Refugees — 40 years later

Photos from the Thai-Kampuchean border, 1980

The photographs in this exhibition were taken between May and September 1980, in the Thai-Kampuchean border area around Aranyaprathet, Thailand. Most were taken in the two main refugee ‘holding centres’: Khao I Dang (KID) and Sakaeo. Others are from the so-called “border hamlets” of Nong Chan, Nong Samet and Nong Mak Mun, which were both crossing points and sanctuaries for non-Khmer Rouge resistance groups against the Vietnamese.

Sakaeo camp was opened on October 24th, 1979, and Khao I Dang on November 21st. The refugees who first reached Sakaeo were with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, and in very bad condition, and photographs from that time attracted universal attention through the media. Although similar circumstances were anticipated at KID, the initial influx was less than expected, and the physical condition of the people arriving was generally much better.

By May 1980, the situation had improved tremendously, and chronic malnutrition was becoming rare. The population of KID had swollen to 130,000 and a huge bamboo city was still under construction.

Colin Grafton, Remembering Cambodian Border Camps 8

It was becoming a showpiece for the major aid organizations like ICRC and UNICEF, together with dozens of NGOs from many countries. Many of the refugees in KID were originally townspeople, and they quickly managed to put together some semblance of the urban life they had lost. The black garb of the DK regime was shed like a snakeskin, and people began to wear colorful sarongs, as if in celebration of a newfound freedom. The atmosphere was one of hope and optimism for the future.

Remembering Cambodian Border Camps (With Credit)

This was a great contrast to Sakaeo, with a much smaller population of 30,000, where the Khmer Rouge still held sway over the inhabitants, and expected to return to Kampuchea as soon as possible to fight against the Vietnamese.

In May and June 1980, on the border at Nong Chan, the ‘Land Bridge’ was launched, a massive operation in which tens of thousands came from inside Kampuchea to collect rice and rice seed. This is the main focus of the photos from the border area.

Colin Grafton, Remembering Cambodian Border Camps 6

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