Stronger than the mere absence of light, night in the Cambodian countryside has an unforgiving blackness that fights attempts to illuminate. A motorcycle’s headlamp can grab no more than a foot or two of red dirt road. A pothole or a police officer is not visible until you are upon them.
One night I drove down such a road, squinting into the impenetrable spaces where the dark hid wooden-stilt houses. In a house that had been pointed out to me earlier, a man was waiting for me. He motioned me up the stairs, his lined face soft in the glow of a handheld lantern, to the room where they were hiding.
When I remember them now, my journalist’s eye for detail fails. Their faces don’t take shape in the shadows of my memory. I recall only the five pairs of eyes that pierced the dark with the intensity of their fear.
Four women and one man huddled in the tiny room. Ages 15 through 30, they were asylum seekers of the Jarai ethnic minority from the mountainous Central Highlands of Vietnam. Since 2001, hundreds of hill tribe members, collectively known as Montagnards, have fled persecution by the Vietnamese government. The increasingly draconian measures used against the Montagnards have included seizure of their ancestral homelands and suppression of their predominantly Christian beliefs. Until recently, the Cambodian government has hunted these people and deported them.
Cambodian police have arrested and intimidated people who aid the runaways. Despite the danger, the man in the house, a Cambodian Jarai, agreed to shelter these five when they became too sick to continue hiding in the malaria-infested jungles on the border. As a reporter for an English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh, I had come to the province of Ratanakkiri to meet asylum seekers who left their homes in search of freedom.
Later, with the story filed and the dust and sweat washed out of my clothes, I thought about their journey, and thought about what had compelled me to leave home.
Less than a year earlier, I was a novice reporter at a weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a setting where Free Scoop Night at the local Baskin-Robbins merited a front-page story and photo. Glancing at some online job postings one day, I saw an advertisement for The Cambodia Daily, founded in 1993 with the aim of establishing a free press in the country’s emerging democracy. With a reporting staff roughly split between Cambodians and foreign expatriates, the paper’s goal is to serve as a standard of integrity and accuracy in a nation where many journalists are in the employ of political parties, or are cowed into silence by overt government threats.
I told bewildered friends, family members and co-workers that I wanted the adventure of overseas journalism, and that the idea of Cambodian dirt and heat would seem a relief from the eye-watering slap of another icy Washington winter. I felt more afraid of becoming complacent amid the manicured lawns and tidy streets of Montgomery County, Md., than I was of exploring Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge held parts of the country as recently as my freshman year at Stanford. Within six weeks of the publisher’s e-mailed job offer, I was on the plane, committed to working a year in a country that I had only recently learned to locate on a map. I had not counted on how powerful the pain of leaving would be.
That night in Ratanakkiri, words seemed an inadequate way to address the hardships these young people had borne. Terrified, they scooted imperceptibly away from me until a wide gap existed between us on the wooden floor. I proffered a small package of peanuts, the only food in my bag. One young woman devoured some nuts, then turned away and quietly vomited.
The five had survived months in the jungle, evading police and eating food foraged from the land or rice smuggled to them by sympathetic Cambodian Jarai. Their goal was to reach the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh. From there, they told me, they hoped to be resettled in the United States, where hundreds of Montagnards have been relocated. They all had relatives who had survived such a journey; when I said the word “America” they nodded, and smiles lightened what had been tense faces.
The Montagnards’ case has gained some international attention. Many ethnic minorities collaborated with the U.S. military during what is known in this part of the world as the American War. That cooperation is a factor in the Vietnamese government’s intolerance of the hill tribes now. Many risk the dangerous and hideously uncomfortable journey through the jungles to reach the dream of resettlement in the U.S.—the place many of my colleagues and I temporarily abandoned in search of what we thought were better stories elsewhere.
There’s no denying the moments of professional excitement—from the thrill of meeting a villager who has put his safety on the line to tell his story, to mundane details like the brilliant orange of a monk’s robe against the gravel of the road. But those experiences punctuate weeks of frustration and loneliness so acute that I sometimes wonder if there’s an extra seat on one of those UNHCR planes for me.
In August, the Cambodian government allowed the United Nations to rescue some of those hiding in Ratanakkiri and process their claims for asylum. Dozens have already left for the United States. I don’t know if the five I met are among them.
I hope so. I hope that the life they find is worth what they risked to achieve it. And when their plane touches down on the country that occupies my thoughts so often, I hope that their eyes soften and their fear drains away, replaced by a tiny glimmer of joy in what will soon become home.
CORINNE PURTILL, '02, is a journalist from California.