What Made Dozens Of People Hide In The Laotian Forest For Years?

An interview with reporter Corinne Purtill about an extraordinary community.
Ly Kamoun hid for years in the forest out of fear that war was still raging in Cambodia.
Ly Kamoun hid for years in the forest out of fear that war was still raging in Cambodia.
Corinne Purtill

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Corinne Purtill on her new book, "Ghosts in the Forest."

In 2004, American journalist Corinne Purtill met with a group of people who had been living alone in the forests of southern Laos for years, seeking refuge from a brutal war. What they didn't know until they left their community in the woods was that the violent rule of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge had actually ended a quarter-century earlier.

Years after meeting and reporting on the group, Purtill decided to return to Cambodia and reconnect with the men and women who had rejoined society after so long in isolation. What she found through extensive interviews with them -- especially Ly Kamoun, who goes by "Moun" -- was a far more complex story than they first told in 2004.

The WorldPost spoke with Purtill about her experience reporting on the lives of these 34 hideaways, which she has chronicled in her book Ghosts in the Forest.

What compelled you to dig further into this story after the initial reports?

I had come across the story when I was a reporter at the Cambodia Daily. My colleague there was one of the very first people to break this after he found it through one of his sources in the province.

Going up there initially to meet the group when they first came out of the forest, to talk with them about the bare bones of the experience, it was just such a fascinating and compelling story. All the questions it raised of survival, of isolation and of what compels you to keep going in those circumstances. It just stayed with me.

I went back to the U.S. and was working at a newspaper in Arizona when a friend asked me a few years later what became of them and if I knew anything more. There was so many questions I still had, and I thought it was worth exploring further.

In the book, you touch on some of the different factors that led them to stay in isolation. Why do you think they stayed for so long?

I think fear played such a huge role in it. The circumstances that they lived through and the circumstances of Cambodia at the time they went into the forest were really terrifying. Moun and the other men that were in the group he was with had been conscripted by the Khmer Rouge as young children, 14 or 15 years old.

The Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia were deadly and chaotic. It was a really terrifying time. When the Vietnamese invaded, even though it did end the rule of this horrifying regime, it was also very frightening for people. No one was really sure what would happen, especially people still under the control of the Khmer Rouge like Moun.

“To be so cut off from what was going on in the broader politics of the world, it was a very frightening time for them.”

He was told that if the Vietnamese find you, they'll kill you, they'll eat your liver, they'll kill your children. The Khmer Rouge would also kill them if they escaped -- there was no sense of trust. When you consider those circumstances, it makes more sense why someone might say that they're willing to risk it on their own, because the unknown is a safer bet than the terror of what is known.

There was also really no way to get information. To be so cut off from what was going on in the broader politics of the world, it was a very frightening time for them.

Ly Kamoun and his daughters in 2008.
Ly Kamoun and his daughters in 2008.
Corinne Purtill

Are there any parallels with other "hideaways" like Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda?

I get into that a bit towards the end of the book. Jared Diamond, the anthropologist, looked into this for an article in Nature. He looked at different examples of people and groups who for different reasons have found themselves in isolation -- Japanese soldiers in the Philippines after WWII, as well as mutineers on Pitcairn Island.

What he found was that those who are successful at living a long time and not falling apart are people with a similar background. Moun and the other families he was with were all from an indigenous community in Cambodia's northeast.

Also, people who come from a collective culture and who want to put the survival of the group beyond their own individuality are successful. The highland communities that Moun came from are these types of communities.

Also, a shared sense of purpose is important for survival -- if you all agree that you're working towards the same thing rather than being out for yourself. They had this shared sense of purpose, and they were able to survive quite successfully for a long amount of time.

There's a lot of interesting reveals as the fuller picture of what happened in the forest unfolds. What was the most surprising for you when reporting this story?

When I went into it, I was coming as a Westerner and probably unfairly imposing some of my own biases on it.

I was really interested in the mechanics of survival in terms of how they found food, built shelter and actually lived in such an isolated environment for such a long time. I remember talking to a Khmer colleague in Phnom Penh who said that was actually kind of a stupid question, though, because they know how to do those things.

They were from a very rural environment already, and the part of Cambodia they were from in the 1970s was a very agrarian, foraging-based existence. Living that way wasn't the challenge for them. What they found harder, and what was interesting, was how difficult it was to live without a broader community.

There's really nothing romantic about it. The way we in the West sometimes look at striking out on your own, they saw as a very lonely, sad existence. They struggled with trying to stave off that loneliness and still function without the broader context of community. That's what I found most surprising and interesting.

What have you learned from the experience of reporting this, and what are you hoping people take away from reading the book?

I think that it left me with a stronger sense of the necessity of community as part of what humans need to really thrive. It gave me a better sense of what a community does for your sort of spiritual health, that it's not a fringe benefit but it's part of what's built into our DNA, of what we need to thrive in the world.

“Any individual placed in these extraordinary circumstances would have to make choices they never thought they'd make.”

What I would hope people take away from it is to hopefully understand that a bit more, but then also have more empathy for the decisions that people are forced to make in really extreme situations.

I hope that people take away that any individual placed in these extraordinary circumstances would have to make choices they never thought they'd make and do things they never thought that they would do if it meant that your survival and your family's survival were on the line.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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