By Nate Thayer
April 26, 2017
“The word refugee is a beautiful word. It sounds lovely and it’s easy to say. But the reality of it is like being buried alive”—Dara Than: friend; father; human being; political refugee
Dara Than died recently. He was a good man.
I knew Dara Than from his 12 years living in a UN run refugee camp along the Thai Cambodian border, and, after the war was , sort of, over when we reunited in Phnom Penh.
Last night, the international refugee advocate NGO, Refugee’s International, held an event in Washington, D.C. presenting awards to unsung, average, courageous people who have fought to mitigate the suffering of the millions around the world who today call themselves refugees, victims of the failures of political leaders.
Among the honored were the “Syrian White Helmets”, a grouping of 3000 Syrian volunteers who have devoted themselves to helping the civilians who have survived the carnage of warfare that has been ripping apart their country for the last 6 years. The “Syrian White helmets” have saved the lives of more than 90,000 Syrian civilians, going into the maelstrom of the horrors of conflict and pulling survivors from the rubble of aerial bombings.
“We have lost more than 176 heroes in the line of duty,” said Raed Al Saleh while accepting the award. “We dedicate this award to our thousands of volunteers and all those dedicated to life,” he said, and then quoted the Koran: “Whoever stays alive, it is the duty of all humanity.”
Every global refugee is a White Helmet struggling to save themselves and their own families.
Dara Than lived a meaningful life and spoke meaningful words from the big life he lived as a subject of dictators, as a free man, as a fighter for human dignity, and, perhaps most profoundly, his rich life as a civilian political refugee.
He never won an award. But he struggled throughout his life to survive being a member of the global refuse who through no fault of their own became refugees.
Dara Than’s life story was told well in a 2011 interview “Before the Laughter Began – Dara Than’s Story” by Gabrielle Yetter.
Dara was 15 when the Khmer Rouge took power. He lived under their rule. His family was separated. He lived under the rule of the Vietnamese occupiers. He served as a soldier in the Vietnamese installed government’s army. He was taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge. He fled to a UN refugee camp. He returned to Phnom Penh.
“Sometimes when I talk about those days, I can’t stop the tears. After 30 years, it may be forgivable but will never be forgettable,” he said.
Dara was arrested by the Khmer Rouge. He lived under their military conquerors. He fled for sanctuary to a UN refugee camp. He then was forced to flee that refugee camp back to government controlled areas. He was jailed by the government. He lived through the UN control of Cambodia, the elections, the coup d’etats.
Dara Than lived a life not unusual in the cadence of modern Cambodia, and one that reflected the unspeakable and unnecessary and profound sadness that represents refugees across the globe.
Dara Than died a few short years ago.
“I never thought I’d return to this kind of life. I just lived from day-to-day. There were no plans. It was all about survival. I look at what I have now and it makes me feel stronger,” he said in 2011 while living in the still unsettled wake of a lifetime of suffering and turmoil.
While attempting to find his father, Dara was arrested by the Khmer Rouge. He was locked in a dark room and then taken to a Khmer Rouge prison and chained with other prisoners to a steel bar.
“I knew I had to escape. I checked out the fence when I slipped away to urinate while the other prisoners were having lunch and decided I would try to get over it”.
When he found his mother back in his village, she’d been told by the Khmer Rouge Dara had been killed. He joined the government army.
“I was so angry that I joined the (government) army. I had no experience or training in how to shoot a gun but I was right on the front line every day. I saw several of my friends get shot and, one day, I was walking with three friends when a mine exploded, killing all of them. That was the day I decided to leave the army”.
Dara heard that there was UN food near the Thai border. Dara walked at night to the Thai border to get rice for his family. “We were allowed 15 kilograms at a time. My shoulders were red and swollen from carrying it so far, but there was nothing else I could do”.
Dara fled to live permanently in those UN refugee camps in Thailand in 1983. He learned English, and got a job with the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) to teach school in the camp. “In the camps, I was very low. I survived mentally by comparing my life to others and knowing I could get through it. That everything comes to an end.”
By 1989, working as an interpreter, he began work editing a UN refugee camp “news letter”.
The UN-run camp, known as Site Two, was under constant artillery attack from the Vietnamese army and its residents were conscripted, robbed, and abused by guerrillas from the non communist Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front.
Dara began a petition demanding a politically neutral refugee camp.
In 1989, a Time magazine correspondent interviewed him and promised to protect his identity, but they lied and used his name in print. Soon, Vanity Fair magazine published both his name and photo with the caption: “This is Mr. Than Dara, who wrote the petition for a neutral camp.”
I was the one who arranged, for pay from Time magazine, that interview with Dara Than. It is a role many journalists know well–being a ‘fixer’ that was often the bread and butter of young freelance journalists. I sat with them during the interview.
I am sorry, Dara. I know you know I was angry, too.
“I will never forget the name of that journalist. I could have been killed for being identified and I did not expect to be betrayed,” Dara Than said.
Dara Than was forced to flee the protection of the UN, through minefields and guerrilla front lines, and went to Phnom Penh.
He had no identification documents, which in itself put him at risk of being jailed or worse by both sides of the conflict.
His uncle and grandmother both turned him away from their homes, fearing for their own safety.
Dara turned himself into the police “admitting” he had been a UN refugee. He was arrested and jailed for 17 days before being released.
That was 20 years ago. Dara married, had children he loved, and grabbed every day as a free man by the throat.
Dara died a free man, sort of.
But Dara Than was a refugee.
That is what defined his life.