Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Incident at Site 9

Incident at Site 9

My husband was one of the men defending the Newport Bridge two days before the city fell. He was with the soldiers who huddled together and pulled the pins on their grenades after fighting for three days and nights on the far side of the bridge. When the men realized their situation was hopeless and they had no ammunition left they did not retreat into the city. They waited until dawn so the enemy could watch them. Only then did they so defiantly take their own lives. They were not afraid of death.
Not long after that a line of enemy tanks snaked onto the road, slowly crossed the bridge and entered the city. As they passed the place where the defenders made their final stand, the boys sitting on top of the tanks stared in awe at the torn and bloody ground.
My husband left no suicide note. No letter. One day he was defending the road to our home and the next day he was no more. He left me with our 5 year old daughter.
Thousands of terrified people fled the city that last week. I know now I should have joined them. I saw the helicopters and planes carry them away. I saw the packed buses and cars race through the streets toward the American embassy and the river. I waited for my husband to find me. I was lost without him. When I heard he had died I wanted to die, too, and be with him. But what might happen to our daughter after that? I was confused. All I could do, it seemed, was watch and cry.
After the enemy occupied the city I stayed inside my small apartment and ventured outside only to buy food. A sympathetic neighbor gave me two little flags – one North Vietnamese and the other Viet Cong – so I could display them in my window. In all of the windows up and down our street the new flags blossomed one morning like spring flowers. The flags of the defeated Republic of Vietnam disappeared.
I burned my husbands letters, awards, clothing, degrees and photographs – along with our wedding certificate -- and quietly whispered prayers as all evidence that he’d ever existed turned into ashes.

When I learned that Thuan was gone, that many eyewitnesses later reported what had happened, had watched the Marines calmly commit group suicide form the other side of the river, something inside me died too. The belief that life had meaning evaporated in an instant. That part of my heart that harbored and nourished romantic love also took flight. I believe I would never love again, could never give myself to anyone again. My life was truly over. I walked and talked and interacted but inside I was all ashes.
If I had followed my impulse after that I should have gone to the center of the city as North Vietnamese tanks triumphantly paraded past and I should had thrown myself beneath their treads. I should have jumped into the Saigon river and drowned myself. I should have cut my wrists and my throat.
But I did not. I did not because only I was responsible for the life of Thuy. My relatives were far away and out of touch. Thuan was gone. The innocent child now depended completely on me. She was my only reason for living. Without me she might perish also. And I felt she deserved better. She deserved at least the chance that I had been given, to live and to search for happiness. Perhaps she might find it. But for sure she needed me to guide her and to protect her.
She was terrified in those days. She watched me crying and tried to comfort me. Climbed onto my lap and wrapped her arms around my neck and held her face to mine. She was afraid of what I’d do, that I too might flee. At first her affection merely deepened my own despair. But in time she gave me the determination I needed to go on living.
And so I did.
Thuan was a scholar. I fell in love with him when I first saw him readying in a small café in Danang near my home. He was slight, intense, with wide eyes and he wore a pair of wire rimmed gold glasses. He smiled at me when he looked up. A few days later I stopped to ask what he was reading. He told me. That is how it began. The was the fateful spring when the Americans began arriving in great numbers in Danang. They arrived in March, three months before Thuan and I were married.
He was a school teacher. But the war called. Many of his friends became Marines. He did not try to avoid the military. With friends he joined the Marines. He believed in his country, he said. And he believed that the Communists in both the North and in the South would, if victorious, simply replace the old French Imperialism with a newer but even more oppressive form.
I became pregnant during one of his leaves from duty. We moved first to Vung Tau and then to Saigon so we could be with each other more often.
Life was hard. But life had always been hard. When the Americans left it became a little harder. Still my husband believed our country would win the war and that some day he could return to teaching.
But everything changed in the spring of 1975. Everything collapses so suddenly. Thuan remained with his unit rather than return home. And finally, not far from home, at the Newport Bridge defending the gateway to the city, he died with his friends. He left me no note, sent me no final letter. Yet I know he was thinking of me in his last moment of life. And I know in my last moment I will think of him and see us together again. I know.

My husband left me a several hundred piasters and some gold. He said that if things became worse than they already were – and, of course, they did – the piasters would be worthless. When that happened gold would be still accepted by merchants and people who dealt in favors. He was right.
I thought I might live with the new rulers. They announced that we were all Vietnamese and that we had won the war and only the American imperialists were losers. But after saying this they rounded up thousands of people and sent them to camps far away in the north for reeducation. Most were never seen again and those few who straggled home years later were weak and broken and mere shells of the men and women they had once been.
I had been a school teacher. But my school closed during the final crisis in the spring, and when it reopened and I reported for work I was told I could no longer teach because my husband had been a Marine. That made me untrustworthy and an enemy of the people. The new school officials had my records, they said. My name was on their black list.
I looked for work but found little. I became a secretary for one small business and a clerk in another. Each time my past caught up with me, like a lazy shadow. No matter how hard I worked, I was let go after a few days.
My sister advised me to move back to our home village near Phan Rang. I could work as a peasant, she said. I considered it. But I concluded that even there my shadow would find.
I stayed in Saigon and did what I had to do to survive.
War came again in late 1978. Vietnam invaded Cambodia and a few weeks later a Chinese army invaded Vietnam. People in the marketplace said that since the war began there was a new route to escape from Vietnam and start a new life. People went to Thailand and applied for asylum at the American embassy in Bangkok, they said. And the Americans let them in!
But how could I get to Thailand? I asked. Some people, I was told, organized groups to walk in the wake of the Vietnamese army. They crossed the Mekong River, avoided the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, and stayed safely near Vietnamese soldiers and finally sneaked past Thai soldiers along the border. It was not without danger, but it was said to be safer than going on a boat on the South China Sea where so many thousands disappeared.
I thought about Thailand for several days. Finally I decided to try. I joined a group of 25 travelers for the journey across Cambodia – or Khampuchea as it was now called. We were scheduled to depart in the early March, before the start of the rainy season. I was assured that mine was a good group because several members spoke both Khmer and Thai.
I paid the organizer several pieces of gold. She told me to pack some rice and dried fruit and vegetables in plastic bags for my daughter and me.
My daughter Thuy was six years old and did not understand what was happening. Other travelers told me she was too small and she would slow us down and she could not make it and that I should leave her in Saigon. I told them if it became necessary I would carry her all the way on my back.
They warned, “In that case you will be left behind, too. You will die in the jungles of Khampuchea with your child. You will be eaten by tigers. Do you want that?”
I said, “Ok. That is better than staying here and being starved by Communists.”
They laughed. “You think so?” They asked. “We shall see.”
I was afraid but I was not discouraged. We assembled on a street corner early one morning. An army truck that someone had hired took us from Saigon to the Khampuchea border. We climbed out and walked from there.
We crossed the Mekong River on a small ferry. In Cambodia the road was crowded with refugees moving west. Vietnamese soldiers passed us going in both directions. They were friendly and waved and sometimes spoke to us and gave us food and water and information on the road ahead. We stayed in Phnom Penh for one week resting and gathering supplies for the rest of the journey. The rainy season began. One day when it did not rain we left the city and headed northwest on the main road toward Battambang and Sisophon. Everyone was tired but filled with hope. I heard laughter now and then.
The further west we moved the more dangerous the route became. There were fewer Vietnamese soldiers to protect us and large numbers of Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some wore their old uniforms. But others wore Thai Army uniforms and a few even wore Vietnamese uniforms. All were unfriendly. Some stopped us and offered to protect us for gold. When our gold was gone, or when we said it was gone, they offered to help us for sexual favors from the women. When we refused sometimes they went away. Sometimes they stole women or children and we heard those being carried away crying for help from the surrounding jungle, their pleas growing more and more faint, mixing with the sounds of the birds and insects until they were gone.
One morning we had to cross a large mined area. Earlier travelers had marked the safe path through it with bamboo stakes driven into the ground. Everyone was terrified of the passage. The man leading us stepped carefully and told us to step in the footprints of the person in front of us. I was told I could not carry Thuy on my back. Her weight might cause me to lose my balance and one wrong step and we would both perish. A woman showed my daughter how to wrap her arms around my waist, stand behind me and step exactly where I stepped, almost as if we were one person.
Everyone else was told to walk ten meters apart so that if one of us set off a mine, the others would not be injured. There were rumors that each night some Khmer Rouge came into the area and placed mines in the safe path in order to discourage and kill refugees. After that they sold their services as a guide to lead people through the field. But sometimes they betrayed each other.
We entered the field behind a Khmer Rouge guide. Our own leader walked behind him and then one after another we waited and walked along the path. The pace was slow. No one said a word. When we were almost to a tree line on the far side of the field a man behind us, an elderly man who had been a school teacher at a Catholic School in Saigon before the fall of the South, stepped on a mine. I heard a sound, the man said, Oh, as if he’d stumble on something and lost he balance. There was a big explosion. I saw those in front of me halt and crouch. I did the same.
Mommy, what was that, Thuy cried.
I held her tight and answered, I don’t know. Just be still.
Pieces of earth and pieces of the school teacher rained down on us a moment later. Thuy was clinging to my back. She screamed. I was afraid she had been hurt. A piece of the teacher – what appeared to be part of his wrist and arm, fell on Thuy’s back and slid to the ground, leaving a long red stain on her dark pajamas. I brushed off what debris I could and embraced her and calmed her and put my open hand over her eyes until she was quiet. I hoisted her onto my back again, saw the man and woman ahead resume walking and followed them.
Days passed and weeks. I lost count. Thuy did not complain.
We passed along the shore of a large lake with a repulsive smell. When we asked what it was, some of the local people told us that thousands of young Khmer girls had been used to build a canal nearby by the Khmer Rouge. One day the Khmer raped and murdered all the girls and buried in mass graves. That is what caused the smell.
We were supposed to continue on to Arayanaprathet and where Thai soldiers would guide us through more mine fields along the Thai border and give us a ride to Bangkok where some of us might find work and others could find transportation to America after saving their money and applying at the American Embassy on Telegraph Road.
But somewhere southeast of Battambang we were stopped by Thai soldiers who were accompanied by UN workers. They ordered us into trucks and took us to a camp called Site 9 far off the main road in a clearing in the jungle. They told us it had been built specifically for Vietnamese refugees like us.
At the site there were several long houses on bamboo pilings that housed all the people. Thuy and I spent the next 18 months in Site 9.
I remember being afraid most of the time, in Site 9, even though we were there, the workers told us, for our own protection. It was a dangerous place. But we learned how to protect ourselves, what to do and what not to do in order to survive.
Every afternoon, I got away from the noise of that long house and sat under a nearby tree with Thuy. I taught her Vietnamese and English while we sewed some of our old clothes or fixed clothes that some of the Khmer soldiers paid us to repair. It was quiet under the tree and I enjoyed the beauty of the silence and I seemed to forget the heat or the bright burning sunshine and the hopelessness of Site 9.
Sometimes I stopped my working and looked at the mysterious beauty of death mountain. I called it death mountain because no plants and no vegetation grew on this ground. It was covered by tall dead skeletal trees. Nobody knew what killed everything on the mountain. It was supposed to be a haunted place. Anyone who walked through it, people said, died.
I watched the shadows and silhouettes of the trees as the sun passed overhead. I leaned my back against a tree and my face felt good when a breeze blew out of the forest and rustled the leaves of the living trees.
After she’d tired of seweing and studying Thuy lay on the ground next to me, her head on my leg, her pillow. She looked so thin and so pale and unhealthy. Sometimes I sang to her, some sweet old Vietnamese song. She fell asleep so easily when I sang.
It was so beautiful that I found I could sometimes forget the discomforts and indignities of the camp and even ignore the heat of the sunshine.
Before I went to the edge of the jungle with Thuy, however, I blackened our faces with dirt. I’d already used scissors to cut my hair short as a man and to make me as ugly as possible. Only in that way could the camp invaders and rulers be kept away from us. But it did not always work.
While she was sleeping I was watching what went on in that terrible building put up to house the refugees. I call it terrible because of the things that happened in it. It was a long house made of bamboo and above the ground on thick bamboo piles. But so many terrible things happened inside. There was just one big room inside for about 200 people in each of the many houses lined up side by side in the clearing. The people slept, argued, fought and made love there. It was built of bamboo and special jungle grass. There was no door and no windows, no privacy and it was so cold at night. The Red Cross just gave each person in the house a small thin blanket, much like a baby blanket. It could not cover my entire body. So I held Thuy in my arms at night and we kept each other warm.
All 200 refugees in this house slept in two very thin mats on the floor. Each family was separated from others by a mosquito net suspended from the ceiling. When children cried at night or someone snored or some couple made sounds of love, it awakened others and they yelled and complained and this was followed by arguments and fights in the dark.
I had trouble sleeping. I lay on my back and watched the moonlight through the long opening in the wall that served as a window. The moon looked so beautiful at night. Maybe because I had nothing to enjoy there but my daughter and nature, the moon, and the hope I harbored of someday finding a better life if we could cross the border into Thailand.
Every month when there was a full moon I stayed awake late and watched it. Sometimes I sat up to see better out the window. I remembered all the Vietnamese songs about moonlight and lovers. I felt at least I was lucky to be alive with Thuy. And I still at least had the moonlight to enjoy.
Sometimes in that late night reverie, I remembered things from the past in my family. I remembered my husband. I remembered my family in Danang, now all scattered. I was a refugee. I had no country. No identity other than that. I had no papers with me. My life and my fate it belonged to others. The only things that were mine were Thuy and a few dreams.
I constantly feared for our safety. Someone could kill us at any time without reason. I had seen this happen to others. I had seen Khmer and Thai soldier kill other women and men and carry their bodies off into the jungle to leave them to be eaten by animals. Then they reported to the Red Cross, if someone asked, that the missing person was seen trying to escape to Thailand
I felt so bad when I thought about this. I sometimes almost regretted leaving Saigon. What a life had been given to me, I said to myself. And why? What had I done in my past life to deserve this. What had all of these people around me, the ones crossing Kamphuchea, what had they done? Why?
But there was no answer for me. Not in this world. I would have to wait and some day ask God.
I leaned over and kissed my daughter. She opened her eyes and smiled up at me. Her smile was the smile of an angel and it pushed away the darkness.
“Mommy, I am hungry,” she whispered. “Is it time for dinner?”
“No,” I told her. “Not yet.”
When, Mommy?”
“Soon, baby.”
Again I felt sorrow cover me. “I am sorry, Thuy. But tonight we have nothing to eat but rice and salt.” My voice broke as I whispered to her.
“It’s ok mommy, she said. I like that. Don’t worry.”
So little and so wise. How did this happen? They gave us one small can of fish for a whole week. That was out protein.
I looked at my frail little girl, held her face in my hands, combed my fingers through her hair. She was 8 years old. And she had walked all the way across Cambodia with me. The things that had happened! She had suffered all that I had suffered and she had suffered it in silence. I was the one who cried. She was the one who comforted me. She seemed always to be trying to make me happy. Now in this border camp she had to suffer hunger too. I loved her so much. She never complained about anything here.
Suddenly I remembered an old debt. “Baby, I said to her, I just remembered the Kampuchea lady I loaned some food to on our walk. She is here. She owes me food, right? Two cans of fish?
“Yes Mommy. I remember her. I remember when you gave her the fish.”
“Ok, I will go to her this afternoon, I’ll go to her house and ask her for the food.”
Thuy’s eyes teared up suddenly and she shook her head. No Mommy, please don’t do that?
But you are hungry.
But Mommy she is a Kampuchea lady. It is dangerous. I am afraid. I am not hungry, really. Rice and salt is enough for me tonight.
I tried to hold back my tears when I saw the fear on her face. “Oh, God,” I said to the air. “Are you here? Do you see this?”
Look at you Thuy, I said. You’re so thin and pale. You need more food. You need protein. I think that woman will remember my kindness and give us fish. There will be no problem.
No Mommy, it’s better to stay home. Really Please.
She grabbed my hand as if to keep me seated and held on tight. Her voice was strong. I am not hungry for fish, Mommy. Please.
She smiled at me, in an effort to convince me that she was telling the truth. I’ll remember her smile, forever. It was the smile of a child when they pretend that they don’t need something that they do need. I pulled her to me and wrapped my arms around her.
Thuy, you mean so much to me. You are so brave, I told her. You make me so happy and so proud.
I almost forgot for a moment that we were in a death zone. That we were in this terrible lawless camp. Life is always beautiful I thought when you have someone to love and someone who needs you. I pulled her onto my lap. I kissed the top of her head and held her against me tightly.
Suddenly I felt her stiffen. She yelled, “Mommy, look! And she pointed to the distance.
What is it?
Thai men, she said. Thai soldiers.
I looked in the direction she was pointing and I saw them. Not only were the coming into the camp but some of them had seen me, on the edge of the jungle, away from others, holding my daughter. They were walking toward us quickly. They were all in Thai uniforms and they carried guns. There were seven of them.
I felt sick. It was too late. They were between us and the building. I stood. Thuy stood beside me her arms around my waist and her face buried in my stomach.
I should have noticed that the camp was silent. Other children and women had apparently seen the Thai soldiers approach and they had run into the houses and crawled onto their mats and now they watched out the long windows. Usually there had been cries of warning, but this morning there was not. When the warning came the women ran into the jungles to hide. But now with Thuy there was no way for me to run.
My heart pounded inside my chest. My throat constricted so I could not even cry or scream. I had to try to breathe.
I had made myself as ugly as possible so I hoped that the soldiers would pass me by.

They came to our camp often, usually waiting until the Red Cross and other refugee workers from the UN went home. Sometimes they accompanied the UN workers. Sometimes they waited till the workers left and came into the camp to do what they wished.
For that reason, I had cut my hair as short as possible with a knife. I also cut Thuy’s. And I kept my face covered with dust or dirt in order to look as ugly as possible. That was our only protection.
Now it was too late. By the time Thuy saw them they were walking directly towards us.
I froze and stared down at Thuy, holding her hand tightly, attempting through my grip to give her confidence. I felt her trembling. She’d seen many times what these men did.
I stood and Thy stood beside me, her arms wrapped tightly around my waist, her face buried in my stomach so she would not have to look at the soldiers and they could not see her face.
In the past there had always been a warning, someone saw them and shouted and women ran into the jungle to hide from them. But this time there was no warning. By the time I saw them I knew it was too late. If I tried to run now, with Thuy, they might shoot me. I’d seen them shoot down many people over the months I’d been in the camp.
As I stood waiting to learn my fate, my heart was pounding rapidly in my chest. I tried to slow my breathing, to contain my panic, for the sake of thuy.
I was wearing a filthy worn tunic that I’d taken from a dead soldier in the jungle several months earlier. I wore it and kept it dirty and each morning darkened my face with dirt and ran my fingers through my hair to mess it up. I needed to be as repulsive looking as possible to protect myself.
I dare not look up into the men’s eyes, but started at the ground a few feet in front of me until I saw their boots. A tall slim soldier who seemed to be the leader of the group, in his mid 20s, was staring at me without speaking. No word passed between us and the soldiers too were silent.
Suddenly the lead man laughed and I looked at up him.
“How are you?” he asked, with a tone both official and mocking.
He spoke English. I learned a little English in Saigon. This was so strange.
“I am fine. How are you? I replied
He smiled broadly.
“Good, good,” he said, studying me carefully. You speak English well. Where did you learn?
In Saigon.
From your husband?
In the school.
He motioned for me to sit and I sat down on the ground, Thuy still clinging to me.
We sat there, staring at each other for several minutes. He motioned with his hands to the other soldiers and dismissed them. They walked toward the barracks building and went inside. I heard them shouting questions and commands to the people inside. Still the soldier sitting in front of me said nothing and did not look away.
You are a beautiful woman, he said.
I did not respond. I was terrified.
Why is your face filthy? Why do you wear that jacket?
Again I did not reply.
I want you to remove your tunic and give it to me. I want to see how beautiful you are without it.
I didn’t move.
Do you hear me? Take off the tunic. It belongs to a soldier.
I summoned up my courage. I am sorry. I cannot.
Why not?
I am afraid of you. Thuy began to whimper softly against my body.
I want to keep the jacket. I want to wear it.
He said nothing and I continued. I am not pretty. You are wrong. I am an old woman. This girl is my grand daughter.
He reached out, and and touched my face then withdrew his hand
You are not this girl’s grandmother he said. You lie.
I am…
Before I could finish another lie he interrupted. “Don’t be afraid. I have changed my mind.
You changed what? Why?
We came here to find women. I came here with my men to find women.
I know, I said, in a quavering voice.
We are men. We need women. It’s nature.
He squatted a few feet in front of me. He put down his gun.
This is your child? I tightened my arm around Thuy.
He is afraid?
Take off the jacket.
I need it to keep me warm.
It is already warm
I need it.
He watched my face as I spoke to him.
You took the jacket from a soldier?
I found the jacket in the jungle
After a long long pause he asked, Why are you afraid of me?
Because of what I’ve seen.
I am not going to hurt you. Do you believe me?
I don’t know. I was unsure how to answer him. I’d seen soldiers approach women and use charm before flying into a rage and dragging them away into the jungle.
Some returned, later. Some didn’t.
Maybe I will just be a friend for you.
Because you surprise me. Because you speak English.
He extended his hand but I did not respond. He sat with his hand out looking at me, waiting, perhaps challenging, but I could not touch him.
Suddenly there were loud blood curdling screams and a commotion from one of the long houses. I knew one of the soldiers had found a girl hiding beneath blankets or under her bed.
More shouting and screaming and shouting and the sound of beds being overturned.
But the soldier never turned away, and he kept his eyes fixed on me.
Finally I returned his stare.
Do you know what that is all about, he asked?
Tell me what they are doing?
I released Thuy and covered my ears with my hands and began to cry.
Make them stop it, please, I said through my tears.
You want me to stop the soldier from doing what he is doing?
Yes, please.
He stood and walked quickly to the building, entered. There was shouting and suddenly it was quiet. He returned.
He returned and squatted again. Is that what you wanted, he asked.
Yes. Thank you, I said.
You don’t have to say that, he said.
What is your name, he asked.
I said nothing. He looked at Thuy, What is your name?
She too was too terrified to answer.
He looked away for a moment, in frustration. When he fixed us with his gaze again, he stood. My name is Chai Naroory [it sounded this way to me, but I do not speak Thai so I am unsure how to spell his name correctly]. He said. Remember that, please. If someone tries to hurt you, any of the soldiers, call out my name.
Say it please. I looked at the ground and said, Chai Naroory.
I will see you again. I promise, he said. After that he stood and walked away, leaving us there. The other soldiers, finished with their business soon emerged from the houses and the jungle and left together down the road they had come on.
But the next evening, after the UN workers left, the Thai soldiers returned, led by Chi Naroory.
I was eating a bowl of rice with Thuy outside out building. He approached and said hello. This time I said hello.
You remember my name?
Yes, Chai Naoroory.
Good, he said.
He looked at our food. “My God, this is what they give you?” he asked.
‘yes, I said.
This is all they give you?
I tried to smile. It’s ok.
There is no problem. We are accustomed to it now. We only need to put something in our stomach every day, I said.
My dog has better food than this he said. He was accompanied by a big dog that sayed near him while he spoke. It was non threatening. Indeed, he asked Thuy if she’d like to pet the animal and after assuring her it was safe, she reached out and ran her fingers through the animals hair.
After that he returned every day. Thuy and I ate together in the same spot and he always came to us. Sometimes he came alone, accompanied just by his dog. He always carried his gun. The other people in the camp watched us from a distance. None approached to talk. He began bringing us food.
We talked, always in English. He asked about my husband, about life in Saigon, about the war and the Americans. He wanted to know where I’d learned English.
He told me also about his life, about his education in high school and his stay in a monastery for one year. After that he’d joined the army. He said he had a girl friend in Phuket. He missed her very much, he said. He was in love with her.
This made med feel safer, I thought, when he spoke of romantic love and of his lover far away. I sensed in him none of the brutality I’d witnessed in the other soldiers.
He said he enjoyed practicing his English with me. He brought us sandals one evening.
I don’t understand why you are so kind to us, I said. Why is it?
He thought about my question, turned it over in his mind. It’s hard to say, he said. You know, sometimes, in your life, you find someone, you see someone, and it feels in your heart. And you wan to do something for them. You want to help that person. I felt that way, my heart was moved, when I saw you here with your little girl.
I did not come to make a friend. You know that. But I saw you and my heart changed. I felt, perhaps, ashamed of what I was planning to do when I saw how pathetic and frightened you looked.
This was your first time to come to the camp.
Yes. But I found I could not do it.
I am glad.
Some of the others hate me now.
We don’t hate you. The people here don’t hate you.

He liked to talk about his girl friend and how he missed her. I talked to him about Thuan and how I missed him. He became at ease with me, removed his sun glasses so I could see his eyes, sat close and talked in a low voice.
I hope you can leave here soon, he told me, after hearing some of our stories about crossing Cambodia. This is a terrible place. It is neither freedom nor death, but it is halfway between, one foot in each. No place else in the world is like this, he said. I’ll listen for news about getting out of here and do what I can to help you. But I am just a soldier, there is not much I can do, I should say.
I thanked him.
He came every week on Saturday. Then one Saturday he did not come. I went to my customary place outside the house and near the edge of the jungle, sat down with Thuy and waited but he did not come. As the day ended and it became dark I felt a strange feeling inside. I missed him very much. I waited and waited. Thuy fell asleep in my arms and the lights were put out in the long houses. Still I waited. I waited outside on the steps of the house for him. I lay down in a hammock and looked up at the sky and wondered where he was. I watched the stars come out. Still there were no visitors. When the sky was full of stars I lay quietly in the hammock and held Thuy tightly and cried. He was my only contact with the outside world, with the world beyond the border. And he was decent and kind and now he, too, was gone. I cared for him so much. The need to love that I thought was dead had crept out slowly and began as his kindness. And now it too had been stifled and I cried for myself and for him.
During the next week I tried to forget about him. I moved about more quietly, went through the motions of living. But again and again I found myself remembering him, his kind words, the sweets he brought to us, his smile when we smiled at him. His words about his love for his girl friend in faraway Phuket. She was so lucky. I was almost jealous of her. I found myself thinking that I must find a way to contain my feelings, my heart, in the future. This was too painful, growing attached to someone.
The next Saturday I stayed in the long house with Thuy. I lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling as Thuy played on the rough floor. I thought of the boy. Wondered what had happened to him.
I heard footsteps outside but did not get up. Someone entered the house. The familier voice said, Hello.
I opened my eyes and saw him again. He’d picked up Thuy and given her something sweet. She held the roll in her hand
I wanted to leap from the bed and embrace him. But I controlled myself. I stood up. He approached and held extended his hand. How are you, he said.
We are fine, and how are you?
I am sorry I was not here for two weeks, he said. I was given leave. I visited my girl friend in Phuket. There was no way to tell you.
I am happy for you.
Thank you.
I wanted to cry, I was so happy to see him. I held back my tears and listened to the music of his words.
Shall we go outside and talk, he said. I brought you some food. He handed me a plastic bag with rice and some vegetables in it and several small cakes and a copy of the Bangkok newspaper to read.
In English, the Post.
My girl friend says hello to you too. I told her about you. She hopes something good will happen soon and that you will leave.
Yes, tell her thank you also, I said.
He brought his dog with him and the animal was sitting beside him, licking Thuy’s feet as she petted his nose.
He is happy to see you too, the boy said.
We sat outside and talked, sat on small wooden stools. The dog lay down between us. After a while he said, Is something wrong. You seem different tonight. Did something happen?
No, I said. I just missed you. I am sorry, We just missed you. And your dog.
There were so many things going through my mind at that moment, confusing emotions and thoughts. I could express none of them and so merely said, Hello, it is a surprise to see you again. We missed you. Thuy missed your dog.
My dog?
Yes and she missed you too. And so did I.
He told us about his visit to his sweetheart in Phuket. I told her about you and Thuy. He took out a picture of the two of them standing on a beach with the blue sea behind them. He was not in his uniform in the picture. The girl was wearing white pants and a long sleeved white blouse in the sunshine.
I am happy for you, I said. I am happy you could get away from this place. He’d brought us food, again. And this time new rubber sandals.
Thuy began playing with the dog agan.
He sensed my melancholy in my silence. What is wrong with you, he asked. Has something happened.
No, nothing has happened, I told him. That is the problem. Nothing ever happens here. Every day it is the same. And then the soldiers come again.
I worry about my future. About Thuy’s future. What does the world hold for us. They ask me here, if I go to America, what job can I do. I don’t know. I have no idea what I’ll do and they tell me I must come up with something.
It’s big thinking, isn it? He asked. I think you’ll have a good life over there, though. Many Vietnamese come through here. They leave from the other camps and they go to America. I’ve seen them in camps in Bangkok. Some day you’ll be one of them.
Don’t give up hope, he said Please. I brought you a special present this time from Phuket.
He handed me a plastic bag and inside was a blue cloth purse designed in the Hmong design, from the Chiang Mai area, he said. Blue was my favorite color. It was a ball of blue yarn. I love it, I said. I can make a very beautiful sweater.
You can spend a lot of time doing it here, he said. Now perhaps you won’t be so bored. I saw you knitting one time and remembered.
I didn’t know you were even looking I said. I didn’t know you even noticed what we do when you are not here.
He had such a sweet smile when he saw my delight in the gift. His kindness and his caring moved me so deeply in this place where there was very little of either.
Thank you. I’ll remember thisI said to him. You make me happy. You are a very special boy. You make me remember love, what it felt like to be in love.
Then I am happy he said, and laughed. His teeth, I noticed, we so perfect and so white, his laugh so loud and genuine, and his greeting, as he clasped his hands before him and bowed, so unusual in this world we lived in.
There was a summons form an officer and her rose and bid me goodbye, held my hand in both of his and bowed again and left. The group of soldiers hurried away.
Moment later Thuy reappeared with the dog and I realized the boy had forgotten his dog. Now it was too late. I’d hae to care for him till the boy returned.
I told Thuy that the next time he came not to go out of my sight with the dog. He might be angry when he discovered he’d left the animal behind. But the dog was happy around Thuy, it followed her everywhere and snuggled up beside her when she sat down or lay down in her hammock.
I thought we could let the dog sleep beneath our hammocks at night until the Thai soldiers returned.
But the Kampuchea soldiers who came into the camp after the Thais left, and who treated the women just the same, saw it differently. They took over supervision of the camp.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Soon after the Thai soldiers left the camp, the Kampuchea soldiers, who were camped nearby came into the camp. They were afraid of the Thais and the Vietnamese, but they ruled this camp and the people in it and they had many friends among the Cambodians who were refugees also trying to get into Thailand and from there the West.
A group of them came to the camp. They learned from others that Thuy and I had the Thai soldier’s dog. They came to our long house. They came to me. Give us the dog, the leader of the soldiers said, a mean little man with a scar down the right side of his face and several missing teeth. He rolled up the long sleeves on his military shirt, wore shorts and rubber sandals and carried an AK 47 on a strap.
He pointed the gun at me. Give me the dog, he said.
I think I should keep the dog for the Thai soldiers, he said. If I do not they may be angry and there will be trouble.
Shut up and give me the dog, he responded, without sympathy, as if he’d not heard me. Where is it.
Will you keep him for the Thais?
Shut up, he said and shook the gun at me. We are going to kill that dog and if you do not give him to me right now, I will kill you and your daughter too.
I had seen this man kill several other refugees and drag their bodies by the heels into the jungle to leave them. I’d heard he did other horrible things, tortured refugees, took them to his camp. Terrible things.
Thuy appeared outside with the dog. The soldier turned when someone called to him and he hurried outside. He pushed Thuy aside and shot the dog two times.
I ran outside and picked up Thuy. The dog was flat on the ground, blood coming from his mouth, his eyes still open.
I covered Thuy’s eyes with my hand. “Oh, God…I whispered. Are you still up there. Are you far away? Please save us.”
The Kamphuchea soldier kicked the dog and then turned to me. He put his gun against my head and hissed at me, You are lucky your little girl brought this dog to me, if not, this would be you.”
I stood still and dare not move except for my uncontrollable shaking and the whimpers, soft whimpers of Thuy.
A Kampuchea soldier grabbed the hind leg of the dog and began dragging it away. “And one more thing, “ the soldier said to me. If the Thai soldiers ask you what happened to their dog, and if you tell them, I will find you and kill you. And I’ll cut your daughter’s throat, too. OK? Remember this?
I will remember this I said.
I knew from the talk of the other soldiers that they would cook and eat the dog. It was a big animal and a welcome feast for them. They left dragging the dog behind them, leaving a thin trail of blood across the ground.
Two days later the Thai soldiers returned and Chin Naroory was with them. I was sitting outside with Thuy and he came to us.
I left my dog here last time, he said. “Have you seen him?”
I looked into his eyes. I hesitated. “No, I didn’t see him, I said.
Yes we did, Mommy, Thuy said and I covered her mouth with my hand.
China roong squatted in front of us. What is the truth, he said. Where is my dog?
We don’t know anything, really, I said.
Why are you afraid, he asked. He looked angry. Where is my dog?
After a moment he said, I know why you are afraid. The Kampuchea soldiers, right?
I nodded.
He stood and went to the long house where the Khmer soldiers lived.
He wanted his dog he said, he asked what they had done with it. They just stared at him and didn’t respond. He left a short time later with the other soldiers, not saying a word to us.
Of course as soon as he was gone, the Khmer soldier returned, talked to the other Khmer and came to me.
I thought I told you not to tell the Thais we took his dog.
I didn’t.
Then why did he ask the men in that house, he said, and motioned toward the Khmer house with his gun.
I don’t know. I told him nothing.
I should kill you right here, he said. Right now. But I should beat you to death. You are not worth a bullet, you Vietnamese scum.
But as he spoke, even as I saw him lift his gun, there was a voice form behind us. The voice of Chai naroory. Stop it, he yelled. Stop it.
The Khmer soldier turned and saw the thai approaching.
Drop your gun damn you, the Thai ordered, without lifting his own weapon. Don’t point your god damned gun at a woman. Drop it.
A smile crossed the Khmer soldier’s face. He lifted the barrel of his gun and pointed it at Chai Naroory.
This is my gun, he said. I can do anything with it that I want. This is my land, not yours. Remember that, Thai, this is my land.
Chai Naroory strode forward bravely, brashly and stood before the Khmer soldier and Thuy and me. He grabbed the barrel of the gun and started to push it away from me.
The Khmer stepped back and Chai Naroory kept his grip on the barrel. Suddenly the Khmer soldier pulled it loose, touched it to Chai Naroory’s heart and pulled the trigger. There was one loud explosion. Chai Naroory stumbled back past us and feel flat on the ground, blood soaking the front of his uniform.
The Khmer soldier turned and ran into the jungle. Other Thai soldiers, hearing the shot came running, they yelled at the Khmer soldier as he ran away. There were several shots and all the men disappeared into the growth. Two Thai soldiers stopped and knelt beside their comrade.
I slumped beside him and looked into his beautiful young face. His eyes were half closed. He was already dead. He was not breathing.
I began to sob and Thuy knelt beside me also crying.
My tears fell on his face. “He just wanted to be a decent person,” I said in English, but the other Thai soldiers, I believe could not understand me.
He just wanted to be decent. He was in love. His girl friend is in Phuket. He brought us food.
I whispered in his ear, I will never forget you. I will never forget your kindness. You are always in my prayers. Then I stretched out my legs and rested his head on my legs. I ran my fingers through his hair. Thuy put her arms around me. I saw his lovely eyes. I looked up at the sky, so beautiful, so blue.
I sat weeping over his body until the other Thai soldiers came and picked him up and carried him away with them. That evening I took out the sweater I had been knitting for him. I carried into into the jungle and dug a hole with my hands and buried it along with what remained of the yarn and the knitting needles. I returned to my hammock and held Thuy in my arms and lay awake all night staring up through the open ceiling and the mosquito netting at the stars. I said a short prayer for Chai Naroory and one for Thuy and one for me and one for my husband and then I listened to the sounds of the jungle.

Three months later Pham Thao was notified that there was a sponsor for her in the United States, a church congregation in Wisconsin. She was transported to Bangkok where she was kept in another refugee center and after three more weeks flew to the US. She attended a vocational school and became a nurse. Thuy graduated from college and medical school and today is a pediatrician in Kaiser Permanente Hospital in ***** *****, California. She is married and has three of her own children. Her mother lives nearby.

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