a different family to me but they are Jarai. It is like being in the same family,” he said.
The asylum seekers move constantly for fear of arrest. And with the recent threat by Prime Minister Hun Sen to use troops to flush them out, those who have young children are employing even greater levels of vigilance and moving into deeper and more inhospitable jungle, locals said.
But no matter how far they move into the jungle, Ksor and others who make up their small band of minders and guides work to keep open the asylum seekers’ links with the outside world and the food and water they need to survive.
Several people like Ksor said over the weekend that they know they are marked as sympathizers of the Montagnards and fear they will be the first arrested when a five-day ultimatum to hand over the refugees ends in O’Yadaw district on Wednesday.
Jarai minority villagers reported on Sunday that O’Yadaw district Chief Bun Than had threatened imprisonment for villagers in Plong, Kong, Pa’ar and Kong York villages if they continued to feed the asylum seekers and warned that their villages would be sealed off by police and inhabitants prevented from tending their jungle plantations.
Local hill tribe sources also reported the same threats were made at an identical meeting in O’Yadaw’s Lum village on Monday morning.
“They said the police will patrol in the jungle and they will shoot the refugees and also shoot the villagers who help them,” one local claimed on Monday.
“They said they will send troops to patrol around the village,” he added.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun denied those claims on Monday, saying that he had sent his officials to organize the village meetings in order to ask villagers to convince refugees to leave the jungle.
“No refugees have been shot by authorities,” Kham Khoeun said.
“It’s not true,” he said. The refugees should turn themselves over to authorities to allow the government and the UN refugee agency to discuss their fate, he said.
“We want them to come out of the jungle in order for us and the UNHCR to discuss this topic and whether they are really refugees or not.”
But he added: “They entered Cambodian illegally and if they continue to hide in the jungle longer or organize themselves as an armed group, we will crack down.”
Those helping the asylum seekers asked over the weekend of King Norodom Sihanouk’s promise of assistance and whether the UN would soon come to help. One politely rebuked a reporter, stating that even the published photographs and interviews with asylum seekers conducted a month ago had done nothing for their plight.
“It’s been more than a month and still nothing,” he said.
Though they are scared, the helpers were unapologetic in their defiance of the authorities that they say are perpetrating more wrongdoing against fellow tribes people who were forced to flee Vietnam because of oppression and are now being hunted in Cambodia.
“Even to a dog we would give food. So why can we not give food to a human being?” asked one 41-year-old Jarai man who is helping the asylum seekers.
“[The asylum seekers] hunger is the same as our hunger, and the Bible says that if we do good, God will have pity on us and help us in return,” he said. “I hope God will help us.”