o’chum district, Ratanakkiri province – In 1979, ethnic hill tribe minority member and one-time Khmer Rouge foot soldier Ly Moun fled to the remote jungles of Ratanakkiri province on the warnings of Khmer Rouge soldiers who claimed that approaching Vietnamese troops would kill all those they found.
In the 25 years that elapsed before Ly Moun and 33 other hill tribe members emerged from those dense forests late last month, the Democratic Kampuchea regime for which Ly Moun carried a gun fell. The Vietnamese ended their 10-year occupation, and Cambodia entered a period of relative peace.
Ly Moun knew none of this. His and three other families spent those years hiding in the densely forested part of Virachey National Park known as the Dragon’s Tail, limiting speech for fear of detection, moving at the sight of an unfamiliar footprint or a freshly cut tree. Their clothing disintegrated. Their one machete fell to pieces.
What did not change in 25 years—15 with no contact from any outsiders—was their fear.
“We worried all the time,” Ly Moun, now 36, said Monday at his relatives’ home village of Krala in O’Chum district. “When we slept, we dreamed of our safety. We didn’t know the situation [in Cambodia]. We didn’t know anything. We just worried for our safety, all the time.”
On Nov 15, the 34 crossed the Lao border and presented themselves to Attapeu provincial authorities in search of political asylum.
Lao authorities contacted Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun, who sent a delegation to Laos on Nov 16 to escort the families home, Kham Khoeun said Tuesday.
Two days later, the group was back in Ratanakkiri, reunited with relatives who had assumed them lost forever.
After nearly a lifetime in hiding, Ly Moun said, he had finally found peace.
“I never saw the country happy like it is now. I never dreamed Cambodia would have peace like this. Because in my days, all I saw were problems,” he said.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia on Dec 25, 1978, an untold number of the estimated 50,000 people then living in Ratanakkiri fled to the jungles, Kham Khoeun said Tuesday.
Among them were a number of hill tribe members, many of whom had fought for the Khmer Rouge and feared that their involvement would make them targets of the invading Vietnamese.
About 100 hill tribe refugees settled in O’Chang, where they lived for 10 years. Vietnamese troops raided the camp near the end of the occupation, at which point the inhabitants scattered and burrowed deeper into the forest for cover, the returned hill tribe members said last week.
Traveling together was a group of four young couples, each with a small child, comprised of people from the Kreung, Jarai, Tampuon and Kachak ethnic groups. They spoke the Kreung language as a group.
Carrying only a machete, a rice pot, a few plates and handfuls of seeds for rice, vegetables, chili and some spices, the 12 walked for five days and nights deeper into the Dragon’s Tail. At their first stop, they established a pattern they would follow for the next 15 years.
They found an isolated area near a stream big enough to supply them with water but small enough to not likely be used by other people. With the machete they cleared a small plot of land for rice cultivation and built a house for each family.
During the day, the women gathered fruits and edible leaves from the surrounding brush. The men dug for wild potatoes and patrolled the camp at night, said returnee Romam Luong.
Romam Luong, a 50-year-old Tampuon minority member, was a team leader for Khmer Rouge Battalion 101 for three years before the Vietnamese invasion, he said at his native Luot village in Bokeo district on Tuesday. He and Ly Moun—who said he was a Khmer Rouge soldier for one year at the temporary site in O’Chang forest—were the only two former soldiers among the group.
Daily, Roman Luong said, the men in the forest would compare their observations, accounting for all the footprints or cut brush they saw. After two years they saw a tree stump that no one in the group had cut and they abandoned the camp, sneaking back at night to unearth their crops. They moved four times in 15 years.
Though an improvement over the deprivations of the Khmer Rouge years, life in the jungle was an incessant difficulty, the returned villagers said.
The machete broke after three years and they fashioned the scraps into smaller tools and implements, including the barrettes the women used to hold their hair in the Khmer Rouge-style bob. They hammered tree bark into pliable strips that they sewed into clothing.
Though constantly on the hunt for food, the group said they never faced starvation. In addition to their crops and fish from the stream, they set traps for rabbits, mice and wild chickens.
The traps also snared three tigers, though some said they were unimpressed with the beast as a dish.
“They’re not so delicious. The meat is kind of smelly,” said Chalat Chakov, 35.
Despite their wild surroundings, their health was remarkably good. The eldest man in the group died at the age of about 60 five years ago from what the hill tribe members said was cancer, and a 10-day-old baby died at Banlung hospital upon their return last month. No one ever contracted malaria, and stomach troubles and simple colds were the bulk of their medical concerns, they said.
With no news of their families at home and fear of the Vietnamese troops they still believed hunting them constant, the psychological burdens were among the most difficult to bear, the returnees said.
“I was never happy in the forest. I wanted to see my family, my friends, my birthplace,” Ly Moun said Monday, between puffs of a leaf-wrapped cigar.
“Sometimes, I almost cried when I thought of home,” Romam Luong said. “And we were young. That is the time when you need your family.”
As their families grew and their supplies dwindled, the group said they knew they faced only increasing dangers in the years ahead. They called a meeting of the families together and reached a consensus: Move on in search of sanctuary, or die in the attempt.
“We had no connection to society. We didn’t know any people except each other. And we were very, very poor,” Romam Luong said. “And so we decided to leave the jungle, regardless of whether we live or die.” (The second part of this story will appear on Monday)
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