Out of Asia's daily refugee dramas, a tale of rare courage. Three families tred to freedom.

AT 3 a.m. on April 14, 1986, after years of trying to escape to a new life, a group of 16 Cambodians fled from a refugee camp in Thailand. Their destination: the United States. It was the beginning of a journey that has astonished refugee aid workers in the region.

These men, women, and children, interviewed at a refugee camp here, trekked hundreds of miles across four countries, suffering hunger and imprisonment. To succeed, three adults learned three foreign languages and collected tips on how to survive along their long march to freedom. At one point, they swam for over seven hours at night across the ocean waters from Malaysia to Singapore.

They were of three families (Men, Lim, and Dan), three religions (Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim), and ranged in age from one to 44 years. Often, when they feared all hope was lost, they prayed - some to Buddha, some to God, some to Allah.

Their journey is a tale of unusual courage, determination, and providence - unusual even in comparison with the thousands of other refugee dramas occurring daily in Southeast Asia.

It shows how decades of tragedy in Indochina continue even today, and how the increasingly restrictive immigration policies of many Western countries make the lives of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, more desperate.

This is the story of the Men, Dan, and Lim families, told during more than 20 hours of interviews.

All 16 had been victims of communist forces in Cambodia after 1975: first under the Khmer Rouge and its nearly four years of massive killings, then under Vietnamese troops who occupied the country after 1979. They lost many close relatives either to starvation or execution. One of their leaders, Dan Rossaly, lost his first wife and baby daughter to a land mine, and his second wife in a mortar blast. He finally left Cambodia in 1985.

Before the three families met, each had made its own separate escape from Cambodia, walking through jungle, harassed by bandits and soldiers. Once in Thailand, they moved from refugee camp to refugee camp.

Each of the three families eventually went to Bangkok, hoping to be accepted for resettlement abroad with the help of the US Embassy or the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ``They say to wait,'' said Dan Rossaly. ``But we wait for years. There is no hope.''

Instead of being resettled, they were jailed by the Thai government for being illegals. It was in jail that they all met. They were all later sent back to a refugee camp on the border, where they lived together.

While in jail, Saur Sarik, the wife of Men Sambo, a Protestant who spoke French, learned English from a French-English dictionary, given her by Christian missionaries.

This, and knowledge of other languages, was vital to the group's success. Lim Pagna, a teen-ager traveling with his sister Lim Dila, learned Thai during four years as a Buddhist monk in a Thai monastery. Dan Rossaly, a Muslim, learned Malay, which is a language used in Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim countries. He also picked up something else.

In the Bangkok jail, one of Dan Rossaly's cellmates was from Burma and had traveled to Singapore often, illegally working his way from Thailand down through the Malaysian Peninsula. Each time, the Burmese was arrested in Singapore where he took odd jobs, and was sent back to Bangkok on a Thai fishing boat, only to repeat his journey again.

Using a map of Asia from a Qantas Airways magazine, during the four months in prison, the Burmese taught Dan Rossaly the details of the trip - how to change currency, what to wear, and which Malaysian towns were safe resting points.

In late 1985, all 16 members of the group were sent from jail to a refugee camp known as Site 2. They feared being close to the fighting between Vietnamese troops and the three Cambodian resistance groups that operate near the border. Even worse, they feared that the men would be drafted by resistance groups to fight the Vietnamese.

``I cannot go back, cannot stay in village [the refugee border camp],'' Men Sambo, the oldest in the group, said. ``Even if dangerous, I have to do it. If we escape and no one helps us, we will keep escaping until somewhere they will.''

So the three families plotted their escape - to Singapore, where, they hoped, the US Embassy would approve their immigration. Men Sambo could get them out of Site 2, Lim Pagna knew the safe way to Bangkok, and Dan Rossaly had learned how to get to Singapore. The plan started on April 10 when Dan Rossaly overheard Lim Pagna talking about escape.

Four days later, on the Buddhist new year, when they knew the guards would be drunk, the group arose at 3 a.m. and, in small groups, sneaked out of the camp disguised in the ragtag dress of smugglers, who are so common that they are often ignored by the guards. Instead of carrying the smuggler's traditional bags of rice, they carried their three small children in sacks.

The group broke through a fence, shed their smugglers garb, released the children from the bags, and walked for three days, with Lim guiding them to evade military checkpoints. Arriving in Aranyaprathet, they boarded a train to Bangkok.

Among them, they had about $250 in Thai currency. To avoid detection in the Thai capital, they slept under a bridge. The next day, they took a train south.

Before they reached the border, however, Thai police boarded at one stop, searching for suspected communist rebels who operate in southern Thailand. ``We were afraid,'' said Dan Rossaly. ``We had split up the group among the seats. We agreed that if one person were captured, the rest of us would ignore him.''

The police passed them by.

At the border town of Sungai Ko-lok, they got off the train to avoid passport control. Dan changed currency and prepared to enter a Muslim country. The women bought traditional Muslim clothes, long head scarfs, and long skirts.

They paid for a short boat trip across the border. Dan, the only one who spoke Malay, began to doubt his original plan to take a train or bus through Malaysia. ``They could catch anybody. And it is very bad when they catch you,'' he said.

They walked for several days to the large coastal city of Kota Baharu. There, in a bus station, they bought a detailed map of Malaysia.

They also bought 16 doughnut-shaped, inflatable, red ``balloon plastic'' tubes. These they would need for the long swim to Singapore. They cost $1 each, a large but necessary investment.

From April 21 to May 26, they walked down the east coast of Malaysia, making 10 to 15 miles a day and relying on Dan's notes from his Burmese adviser.

It was vital to avoid about half a dozen police checkpoints over 450 miles of rural terrain. They walked at night or down railroad tracks. They slept in rubber plantations or in the forest. They ate coconuts found lying on the ground or crabs they caught in the ocean. They occasionally bought noodles or rice for the children.

They kept to themselves, pretending, with sacks over their shoulders, to be farmers. If Dan asked for directions, he would ask only old men, and would say he was from the next village. No one helped them, and they didn't ask for any help.

``We always talked to each other. We had strong solidarity,'' said Dan. ``We decided to be brothers and sisters, we told each other of our lives under the Khmer Rouge, under Lon Nol [1970-75], under Prince [Norodom] Sihanouk [1954-70].''

After five weeks of walking, they reached the tip of Malaysia. From Joho Baharu, they looked across a causeway stretching two-thirds of a mile to the modern city-state of Singapore.

They couldn't cross the bridge legally. And, if they wanted to avoid capture, they couldn't swim near it. Nor could they start their swim at the crowded part of the shoreline.

``Over there, I saw a light ... so so far,'' said Men Mealiney, teen-age daughter of Men Sambo. ``In the day maybe we can't swim, but at night, water goes down, is calm.''

So they waited until just after nightfall and entered the water farther up the peninsula. They blew air into the plastic tubes, and set out, holding the children's heads above water.

``At first, I think if I swim this, I will die. Then I start to swim. The moon is rise up and I pray no moon, swim without being seen. I pray, and the moon goes dark in clouds,'' said 18-year-old Rim Raismay, one of two nephews adopted by the Mens when his family was ``lost,'' that is, relocated out of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge.

After more than an hour of swimming, they reached land, on another small peninsula of Malaysia. The tubes proved unreliable, but they swam on, to yet another peninsula.

By then it was midnight. Most of the tubes were no longer of use. Two of the men walked into a small fishing village and took two pieces of plastic foam, each about a half a foot thick and three by four feet wide.

``It was the only thing we had to steal [on the trip],'' Men Sambo said. Without these rafts, they knew they couldn't make it.

``We put the babies and little children on the boards but we swam and pushed the [plastic foam],'' said Saur Sarik. ``It is very horrible. We prayed and prayed to the God, help us or we will die in the sea. Lord, don't let someone catch us or something bad happen to us.''

Her older daughter, Mealiney, remembers, ``Somewhere where I swim, water flow so strong. My cousin help me to get past that place.''

When a Singapore marine police boat came near, they kept their heads low in the water.

At about 3 a.m., they reached shore. They landed on a duck farm near Lim Chu Gan area in Singapore. Not caring about the smell, they cut some large leaves for sleeping mats.

``Maybe 5 o'clock early morning we all woke up and wash faces with sea water. Some of us, no sandals,'' says Saur Sarik.

They walked to a road, asked directions from an old woman, and boarded a bus heading for the skyscrapers of downtown Singapore - and to the US Embassy.

``I think `My life OK!''' said Dan Rossaly. ``I no longer afraid.''

But they were hungry. And smelly. So partway to town they got off the bus and went into a cafeteria. They had never been in one before, and didn't know how it worked.

They felt strange under the eyes of the customers, went into the bathrooms, washed off the residual duck, and boarded another bus.

Once downtown, many taxis passed them by. Finally, one stopped. When the driver heard their story, he stopped two other taxis, and all 16 refugees were taken to the US Embassy for free.

In the embassy courtyard, the group was met by US personnel.

``We are refugees,'' Dan Rossaly told them.

Men Mealiney recalls, ``We sit on the floor, no water, no rice to eat, people say I pity, give us money.'' One American dropped an envelope containing $30 in Men Sambo's lap. They were given water, cigarettes, and chocolate.

The Singapore police and UN refugee officials came. The group was taken to the UN office, where again they told their story - and had a big lunch.

``It's almost impossible to think that such a large group of different families could have come so far,'' said Mirza Kahn, the UNHCR official who interviewed the group. ``I know of only about eight refugees who swam the straits in the past four years - and they were all single males.''

The Singapore police did not believe their story at first. ``You bluff, they said. You came on ship. `No, no, I walk and I swam,''' remembers Men Sambo, ``No, [the interrogator] took off his shoe and hit me in the head. I am lucky it is a rubber shoe.'' The Cambodians led the police back to the duck farm to the leaf sleeping mats and plastic foam, still lying on shore.

``You were lucky,'' the police told them.

Maybe, maybe not. Under Singapore law, the group had to go to jail. UNHCR officials went to the jail only once after that, according to the Cambodians, and promised to help them.

Men Sambo recalls, ``I am very happy that time. If you are in an immigration jail, you go soon to another country.''

After 5 months in jail, the group was asked by Singaporean officials whether they preferred jail or being sent back to the refugee camps in Thailand.

``Indochinese refugees entering Singapore illegally are not allowed to be resettled out of Singapore,'' Mr. Kahn said.

The choice was agonizing, but clear. In jail, they were often hungry. The cells were crowded. Their health was bad, they were separated, and they had given up hope. They agreed to go back.

``I cannot speak, because I pity the children. It is very terrible. I am very sorry and I regret my trip. My tear drop and drop,'' Men Sambo said.

At noon on Oct. 17, the families were put on two large Thai fishing boats, given some food and money, and sent off.

About an hour after they left Singaporean waters, a storm came up. The boats took shelter at an island off Malaysia's western shore. The Cambodians begged one of the Thai captains, who spoke Khmer, to help them escape again. He took pity on them.

``He agree to me,'' said Men Sambo, ``if possible he will land us.''

They spotted a wooden boat, powered by two blue-and-white sails. The Thai boats pulled up alongside. It was an Indonesian boat that had just unloaded a cargo of lumber in Malaysia.

One of the Indonesians pulled a knife.

``I am Muslim,'' Dan Rossaly yelled at him.

``So am I,'' said the Indonesian. ``I will help you.''

``But I am 16 people,'' Dan remembers saying.

``I don't have enough food.''

``We have food.''

The knife was put away, and the Cambodians boarded the sailboat. ``Hurry, before the Malaysia police come,'' the Thai told them.

The 16 were off again, on another escape. ``How many happy were we!'' Saur Sarik said in what she described as her ``under-construction English.''

After a two-day sail across the Strait of Malacca, they landed on Padang Island. The Indonesian boat-owner told the residents of his home village about his extra cargo. The villagers came to visit the Cambodians, bringing food, clothing, candy, and money. Then the boat owner took them to the provincial capital, where they were put in an unlocked jail. He asked that they be allowed to resettle in Indonesia.

The government said no.

The police asked them to tell the villagers about the communists in Cambodia.

Ten days later, the group was taken by the UNHCR to a refugee center on Galang Island in Indonesia. They were interviewed by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. After four months, 15 of the 16 were told they could go to the United States.

One of Saur Sarik's adopted sons, Rim Vantha, remains in Galang; the reason for his rejection by the US is unclear. Sarik hopes he will be allowed to follow her next year. She says, ``I will sponsor him, but I don't know about the government. They told me [it would be possible]. But sometime they change their mind. My soul always fly to him in Galang.''

In May, the 15 Cambodians flew to the Philippines to go to a special refugee processing center for a six-month training program in English language and American culture. Here, the group celebrated freedom - and a wedding between Men Sidana and Lim Pagna.

By late September, all but one member of the Men, Lim, and Dan families will be in the US. Their escape, with the possible exception of Rim Vantha, will be finished.

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