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Cambodia’s Lost Tribe
By: RSS/News FeedsHungZai Team

LY KAMON clears his land with a stubby bush scythe, diligently felling the jungle he once used as a shield to hide from Vietnamese soldiers.

It has been two years since he and a tribe of 33 others emerged from 25 years of hiding in the jungles of north-east Cambodia to find that the Vietnamese no longer ruled the country. They had left 15 years earlier.

Mr Kamon came home to a world he did not recognise, a world of mobile phones, bottled water and cars. He thought that coming home would mean he could finally stop running, but it didn’t turn out that way. Mr Kamon is running, to catch up, and it is proving harder than he thought.

“Life in the village is better, we have food to support our children. In the jungle, the children were going hungry,” Mr Kamon, 42, a father of seven, told The Age at the bamboo worker’s shack on his small plot. Later, he admitted that while life had improved, his family still did not have enough. “One small thing makes me worried — the food shortage,” he said.

He is also discovering that the seductive new world of technology has its limits. When we met two years ago, he proudly showed off a gold wristwatch his parents had just given him.

He laughs and shrugs when asked about it now. “It broke,” he said.

His wife, Banyao At, sitting bare-breasted, has no regrets about their return — relishing the food and the company. Her children crowd around to look at an Age newspaper clipping titled The Lost Tribe documenting their return to the village. They point themselves out in the picture.

Still wearing the Khmer Rouge bob hairstyle she had then, she says: “In the jungle it was difficult to grow vegetables. In the village we have neighbours. In the jungle all you could see was the jungle all around you. I had a small farm but it was difficult to find food and especially ingredients for cooking.”

“Life is happier now.”

But the couple feel a little cheated by their years in the jungle. In 1979, they were part of a group of 100 villagers who ran to the forests as the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed, told they would be tortured and killed by the invading Vietnamese army.

For 10 years, they cleared land and lived in the forest. Then the Vietnamese discovered their hiding place and, suspecting they were a rump of Khmer Rouge forces, surrounded the village.

The community split up. Mr Kamon joined a group of 12 — four couples, each with a small child — and moved into the dragon’s tail, an arrow of Cambodian territory bounded by Laos and Vietnam. All they took with them was a small tin of rice, herbs and vegetable seeds.

Using their subsistence farming skills, they built a new life in the jungle. They had one machete, a cooking pot for each couple and woven back baskets. In the next 15 years, the group grew to 34, their children married and had children of their own, only one older man died.

When news of the tribe’s extraordinary survival emerged two years ago, the world’s media came calling. Their story was featured in Paris Match and Marie Claire and on the front page of The Age.

At first there was help. The group, made up of ethnic Kreung and Tom Puon people, was warmly received by local and international authorities. Their old villages gave each family a small plot of communal land to farm. The Ratanakiri provincial governor gave each family a tonne of rice to help them through the first year.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped with housing and everyone got a medical screening. Mr Kamon says he built his one-room wooden house in Krala village with $A380 given to him by a European magazine for an interview.

But the media caravan moved on, and there was no more assistance from provincial authorities. Mr Kamon and his family were left to find their own feet.

Chung Ravuth, the UNHCR’s senior field officer in Phnom Penh, says the families were given rice and housing, “but we only gave once. We don’t have a program for them any more, they were welcomed by their local community. There is no ongoing special assistance, they were provided land by their local communities.”

Krala village, a traditional Kreung community, has given Mr Kamon one hectare of land each year to clear and cultivate. Each day he and his wife hack away at the forest and tend the young cashew nut trees they have planted. They will not bear nuts for five years. Below the trees are sparse clumps of wild rice.

Everywhere in Ratanakiri, villagers are moving from subsistence crops to cash crops such as cashew nuts, increasing their chances of making money but also exposing themselves to the whims of markets they do not understand.

Inside Mr Kamon’s home there is no light, no bed, no chair, and not enough to eat. “My farm is very large. I grow rice but I (only) get a little bit because my rice is not growing well,” he says of the rough ridge top he was given to cultivate. “No one gives me any food. I won’t get food unless I am working for them.”

The story is similar for a Tom Puon family from the lost tribe, now living in Loet village, an hour to the east. The two families are related by jungle marriage. Mr Kamon’s daughter married the son of Ting Luong.

Ting Luong has also received a hectare of land each year from his village. He works it in the burning midday sun, dressed in a black, long-sleeved polyester shirt and rough cotton pants. “I can find clothes to wear here, in the jungle we used the leaves of trees,” Mr Luong says.

“Here you can find food. In the jungle we hunted deer, monkey, wild pig, but we had no salt or ingredients for cooking. Here we have beef and pig but also the ingredients for cooking — salt, seasoning and chilli.”

Mr Luong’s return to his village was tempered by loss. His youngest child died soon after birth, in their last days in the jungle. His wife died within a month of emerging from the forest. He says she ate something bad in the forest, but health authorities diagnosed her with malaria.

His daughter, Ting Khem, looks careworn at 20. She was born in the jungle and had the first of her two children there.

“My life is still difficult. It is getting better than the jungle and for the children I can grow rice and cashews, but it is still not enough. We don’t have enough,” she says as her 2½-year-old son wails on her back.

“I was born in the jungle and I didn’t go to school, but I am willing to send my children to school.”

There are village schools but the young ones in both families are helping their parents in the field.

The world’s fascination with lost tribes continues. Last month, a new “jungle girl” emerged who had allegedly survived 19 years in the wilderness since she disappeared as an eight-year-old. The international media again trekked up the red dirt tracks of Ratanakiri, bypassing Mr Kamon’s village for the new phenomenon.

But this jungle girl was less convincing. The callous-free soles of her feet raised doubts about how long she would have spent barefoot in the jungle.

Mr Kamon spent 25 years in the jungle. “I feel very sorry because I was lied to by someone (his community chief under the Khmer Rouge). I was told that if I came back to the village I would be tortured,” he said. “I feel angry and so sad that someone would lie to me to make me live in the jungle for so long.”

When they emerged from the jungle, the tribe talked about the tyre tracks they saw and wondered about cars. They would always run deeper into the forest if they heard an engine, fearing the Vietnamese. But they dreamed of seeing and riding in a car.

Now, to make a little cash, Mr Kamon sees plenty of cars. He gets occasional work upgrading the dirt track between Krala village and the provincial capital Ban Lung. There is only one car in his village, owned by a family who sold some land. He doubts that he will ever own one. Yet, amid the struggle to fill hungry bellies, there is new joy of Khmer music. In the forest, there was only birdsong. “I listen to music every day, Khmer music on a neighbour’s radio,” he says. “And the children are very happy to listen to music — they have never heard it before.”

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