A new book by US journalist Corinne Purtill catches up with a group of forgotten Ratanakkiri refugees who spent 15 years in remote forest unaware that the civil war was over
In 2004, 34 Cambodian men, women and children emerged from a Lao forest on the Cambodian border, seeking political asylum. The group wore loincloths made of tree bark, their hair and nails trimmed with dull machetes.
Having fled one of the Khmer Rouge’s last remaining camps in Ratanakkiri province in 1989, they had survived alone, deep in the wilderness, never realising the civil war had ended.
Then, after 15 years in wild isolation, in constant fear of ambush by the Vietnamese soldiers they believed were pursuing them, they were faced with a fresh challenge: readjustment back into society.
Corinne Purtill, the author of a new book about the lost refugees, Ghosts in the Forest, was among the first to interview them in 2004, as a 24-year-old reporter with the Cambodia Daily.
In her 72-page e-book, published earlier this month through Amazon’s publishing house Kindle Singles, Purtill describes her thoughts during that first encounter with people “who had never seen a telephone, a television or a car”.
“It almost didn’t matter what they said,” she wrote. “They were already archetypes, joining the forgotten Amazon tribes and forgotten Japanese World War II soldiers in the canon of people who had managed, however briefly, to unhitch themselves from the world.”
Four years after that first encounter, the American was working for a newspaper in Arizona when a friend asked what had happened to the group. Purtill didn’t know but decided to find out. She left her job, sold her car and bought a flight back to Phnom Penh.
“I wanted to know how their readjustment had gone,” Purtill this week explained over Skype from California, where she writes for online news publication Quartz.
The group, made up of four families from different ethnic minority tribes in Ratanakkiri, had been brought together by war. They met in the Khmer Rouge camp, where they had been herded following the Vietnamese invasion/liberation in late 1978.
In 1989, the camp was raided by Cambodian government soldiers who had come to bring the area under government control and liberate those trapped there.
“But people living there didn’t know that,” said Purtill. “To them, soldiers showed up. They had been told that the Vietnamese had invaded the country, that if they catch you, they’ll kill you. So when men with guns showed up, they just took off.”
When Purtill returned to Ratanakkiri in 2008 for five months of reporting, she found that the group had fractured, each family having returned to their respective home villages.
“It surprised me that they just hadn’t seen each other in four years,” said Purtill.
Ly Kamoun – a 44-year-old Kreung man better known as Moun, who Purtill had interviewed back in 2004 – had adjusted well to his new life. His old village had received him warmly. They had given him a plot of land and building supplies for a new home.
“If anything, I was pleasantly surprised to see how smooth his readjustment had been, at least superficially,” said Purtill.
But not everyone’s return had gone as well. One of the other three patriarchs of the group, Romam Luong, had become overwhelmed by “the new material world he found himself in”. Simply going to the market was a traumatic affair. His wife had died from malaria shortly after their return.
In the wake of personal tragedy and unfamiliar with money, Luong quickly ran himself into debt. In fact, nobody in the group understood the concept of currency, having all come from remote, trading communities before the war.
Purtill had discovered something else about the group on her return: they had committed murder in the forest.
It happened five years into their self-exile, after an encounter with a group of young Vietnamese men out scavenging for rare wood. At first, the refugees were welcoming. Desperate for salt, they traded with the men. But something went wrong.
“They had been living this paranoid existence for a long time,” explained Purtill. “Last they had heard, Cambodia was at war with Vietnam. They thought maybe these men were spies.”
They ended up shooting the men, killing all but one who escaped.
“That’s how the authorities heard they were out there,” Purtill said.
A search was launched for the refugees – not to arrest them, but to bring them home.
However, in their charged paranoia, they fled deeper into the forest, where they remained for another decade.
When Purtill confronted Moun about the incident, who in months of interviews had not mentioned the incident, he quickly confessed.
Purtill felt that was the last piece of the puzzle.
“After that interview, it felt like that was the last thing that all made sense. They’d been kind of cagey about why they’d gone so far away,” said the author.
“It also made me realise there’s only so much anyone can really know about what that time was like and what kind of choices they had to make.
“It felt like they’d told me everything they were willing to share.”
Ghosts in the Forest is only available in digital format at Amazon.com for $2.99.