Khmer Rouge: Final Days 1998

It was an usual exodus. In mid- May 1998, amidst the clouds of dust in the sweltering heat, thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families made their way down the Dong Rek mountain range into neighboring Thailand.

The thumping sounds of distant artillery inside of Thailand, just a few kilometers away, created an eerie sound track for the moment, as the sick and weary made their way to the safety of Thailand. For most the journey had been a month from Anlong  Veng. Families were in the jungle waiting out the fight between the Cambodian government forces and the Khmer Rouge.

Exhaustion showed on the faces of the people I saw coming down the mountain range as Thai journalist Prasit Sangrungreung and I photographed the refugees as they made their way into Thailand.

The scene was out of a movie as the exodus of refugees came in a procession  of tractors, trucks, earth movers, sitting on top of their belongings, as dust kicked up from the trucks and tractors that headed for the refugee camp at Phu Noi, near the Huay Samran reservoir.

From our truck, we took out bottles of water and passed them around to the people who sat on the ground to rest.  Most had not eaten in days and accepted the water we gave them, passing it to the children first.

We headed for the refugee camp a few kilometers away near a small stream.  As we entered the camp, people were already washing clothes in the water as children splashed in the water to cool off.  A UN water truck was in the middle of the camp filling up two large water tanks as the refugees filled up jars, bottles and buckets.One truck sprayed waters into two smaller jars as children jumped in the middle of the water.

As the fighting continued inside of Cambodia, the wounded were transferred to the camp where a field hospital was set up.

Foreign doctors attended to the wounded soldiers who arrived in pickup trucks. Thai nurses assisted with the wounded who arrived over the next few hours. Scores of children lay on makeshift field beds, the majority suffering from malaria.

Later that afternoon, Prasit and I headed back to the border, hitching a ride on a Ford tractor headed back up the Dong Rek hillside to Cambodia, along with a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers returning to join the fighting. A makeshift camp was set up as Khmer Rouge soldiers sat listening to a radio playing Thai rock and roll music.

A Khmer Rouge officer greeted us in a clearing, one kilometer from the border. Prasit spoke with him as he drew a map in the ground of the areas where the fighting still raged on. Smiling he said…”This is not the end. We are prepared to continue our fight and we will not give up.”

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