Cambodia’s ‘lost tribe’ that hid in the jungle for 15 years to escape the Khmer Rouge

By: Corinne Purtill - Posted on: September 9, 2016 | Cambodia

Ghosts in the Forest, a book by author Corinne Purtill, tells the untold story of the Cambodian families who emerged from the jungle after 15 years hiding from a war long ended

A new book reveals the untold story of Cambodia’s ‘lost tribe’ who emerged from the jungle after 15 years hiding from a war long ended
Illustration by Natalie Phillips

Out of the past

In November 2004, Ly Kamoun kneeled on the ground in a small village in southern Laos, his arms raised in surrender. Around him huddled 32 men, women and children, a de facto family with whom he had lived in secret for 15 years. Aiming a gun directly at him was a villager, an equally frightened man who moments ago had looked up from tending his pigs to see a people detached from history.

The group was half-naked, dressed in scraps of tree bark and stolen clothes. Years of hiding in the surrounding forest had taken a toll on their health, and they had finally decided to seek contact with the outside world, or die trying. Now the latter outcome seemed more likely. 

“If I run away, you can kill me,” said one of Kamoun’s friends, a man named Romam Luong. “You can kill us all.” The gun lowered. Their new life back in the world began.

A week later, after Cambodian authorities met them at the border to ferry the lost tribe home, Kamoun – known as Moun – and Luong sat in a room at the cavernous concrete provincial office building in Banlung, the capital of Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province. Both men guessed themselves to be in their 40s. Born in a culture without written language, neither had ever known the exact date or year of his birth.

As they debriefed local authorities, the pair’s extraordinary story was revealed. Born in Ratanakiri, they were members of the Kreung and Tampuon, two of the indigenous ethnic minority groups known collectively as highlanders. As young teenagers, they were kidnapped and drafted into the Khmer Rouge, the Communist guerrilla movement that decimated Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when Vietnam overthrew the regime. Moun and Luong were among the exhausted troops marched around the country as the guerrillas sought to regroup, ending up by the early 1980s in a camp for soldiers and civilians called O’Chong in the northeastern tip of the country.

If they ran away, the Khmer Rouge told them, the Vietnamese would kill them and their children. Moun and Luong believed their captors. They were still young, barely even adults, and had seen Khmer Rouge cadres execute people who disobeyed orders. They had no reason to doubt that these invading foreigners would murder them too.

When Cambodian government soldiers raided the O’Chong camp in 1989, the two men decided that they were done with the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese and a nation that seemed endlessly at war. Moun and Luong fled with their wives and children, along with a handful of other families, into the dense rainforest surrounding their living quarters. And that is where they stayed for 15 years, convinced the war still raged on outside, until they stumbled across a farmer feeding his animals in a scene that closely resembled peacetime.

Moun was shocked to learn that it was the year 2004, a number he could hardly make sense of. He had not yet discovered the horrific statistics that had marked his years away: 1.7 million Cambodians died during the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, while untold thousands fled temporarily to remote areas or across borders to escape the chaos. Of the former, Moun and his family were the last to come home.

Ly Kamoun and others
“Life requires other people. You cannot live alone”

25 years after the war

Most stunning of all was the fact that the war had been over for a full 25 years. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, the officials told him, they did not murder civilians like the Khmer Rouge warned. Vietnam occupied Cambodia largely peacefully before departing in 1989. Only the Khmer Rouge kept fighting in remote parts of the country like the camp where Moun and Luong were held. And even the last of the guerrillas had put down their guns and given up the battle in 1998. Six years previously.

Moun absorbed this devastating fact: the war has been over for a quarter of a century.

The authorities kept talking and asking questions, but Moun could hardly speak. Eventually one of the interviewers reached over and flipped on a small television set.

The screen settled into a grainy image of a karaoke contest. Young men sporting asymmetric haircuts and women wearing long demure skirts belted out Khmer love songs to bass-heavy music. Moun’s eyes widened. He had never seen anything like it.

Gingerly, Moun rose from his chair, walked around the desk and peered at the back of the television, searching for the door through which the small figures must have entered. The previous day, he had been certain that tiny people did not exist. Today, he had to check for himself. The entire world had altered in ways he had not believed possible.

I first met Moun in December 2004, almost a month after he and his family walked out of the jungle and back into the world. At the time, I was a reporter for the Cambodia Daily newspaper, and one of several foreign journalists who descended on the Ratanakiri village where Moun and his family had been resettled.

We wanted to know what they thought of technology like televisions, cars and mobile phones. We wanted to know how they lived in the forest: the exotic animals they hunted, how they made fires, how they built shelter.

It was only much later, when I returned to Phnom Penh and was recounting their story to a Khmer journalist friend, that I came to realise how misguided our line of questioning had been.

“You should ask how people can survive in the city,” he told me. “Nowhere to plant rice. No lake to catch fish. You take those people to New York, they would die. Not in the jungle.”

He was right, of course. The indigenous cultures to which Moun and his comrades belonged drew upon centuries of forest knowledge. Throughout their history, highlanders had regularly used the dense tree cover as a place of shelter and sustenance. Living as remotely as this group did certainly was not easy – the terrain was different to what they were used to, and the first year in the jungle was a lean one as they waited for their crops to produce, members of the group explained to me – but they were prepared for these privations.

The truly agonising part of life on the run, the underlying difficulty that finally drove them from the safety of the forest to the unknown of the outside world, was something more touchingly simple: loneliness.

moun-in-forest

“You cannot live alone”

Stripped of the tight bonds of the collective societies in which they were raised, isolated from the generations of support and experience that normal, peacetime life in highlander villages would have afforded them, they grew lonely. They became fearful. They became paranoid. And as time passed, their isolation threatened to turn them into the very dangers from which they were running.

“Life requires other people,” Moun told me during one of many conversations we were to later have. “You cannot live alone.”

Four years after they first emerged from the jungle, I returned to Ratanakiri to settle the persistent feeling that there was far more to their take than they had been able or willing to share. The story I found was far more complicated than anything us outsiders could have imagined when we crouched in that village in 2004 and asked a shaken, frightened people how they hunted tigers.

Survival is a messy, unforgiving business. Born into a bloody stretch of history, driven to the extremes of human stress and isolation, Moun and his comrades were forced to make appalling choices about who would have to die so that the others could live.    

Their story, now told for the first time in detail, shows how unthinkable conditions have the potential to compel any of us to do the unspeakable.

“Survival is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances,” the journalist Lawrence Gonzalez wrote. And few places have demanded more of ordinary people than Cambodia in the 20th century.

Corinne Purtill is a journalist and the author of the non-fiction book Ghosts in the Forest, available from Amazon as a Kindle Single.