Ratanakkiri province – Through a small opening in the jungle canopy, sunlight illuminated a Christian cross made of rough forest timber. Here rests Kpuih Klut, 26. He died slowly, vomiting for one night and day before his life ebbed away. Those among a group of 69 Montagnard asylum-seekers interviewed late Wednesday night and Thursday-all separate from 127 others interviewed over the past five weeks-told how they tried to save Kpuih Klut’s life by reverting to old hill tribe remedies of plant leaves to counteract the affect of eating poisonous forest mushrooms he and others had turned to for food.
They could not save him. He died July 4, they said.
It took 15 asylum-seekers to carry his lifeless body to this quiet spot on a stretcher they made from bamboo poles. A local pastor presided over the ceremony at the grave site near a bamboo grove in Ratanakkiri’s dense jungle.
“After we ate the mushrooms we were all sick,” said a 42-year-old Jarai asylum-seeker who was with Kpuih Klut when he died. “We sweated very heavily and broke out in an itchy skin rash. We were all vomiting.”
“The 13 of us watched him die,” he said, gesturing to the group of teenagers, twentysomethings and middle-aged men with whom he was hiding.
According to those who knew Kpuih Klut, he had a wife and two children in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province. His father was granted asylum in the US following the 2001 Montagnard demonstrations in the Central Highlands, they said. “He also wanted to go to the US,” said the 42-year-old man.
“He was in no pain,” the man said. “He just got weaker and weaker and then he died. He didn’t have anything to say, he was too weak.”
“We all prayed for him,” he said.
A 14-year-old asylum-seeker who recovered after becoming ill from eating the mushrooms said: “We all came together when he passed away. We had so much pity for him.”
Those who were interviewed on Wednesday and Thursday gave many similar reasons for fleeing Vietnam: No freedom to practice their Protestant faith, loss of their ancestral lands, and an ongoing security crackdown on their villages since the 2001 and 2004 demonstrations. But, they only had one answer regarding what they hope to find in Cambodia: UN protection.
“We could not stay any longer. So many were arrested and put in prison,” said a 40-year-old Jarai man from Pleiku province who has been in hiding in Vietnam’s jungles since 2002.
On Thursday, he produced a small battered diary with dozens of names of Montagnards he said have fled to the jungle since 2001. The names in the book that were underlined with ink were those that have since been arrested, he said.
“I know there are a lot of [Montagnards] in the jungle,” he said. “I don’t know if its Vietnam or Cambodia.”
Asked what he would do if the UN High Commissioner for Refugees comes to their aid, his answer was short: “When the UN comes, we will go to meet them.”
A group of 26 men and one woman gathered in a cashew nut plantation under cover of darkness Thursday.
“We are living in the jungle too long,” said a 24-year-old member of the Bahnar minority. “We come here in the hope the UN and international community can make our situation better.”
When told that Cambodian government officials suspected that some Montagnards wanted to fight for an autonomous state in the Central Highlands, a 24-year-old man appeared shocked to the points of tears.
“We are not police,” he blurted out. “We are not military. We are civilians.”
“We are sick and skinny,” said another. “When the UN comes we must go to meet them.”
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said Thursday that UNHCR representatives had not yet met with them though they were scheduled to be in the province on Thursday.
“I do not know yet whether they are coming to meet local authorities first or going straight to meet the refugees,” Kham Khoeun said. “Our authorities do not know where [the asylum-seekers] are. If [UNHCR] knows where they are it means that they persuaded them to come from Vietnam.”
Later, Kham Khoeun said his local authorities had spotted 27 asylum seekers, but authorities did not know where they were hiding.
He added: “They do not have weapons yet. But if they have weapons, I will send the troops to destroy them.”
Two women among a group of asylum-seekers interviewed Thursday have been caring for an emaciated, deathly-pale 27-year-old man who had not eaten for two weeks and was suspected of having typhoid fever. Burning with a raging fever, he squatted on the hard-packed earth floor Wednesday night beneath a wooden shelter as rain poured down outside.
Listless and able to speak only a few words, he squatted wide-eyed and vacant. Asked whether he would come to a Cambodian hospital for treatment, he said “no.”
Those caring for the sick man said he cannot keep down food or the small amounts of medicine they were able to lay their hands on. They were worried he would soon die. The atmosphere in the shelter was thick with fear of capture by authorities and fatalism for their sick friend.
While their list of complaints about the situation in the Central Highlands is long, each has a story they want to tell. Few Montagnards seemed to know what they would do next now they were in hiding, unwelcome and suspected of being a security threat by the Cambodian government.
“I heard the news the UN was coming and I am so happy,” said the 27-year-old woman who was looking after the sick man.
“I ran here for help,” she said simply. “When we get a better shelter, we will be happy.”