In 1979 a small group of Khmer Rouge soldiers abandoned its post and walked into Cambodia's jungle carrying nothing more than some basic supplies. In an extraordinary tale of survival the soldiers managed to survive 25 years before returning to civilization earlier this month.
Mon Rae was only 13 when he joined the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as a child soldier in the 1970s. Two years later he fled his post, and Cambodian society, as the Khmer Rouge's murderous communist regime crumbled and lost power. Carrying what they could Mon Rae and a small group of other soldiers and their families made their way into the most remote parts of uninhabited jungle in northeastern Cambodia.
Roughly 25 years later, Mon Rae, now 40, his wife Aat and their seven children, along with the other families who fled, emerged earlier this month from their long isolation.
In an exclusive interview, Mon Rae tells VOA's Khmer Service about his life on the run.
He says after their clothing wore out they used tree bark and leaves for clothes. While walking in the jungle, they sometimes found old clothes and old shoes that they would pick up and share with each other and their children. Sickness and hunger were common.
They ate what fruits and plants they could gather. The only meat they ate was from animals they caught in traps. The only medicine they had were herbal remedies brewed from roots and leaves.
According to Greg Stanton, director of the Cambodian Genocide Project and president of Genocide Watch, Mon Rae and his group weren't the only Cambodians to flee into the forests.
"The Khmer Rouge fled when the Vietnamese invaded in Christmas 1978 and took control of Cambodia," noted Mr. Stanton. " So a lot of Khmer Rouge fled up into border areas and were in the border areas for 15 or more years in many cases. In fact, there wasn't really peace until about 1998 when all of these groups gave up their arms and surrendered."
During the 25 years that Mon Rae and the others lived in the jungle, they avoided all contact with other humans. As their numbers grew to more than 30 and the struggle to survive became more challenging, Mon Rae says they decided it was time to come out of the jungle. When they emerged, they were unaware that the Khmer Rouge had fallen from power and that its leader, Pol Pot, was dead.
The former refugees, all members of the Krung ethnic minority, have settled in a small village in an undeveloped part of the Ratanakkiri province, about 400 kilometers northeast of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Mon Rae says he is happy to be back in society.
He says his family is happy living in society. One day he would like to be able to afford some of the comforts of modern life such as a car and a house. He also wants his children to go to school to learn how to read and write.
Mon Rae says he was forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child. According to Greg Stanton with the Cambodian Genocide Project, the Khmer Rouge routinely engaged in forced conscription of children under the age of 15.
"The Khmer Rouge especially used child soldiers to carry out their killing," added Mr. Stanton. "They found that they could get children to do things they just couldn't get adults to do. In fact, they had whole training programs in which they first got the children to torture and kill small animals and then they sort of moved up to human beings. So actually, a lot of teenagers were used as guards and soldiers by the Khmer Rouge."
The radical communist Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. An estimated two million Cambodians were killed or died of starvation, disease or overwork during this time. Although the most famous Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died in 1998, many of the leaders are still alive, but aging.
Last year the United Nations and Cambodia announced that they had agreed to put former leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial for genocide.
The tribunals will not prosecute lower-level foot soldiers, like Mon Rae, who is adamant that he did not commit any atrocities.