April 08, 2016

How NW9 was established : Our Saviors






Here we are in April again.

To most people it is just another month, but to some Vietnamese land refugees April 18th and April 20st, 1980 are the most memorable date in their life, besides the black April 30th, 1975 when the communist took over the South Vietnam and forced them to escape the country

On April 18th, 1980, about 300 Vietnamese land refugees were rescued from Nong Samet and moved to NW9 camp. Two days later, another 600 were rescued from Nong Chan in similar fashion, thus the first land refugee camp along the Thai border was established with about 1000 Vietnamese refugees.

One can remember that NW9 camp is no paradise, but a much safer place when both Nong Samet and Nong Chan were hell on earth, where the refugees were under the merci of the brutal Khmer paratrooper: every refugee was a prisoner, women were gang raped repeatedly, and anyone could be killed anytime, for any reason, or no reason.

The rescue of the Vietnamese land refugees were possible because of the work of two people: a Swiss nurse named Denyse Betchov and an ICRC delegate named Léon de Riedmatten. They witnessed the plight of Vietnamese refugees first hand and worked with ICRC and Thai government to allow the establishment of NW9, and to bring refugees out of Khmer Para’s murderous grasp and transfer them to NW9.

In Leon's own collection of the event:

“…we had to act quickly in order to save those people in great danger. The solution we found was far from being the best, but the only one which could be feasible due to the urgency and the security and political situation at the border. This is how and why NW9 was setup. I remember the first night spent there with a Thai colonel, after having put the red cross flags at the top of the trees at each corner of the camp forest...I will never forget that time spent at the border and my duty which was to rescue and protect Vietnamese "land people"


To Denyse and Leon:

If you are reading this blog, we do not know what else is better than the rescuing of us from Nong Samet and Nong Chan.

It is the best gift in our life.

And for that we are forever thankful.



ICRC flag at a corner of the Cambodian jungle
(photo capture from video "Question of Relief" from ICRC)


HOW NW 9 WAS ESTABLISHED
Report on the Vietnamese land refugees
Kim Ha James Banerian
The Online Archive of California


All land refugees arriving at the Thailand border had to pass through the hands of the Para “big men” for “processing”, search and oppression. Afterwards, the refugees were given over to the ICRC at a price of five hundred kg. rice per person.

On March 25, 1980, the Thai border was closed since that country was no longer accepting refugees. Consequently, the refugees had to stay temporarily in camps inside Cambodia, such as Non Chan, Non Samet, Non Makmun, until they were permitted in by the Thai government.

During that waiting period, at Non Samet, each night the Para came to get the women and girls, carrying them off like pigs to take them to their trucks for sadistic rape, unmindful of their victims' pitiful cries. After one night of abuse, one woman collapsed unconscious after suffering a hemorrhage. Another was white as a sheet, with no emotion on her face as she went into delirium at times, howling like a pig getting its throat cut. One girl resisted and was shot; we did not see her return the next day. Perhaps her corpse had been hastily buried somewhere along the road. Another victim was brought back unable to walk, her face, arms and legs bruised because of the treatment she had received. Some families were able to hide their girls among the homes of local Khmer for a time. If the Cambodians protected you, you were that fortunate. But usually you had to pay for each day you stayed with them. If the Para found out, they would have killed all of us. The Para were covered with amulets they thought had magic and their faces were black and horrible looking. A girl who was having her period when they carried her away would be left alone while they cursed their talismans for losing their magic power.

When the ICRC people came, the women and girls used to run up to them, crying and begging to be rescued. One such morning, a Swiss woman named Denyse Betchov came to visit them. Seeing the girls had been gang-raped repeatedly and many were hemorrhaging, Denyse ordered them put on her truck and sent immediately to Khao I Dang, about fifteen km. away, for treatment. The Para protested and ordered the camp closed, refusing to let her truck inside the fence. The driver of the ICRC truck felt there was nothing he could do and watched the Para guarding both sides of the gate, wielding their guns threateningly. Without hesitation, this courageous woman leaped into the truck, shoved the driver aside and got behind the wheel. Then, stepping hard on the gas, she rammed the truck into the hedge surrounding Non Samet, knocking down one wall by the gate so she could run inside. The Para were furious and on future nights they took out their anger on the new refugees, treating them even more brutally than before.

But on this particular day, Denyse got in touch with her superiors in Bangkok, asking them to intercede with the Thai Ministry of the Interior for a solution to bring the refugees out of the grasp of the Para. Her courage and compassion brought new enthusiasm to the refugees. As a result of her actions, on April 18 more than three hundred refugees from Non Samet were transported by truck to a spot closer to the Thai border. After half an hour of twisting and turning through the jungle, they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere, since the Thai government still refused to permit the refugees inside the border.

At Non Chan, the oppression of refugees continued. On the night of April 20, six hundred of these refugees opposed the attack by the Para, raising their voices and causing a commotion to prevent the Para from taking any woman away. The Board of Camp Leaders tried to save the girls by having them stay in the innermost circle of tents while the men slept on the outside. When the Para came to the camp, their translator spoke to the refugees and ordered them to lie still and not get involved with what was to happen. One of the Camp Leaders, Mr. V., started a mock fight with another refugee. They went at it, chasing each other around the camp, shouting and waking everybody up. The whole camp was aroused. Mothers hid their children. Sisters covered the faces of the young ones. The Para-some twenty to thirty of them–waved their guns and shone flashlights into the tents. There arose cries and shouts. “Mama! Save me!” “No! Please! I'm married!” “Oh God! Let me go! What have I done that you treat me this way?” “Mama! I'm too young! Don't make me go!” “Oh, God! Oh, Buddha!”

Heartrending screams mixed with the bloodcurdling shouts of the Para to frighten us all. Then all at once, everyone began to shout in one voice. The Para became afraid and dropped the women, then went over to rough up the men. They cocked their rifles and pointed them at the men. They said something in their own language and had it translated into Vietnamese. Again, everyone was made to lie still, as they threatened to shoot anyone who moved. The men lay back down quietly, but kept watching from the corners of their eyes. As soon as the Para returned to the girls' tents, the camp jumped up again, screaming and crying. This went on a few times. Several of the young men were beaten for supposedly having a hand in the resistance.

Because we were united in opposing the Para, they were defeated that time. They stomped off without taking away a single girl. We were relieved. But how would they react the next night?

The refugees were like prisoners in the camps–no more, no less. They could be sent back across the border at any time and that was the greatest fear of all. The Para took full advantage of this weakness to act like animals. They got help, too, from the Chinese-Khmer.

The next day (April 21), two persons from the camp were sent to the ICRC base to request help before the Para could retaliate the next night. Around noontime, Denyse and Mr. Leon De Riedmatten came to visit us. Following an hour or so of discussion with the camp leaders, these two got on the radio and asked permission of their superiors to transfer the six hundred from Non Chan closer to the border. Permission granted, the order was announced. At once, everyone began to pack their meager belongings. The men were mobilized to take down the huts and clean up the area. Women and children were already lined up to go.

The Para were incensed. They charged in to steal the refugees' food and whatever else they could get their hands on. They vowed to kill any Vietnamese refugee who came by later. (The next day, in fact, some fifty refugees came out of the jungle. That night, all the girls–about thirty–were the victims of violent revenge for what had happened the previous day. Even a middle-aged woman was not spared, nor were those who were pregnant. They were there just one night. The following day, the Red Cross took them, too, to NW 9.)

But Denyse's efforts to help the refugees came to an abrupt end in May 1980 when she was suddenly transferred. We wept as we saw her off that last day with us. We gave her letters and notes written in Vietnamese, French and English. Even today we still recall the valiant and charitable actions of that woman hardly thirty years old who tried to rescue us. Emotion-filled songs were sung and someone gave her a pair of wooden shoes made at the camp. And we embraced and thanked her profusely. Denyse could not help but cry, too, as she went from hut to hut to say farewell and shake hands and wave goodbye. She had to leave, but the refugees would never forget her.

When the refugees were taken finally from Non Chan to the new camp in the jungle, no one wanted to get off the truck, for we were out in the middle of nowhere. We saw nothing but trees and the blue from tents of the three hundred Non Samet refugees who had preceded us. Our disappointment and anxiety grew. Wearily, we just sat where we were. Our hopes of being taken to Thailand were dashed. But finally, we did get out and joined NW 9, where the camp leader, “B”, instructed us in the rules of the camp.

That night, we lay on the grass in the tents we had just built, glad to be out of the hands of the Para, but sorry to be abandoned in the jungle. All at once there was a scream. We jumped, startled, and gave a shout. We had not forgotten the terrors we had just left and hearing a scream made us all fearful again. After checking it out, however, we discovered it was not the Para that caused the screaming, but snakes. One had crawled up beside a girl and she had been frightened. The snakes were everywhere in the jungle, coming out at night and creeping into the tents. Therefore, we made hammocks out of rice sacks so we could sleep above ground with greater security. Families had anywhere from two to six hammocks, depending on what they could afford. You might see a pair of bamboo posts from which hung two or three swinging rice sacks and hammocks. As time went on, the lives of the refugees became more and more associated with their hammocks. After eating, where could you go? We lay in the hammocks and gossiped or discussed matters important to us.

Each day after that, the ICRC brought more refugees into NW 9, sometimes a few, sometimes a hundred. They were all ragged and dirty, their feet bleeding from the walk, some leaning on others to complete the journey. They were pale as ghosts. No one escaped the net laid by the Para and Khmer Rouge. None the less, each refugee's eyes were bright for having reached his/her destination.

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