by Robert Ashe


An account of four days inside Kampuchea, 26 - 29 June 1980


It began at about 4.45 p.m. on Thursday 26th June 1980. I was in the border area of Nong Chan village on the Thai side and had just finished doing a food distribution for the thousands of Khmer refugees who had been driven out of their border camp on Monday 23rd June. The Vietnamese forces were still around at the 'back of the camp, but some refugees were going back into the camp to scrounge food and plastic sheeting before heading back for the temporary camp near the Thai village of Nong Chan.


We knew that there were still wounded inside the camp and one refugee had come out to tell us the location of a wounded man who had been lying there with a leg wound for three days. We had gone into the camp as far as the hospital in the morning but some undisciplined Khmer Serei soldiers had been in the camp taking pot-shots at-the Vietnamese, who had responded by lobbing some mortars into the camp. We could hear the mortar leave the tube about one and a half kilometres away, and we all hit the ground and started to count. Twenty seconds later it landed about one hundred metres away. This went on while we moved to the exit road out of the camp, alternatively running and lying flat as soon as we heard a mortar leave the tube. I made contact with the Khmer Serei and asked them to withdraw completely from the camp, so that we could start searching for wounded. So at about 4 p.m. we made our way back into the now silent camp and started our search.


I was accompanied by Dr. Pierre Perrin, the ICRC medical coordinator for the border. We were both wearing our ICRC badges and I was carrying a large Red Cross flag on a bamboo pole. We moved to the area where we thought the wounded man was and on the way found a house which had received a direct hit from a 105 mm shell. The bamboo and grass hut had been blown apart, clothes were strewn around and inside were the decomposing bodies of four people. We carried on, searching in the abandoned houses, but were unable to find anyone. Gradually we circled back to the main road through the camp, where suddenly a man appeared in front of us. He was clearly Vietnamese, unarmed and dressed partly in military clothes. He indicated that we should follow him towards the rear part of the camp, where there now appeared groups of Vietnamese soldiers in twos and threes. Rather than trying to withdraw immediately, we decided to go towards the rear of the camp in order to find someone who spoke English or French to discuss the matter of continuing to search for wounded within the camp. As we walked forwards, two photographers who were also in the camp, fell into line behind us.


Arriving at the back of the camp, we were told by signs to wait for a while, and our radios were taken away, thus removing our link with those outside the camp. At this point I noticed a field telephone wire running along the ground, coming from the direction of the camp and going back into the forest. It was clear that instructions were being sought from higher authority as to what to do with us. After about 10 or 15 minutes, we were told to proceed. 'We followed a Vietnamese soldier into the forest, crossed a small river, and passed through the burnt-out remains of the Khmer Serei camp. After about two kilometres we came to a fairly large grass-thatch building which used to be used by another Khmer Serei group. There were large numbers of Vietnamese nearby, and long lines of Vietnamese together with a few Khmer-driven ox-carts, were busy transporting captured rice and other items from the Khmer/Serei camp. The Vietnamese soldiers were mostly wearing olive green shirts, although some were wearing camouflage jackets. Many of those transporting rice on their shoulders were wearing shorts, and walked bare foot through the mud. We ourselves were a1ready wet up to the knees due to the flooded state of the trail. After halting for several minutes, during which time an older Vietnamese soldier examined our radios, we continued our walk. No-one responded to our questions and it was clear that no-one spoke English or French. It was difficult to identify anyone in authority as everyone wore similar uniforms and no-one carried any insignia of rank.


From there the trail deteriorated and it was impossible to stay out of the water. We tried jumping from one grass tussock to another, but often we plunged into deep mud. While receiving only an occasional smile from the passing Vietnamese, they did not appear openly hostile. Nearly everyone was on the move, either moving back into the forest carrying sacks or moving up to the front empty-handed to carry more items. About everyone hundred metres we passed a small armed group of Vietnamese soldiers stationary by the side of the trail, their hammocks slung in the trees and they appeared to be positioned there to guard the trail against flank attacks. On this part of the walk, I noticed that the field telephone wire had been joined by another and we seemed to be moving towards some sort of headquarters. Eventually at about 6.30 p.m. we arrived at a small side trail which led off to a thicker part of the forest.

Entering inside we found ourselves in a headquarters. The two telephone wires disappeared off to the side, and we passed by two radio transmitters. We were led to a small clearing where five hammocks were slung with their plastic covering, and were invited to sit down on a piece of plastic. Our radios were briefly returned to us before being taken away again by a man who appeared to be the most senior. Again our attempts to communicate in English or French were frustrated and I tried a smattering of Khmer. One of them spoke Khmer, but I was only able to pass on our nationalities and they made it clear we could not return to Nong Chan.


As we sat, they put up two small pieces of plastic as a roof for us, and suddenly produced a meal of rice, cooked together with some kind of bean, and a fried root vegetable. It was very edible, and was followed by seemingly endless cups of hot Chinese tea. As night fell, the mosquitoes began to appear and we started slapping ourselves, as they bit us mercilessly. After a while a soldier appeared with a plastic bottle containing a mixture of oil and kerosene for us to smear over the exposed parts of our bodies. Between the four of us, Richard and George - the two photographers, and Pierre and myself, we discussed the situation and what we thought the Vietnamese might do with us. It was clear that they meant us no harm for the time being, as we were being well taken care of. We suspected that again they were waiting for instructions from above.


We talked about the reaction from ICRC and others back on the Thai side of the border, and I said: "It's alright for us because we know what's going on, but for everyone else, it's worse because they have absolutely no idea of what is happening to us". To myself, I could imagine the news spreading from ICRC, to the members of the Christian Outreach team in Aranya Prathet, to ­Bangkok, to England, to other parts of the world, and I could almost feel the beginnings of a huge blanket of prayer which I knew would surely rise on our behalf.

After a while the soldiers suddenly appeared with two mosquito nets, which we could hardly believe, and proceeded to string them up for us. At long last, we felt we might pass a reasonable night, but shortly after we settled down to sleep, it began to rain. To begin with, we were able to keep dry, and we filled up our water canteens with the rain water that ran of from the plastic sheet. However, then the ground water started to come onto our ground sheet. It was impossible to lie down without getting wet and I tried to sleep squatting on my haunches. That was fine for dozing, but as soon as I fell asleep, I toppled over backwards into the water again. After a while I took the small sack of beans which they had given to us as a pillow and I sat on that to sleep. After carrying on like this for several hours, the rain eased off, and we tried to drain the water off the ground sheet, so we could stretch out. In this way we managed to doze for a couple of hours. At about 6.00 a.m., no longer able to stand the cold, we got up and started to move around to warm up. George showed us his hands, which were white and wrinkled. He had slept in the water all night and was wet through. He and Richard went to the cooking fire to try and dry themselves and their cameras. Pierre and I moved around trying to get warm again. The sky was overcast and there was no sign of sun.

Before long the soldiers cooked breakfast, which was the same rice with beans and some dried fish. We ate, although we were not very hungry. After a while the sun appeared and we tried to dry off our socks and boots which were wet through. A little later on, we slept until at 11.00 a.m. a small group of soldiers arrived, led by a young Vietnamese who spoke French, Khmer and a little English. He greeted Pierre first, and, before saying anything to me, asked Pierre if he knew     “Robert Ashe”. I already suspected that the Vietnamese knew my name and I could now see that they would want to question us further, and myself in particular. The leader told us that he had been sent to take us to the "province". We asked him where we were going exactly, but he would only say that it was about three hours walk to the nearest highway, where a truck would be waiting. After explaining who we were and what we were doing on the border, we asked him if we could return to Nong Chan to carry on our work. "Impossible", he replied with a smile. At 11.30 a.m. we left our jungle encampment and hit the trail. Much to our amusement, the lead soldier turned in the wrong direction and started heading back towards Thailand. We carried on for about 300 metres before he realised his mistake, and we turned around heading for the interior.


Along the trail there were very few dry spots and almost immediately our boots were full of mud and water. Since we were wet already this did not really concern us. It was only when we began to pass soldiers coming the other way who had trousers soaked up to the waist, that we began to worry. Sure enough before long we came to a river, which had trees laid across as a bridge. The only problem was that the trees were well below the surface, and we had to feel our way across more than knee-deep. All along the trail, there were groups of Vietnamese with the hammocks slung in the trees. After a while Richard's “disco” boots gave up completely. He had already lost the heel off one and the other was beginning to go. Also the nails were starting to come through and stick into his foot. No-one had any spare shoes, so it was a question of going barefoot.

We continued trudging like this until we reached a slightly higher area of land where the trees receded and it was much more like scrubland. Not far off to our right, I could make out some posts which were clearly the remains of some habitation. Here we stopped and the leader said that we would have to be blindfolded, as we were entering an area of military importance. This, we agreed to, and after being blindfolded we marched in single file with one hand on the shoulder of the man in front. We must have looked an odd sight and as we walked, we heard many voices speaking Vietnamese on both sides.


Later I realised that we had walked through Phum Preav, a Khmer village closest to the border in that area. It was obviously a fortified forward base of the Vietnamese and I doubt whether any Khmers remained to live there. On the far side of the village we stopped and our blindfolds were removed. We sat down on a log and our names and addresses were written down. Then the leader disappeared back towards Phum Preav, presumably to report to the leader there. While he was gone, we were surrounded by a group of unarmed Vietnamese soldiers, who regarded us with a great deal of interest. After 20 minutes the leader returned and we continued. Within 500 metres, we passed three piles of ammunition and three armoured personnel carriers, which were obviously there for the duration of the rainy season, judging by the state of the trail from there on. In another 500 metres, Richard stepped on a thorn and we waited 10 minutes while Pierre extracted it. One of the Vietnamese soldiers offered him his flip-flops which Richard accepted. However, he took one step and got stuck in the mud, so it was back to bare feet.


The trail soon straightened out and filled up with water. Before long we were going through water and mud up to our knees, and the trail turned into a flowing stream. We floundered around becoming more and more tired as our legs began to feel like lead from constantly lifting one foot after the other out of the mud. We passed some Khmers taking ox-carts or travelling on foot with shoulder poles, all on the way back towards Nimit. We also, surprisingly enough, passed two Khmer soldiers, who were pointed out to us as being part of the Heng Samrin forces. After what seemed like an eternity during which time we had waded waist deep through a river, and also been completely soaked by the rain, we came in sight of Phum Sorya, a small village not far from Nimit.

As we entered the village, we noticed about five large artillery guns positioned in the field to our right and what seemed like a military camp to our left with tents in the fields. Entering the village, the Khmers began to come out of their houses. It was an amazing experience, as they called back to others still inside the houses: "Robert's here." It seemed that nearly everyone had been to Nong Chan at some time or other to collect rice. We went to one house and sat down to rest for five minutes. The Khmers gathered round, especially the children, and they explained to the Vietnamese leader who I was. He translated it for me, saying that he already knew who I was before he met me because everyone had spoken about me. I looked round the houses in the village and was surprised to see several things. There were many Vietnamese soldiers living in the village and they had taken over houses interspersed with the Khmers. In and under the Khmer houses were sacks of rice and rice seed. This surprised me because it was clear that it had all come from Nong Chan, and yet firstly, it had not been confiscated by the Vietnamese, and secondly, it had not been confiscated by the village commune. Each individual had been allowed to keep his own stock of rice and seed. In each garden there were vegetables growing and on the high ground of the village maize was growing. As we continued our walk towards Nimit, a village on the main Poipet - Sisophon highway only one kilometre away, rice paddy fields came into view, and it was lovely to be able to see rice growing in some of them. Later I estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of the paddy fields in sight were already planted with rice.


The road between Sorya and Nimit was very bad and the Vietnamese had laid wood and branches down it to try and make it passable for their four-wheel drive army trucks. Arriving in Nimit village was another experience. I had heard all the stories before of the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime destroying all the cars and other vehicles, but there it was in front of my own eyes. Cars, trucks, tractors - stripped of every moving part, and just the body left lying along the side of the road or tipped into a pond. Without headlights they seemed like sightless, staring skeletons - a grim reminder of what Cambodia must have been like, and of the people whom I had seen escaping into Thailand last year. Along the main road, old Cambodian army trucks with red insignia still painted on lay end to end, and there was even an old Land-Rover. In various houses in the village lay all the parts. In one place piles of engines, in another, piles of wheels, and yet in another piles of doors - an incredible sight. Immediately we were surrounded by excited Khmers, and the Vietnamese had trouble keeping them away. We stopped in one house while the leader sent off to find a truck for us, but the Khmers crowded round the entrance, and peered in the windows. It was lovely to see their happy, smiling faces. The time was 5.30 p.m. and we had been on the march for six hours. We were looking forward to something to eat and drink.


After a while the leader returned to take us to the house of the Vietnamese leader, to try and get away from all the children. We sat in his garden for ten minutes, but were soon surrounded again. I thought it was great, and had a lot of fun, but the Vietnamese did not like everyone coming to take a look at these strange foreigners, and led us off to yet a third building which was some sort of barracks. The children could not get close there but they still peered in from far away. This time we were stared at by many curious Vietnamese. They soon appeared with hot Chinese tea, which was very welcome as we were all soaked through and were beginning to feel the cold as darkness fell. We wondered if we could get any dry clothes for that night as we knew we would freeze without. At about 7.00 p.m. the Vietnamese suddenly appeared with a meal - rice and vegetables. It was hot and we tucked in. Then to our surprise they came with two tins of corned beef, which had been donated from Holland! It was one of the best meals we had ever tasted. After the meal a man appeared who spoke English and said he was a political officer, and that we would stay the night at his base two kilometres away. We asked if it was possible to have some dry clothes for the night, and he said that everything would be provided at the base. We thanked him, and the soldiers for the meal, and left.

At the road there was a truck waiting and we all piled in together with our original escort. We were asked to sit down for the trip but through the truck sides we could see howitzers attached to army trucks, parked all along the road. The road was not paved but was made of laterite and had several holes. The bridges were wooden and did not seem to be in very good condition. We stopped by what seemed to be a deserted farm. We walked into the yard and went into a building which looked like a schoolroom. It seemed to have been set up for lectures and we sat down while we waited for the promised dry clothes. After what seemed an age, the soldiers placed plastic sheets on the wooden floor for us, and miraculously turned up with four mosquito nets. We kept asking for some dry clothes and eventually they produced four pairs of army trousers. This was just enough so that we could hang all our other mud­ soaked clothes up to dry. We were shown to the 'bathroom' which turned out to be the paddy fields, and then at 8.30 p.m. we "retired" for the night.


On Saturday morning, 28th June, we woke at 6.00 a.m. a little stiff from our night's sleep on the wooden floor. After breakfast, which again consisted of corned beef from Holland, we hung around waiting for something to happen. Eventually an older Vietnamese man appeared who was again dressed as all the others. He was introduced to us as the "Chief" and we sat down to answer some questions. My turn came first, and indeed the bulk of the questions were put to me through the French-speaking interpreter. After asking for name and nationality, he began to ask about food distribution along the border. His questions were angled at finding out how the operation worked, whether it was fair, and reached the people who needed it, or whether it fell into the hands of Khmer groups who then sold it. He seemed satisfied with the answers. Only once did he ask a question which I felt I could not answer. He asked why I gave aid out along the border instead of sending it through Phnom Penh. I answered that this was a question better addressed to the Head of lCRC as I was not qualified to answer. To my surprise he finished questioning me without once referring to the strengths of the Thai forces or the Khmer Serei forces. His questioning of Pierre, Richard and George was brief, and then he left. The interpreter asked us to wait for a while and after 20 minutes he returned to say that it had been decided to return us to Nong Chan that same day. However, first we must go to meet the representative of the Cambodian government. We dragged on our wet jeans again, giving back the dry army trousers, and walked out to the waiting truck. This time we were blindfolded as we drove the two kilometres back into Nimit and could not see any of the military installations.

Arriving at Nimit we were led to the upstairs of a row of shop­houses, and put into a room which seemed to be some kind of local jail. There were two men already in there, and a table with a half-full sack of rice. Through the window we could see the rice fields in the distance with farmers ploughing the fields, and nearer the back part of the houses lining the main road. All the houses were in a state of disrepair, and it was clear that no repairs had been done for years. Through the gaps in the houses, we could see the piles of debris, such as car engines and wheels, left behind by the Khmer Rouge. Outside the house we were in was a large swamp with litter everywhere. We sat on the floor to wait, and Richard started to check his cameras to see if they were still working after the mud and rain of yesterday. After a few minutes the leader of our "guards" returned and said that he had to take the cameras away, and also our pocket knives, but they would be returned later. After he had left, we began to glance anxiously at our watches, because we knew that the walk to Nong Chan would take six to seven hours and we did not want to arrive after dark, or spend another night in the forest.


We slept for a while on the floor, and then two Heng Samrin Khmer soldiers came in, who tried to speak to me in Khmer. Before long it was obvious that my limited Khmer was not going to get us very far, and I sent them out to look for the French-speaking interpreter­. They left and never came back. A little later, a Khmer civilian came in, announcing that he was the Head of Nimit village, and he would like to take us into the room next door to avoid all the children staring at us through the open window. He spoke quite reasonable French, and was friendly. Next door, a woman was quickly sweeping the floor and a mat was unrolled for us to sit on. He said that the Governor of Battambang was on his way to see us and would arrive in Nimit about midday and we could leave immediately afterwards. We could imagine that to leave that late would entail another night in the forest, so we settled down to get as much sleep as possible. When it was not possible to sleep, I got up and tried to talk to the Vietnamese soldiers and Khmer children who continued to stare through the door and the cracks in the wall. At one point a Khmer man approached me, asking if I spoke Thai. He then asked if many people had been killed in Nong Chan and I just had time to reply that only a few had died, when the Vietnamese told him to leave.

The children seemed happy, they played with the soldiers, some of whom were Khmer and some Vietnamese. It was lovely to see many pairs of eyes peering in through the cracks in the walls and windows. After a while the children went through the downstairs room and appeared up the inside set of stairs. They responded to my questions with shy giggles, before darting away, only to peer back again with renewed curiosity.


At about midday, the Khmer brought in some lunch, which consisted of rice and a small bowl of meat for us to share. The chief of the village said that the Governor had been delayed, and we could now expect him at about 3.00 p.m. As time went on we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not be returning that day. At about 2.15 p.m. the chief of the village cane in and said the Governor had arrived, and we filed out into the main street. A little way along was a house, slightly set back, outside which was parked a Mercedes Benz. There were a few Heng Samrin militia standing around outside. We walked inside the main front room which was fairly shabby. A man indicated that we should all sit on a wooden bench drawn up in front of a desk. On the desk stood a large stereo cassette player. Two middle-aged men detached themselves from the group and came to sit down behind the desk. One of them spoke French and introduced the other one as the Representative from the Prefecture of Sisophon. With the translator making a rough translation as he went along, the Representative began to read a long speech in Khmer, all of which was recorded. Beads of sweat broke out on the face of the translator as he struggled to rem­ember his French, and he kept apologising to us that his French was so bad. It was amusing to see him translate things about us being considered prisoners of war, about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in the past, and then having finished his effort to translate, wipe his brow and smile.


The message that came over was basically that they considered us as prisoners of war, that we had been caught by their revolutionary forces and their Vietnamese allies, that the aid which was handed out at the border did not reach the people but fell into the hands of Pol Pot guerillas and bandits, that the aid given there was illegal and should be passed through Phnom Penh, that in the name of justice they would release us, but it should not happen again, and that when we returned to our countries they wished us long life, good health and good success.


After finishing his speech, he asked us to write down on a piece of paper, a statement about ourselves and our work on the border. I whispered quietly to the others that we. should only write down our names, addresses, ages, occupations and the reason we were in Nong Chan on that day. Pierre and I wrote in French, while Richard and George wrote in English. After finishing we were all asked to read out what we had written, so that it could be taped. It was then translated into Khmer and Vietnamese, and I noticed that to the left of us and slightly behind was a Vietnamese man who asked questions and gave instructions very quietly in Vietnamese to the interpreter. After our "statements" had been read out, the Representative from Sisophon talked again about the illegality of our actions along the border and asked Pierre to make a verbal statement. Pierre did not want to say anything at all, because everything was being taped, so he just sat and shook his head. They pressed the question, until finally he said, "But I am just a doctor of children - very small children". At that they gave up.

We were told that we would stay one more night in Nimit, and the next day we would be taken back to Nong Chan. We trooped out and back to the house of the chief of the village, where we settled down to wait for nightfall. There were fewer Vietnamese soldiers around and again the children crowded round. I went to the doorway to talk to them in pidgin-Khmer, and both the Vietnamese and the Khmer children enjoyed it enormously. Soon there appeared a Khmer woman who asked if we liked to eat noodles. I replied that we did, and before long she appeared with four bowls of noodles. The Khmers were so kind, coming continually to offer us tins of mali milk, packets of cigarettes, etc. In .the early evening, the family of the house. brought in rice and a small bowl of meat to share. After eating we began to wonder if our luck with mosquito nets would continue for a third night. Already they were beginning to bite. Suddenly there appeared a succession of things - four toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste, two large mosquito nets, blankets, pillows. Then we were led downstairs, given packamars and buckets of water to take a bath. After the previous two days, we were glad to accept. Feeling much cleaner, we wandered upstairs again, where we were presented with a comb and a bottle of Eau de Cologne to finish off with. We could hardly believe it all. Then we settled down with the family and some of their neighbours to talk about various things in the flickering light of an oil lamp.


The chief of the village, who spoke some French, expounded the glories of the Revolution, how much progress had been made, and how good their Vietnamese friends were. While he did that, the rest of the family and the neighbours said to me, "Remember me, I came to Nong Chan to get rice!" They also indicated that they would go back again once the distribution reopened. After a while the chief brought out some notes of Heng Samrin money to show us and then he produced two rolls of red cloth, on which were pasted some black and white photos. He explained each one to us - some depicted work in the fields, others work in the factories, others still showed mass graves from Pol Pot times, while some showed scenes from Independence Day celebrations in Phnom Penh. It was very interesting to see. During the discussion, I thought to myself, how else could I have had the opportunity of staying in the house of a Cambodian family? If I had entered through Phnom Penh, I would probably have had a guided tour and not been able to see really how a family lives. Eventually they drifted away, and we settled down for the night.

The next morning, Sunday 29th June, we got up at 6.00 a.m. We were anxious to leave as early as possible because we knew that it would take about seven to eight hours to walk back to Nong Chan We waited and waited. At about 7.00 a.m. a woman from the market came up with some fried sweet bread over which we poured some of the sweetened condensed milk. Then it was back to waiting again. Time dragged on and George speculated that the Vietnamese had changed their mind and were not going to release us after all. Then at 9.00 a.m. our original Vietnamese escort, with the French-speaking leader, appeared, and calmly announced that in view of the long distance to Nong Chan it had been decided to put us back across the bridge at Poipet, and a truck was outside waiting to transport us. We breathed a sigh of relief, firstly because at last we were moving and secondly that the long walk back through the mud would not take place. My hopes of seeing more rice fields between Nimit and Poipet were soon dashed. As we climbed into the truck, we were told to sit down, and we were then blindfolded. The truck bumped along, occasionally slowing down for bridges or particularly bad parts of the road. Every now and then the truck would stop and we could hear soldiers climbing on and off. After what seemed like a very short time, the truck finally stopped and we took off our blindfolds.


All around us we could see the trees and bushes beginning to creep onto the road, and filling the houses. We seemed to have passed through the centre of Poipet and were almost at the circle before the bridge. A trench had been dug across the road, so the truck could not pass. We began to walk forwards, going round the circle, passing the dilapidated concrete houses, which must have been Immigration, Customs and Police offices in former times. At the other side of the circle we were met by some more Vietnamese soldiers, who were standing beside a barrier which straddled the road. The Vietnamese soldiers all left their guns at the barrier and we walked around it. As we walked forward, the leader told us to fall into single line and to place our feet exactly in the footsteps of the man in front, as there were many mines. We came to another barrier in the road, and skirted to the left of it. Beyond that two large holes, one after the other on opposite sides of the road, had been dug and we walked close to the edge. Finally another trench in the road and a strong barrier, where there was only one small gap. We were warned to be especially careful coming though the gap, not to touch anything and to step all the way through. Beyond that lay 20 metres more of road, and then the bridge.

We walked to the beginning of the bridge, and the leader called the three Thai soldiers standing on the other side. He explained in Khmer who we were and asked the Thais to accept us back. The Thai soldiers immediately went to get their officer, who came to check the story. He then went back to radio for further instructions, while we joked amongst ourselves that maybe the Thais did not want us back. However, after ten minutes of waiting, the Thai soldiers returned and we were allowed to cross the bridge. In the middle of the bridge we said good-bye to the Vietnamese leader and then shook hands with the Thai soldiers. The time was 10.00 a.m. - a memorable experience and one that I would not have missed.