KEPT ALIVE BY HOPE AND DE­TER­MI­NA­TION

Man stranded for 24 years had to learn lo­cal lan­guage, chop wood to sur­vive

New Straits Times - - News -

AVILA GERAL­DINE KOTA KIN­A­BALU news@nst.com.my

HOPE and de­ter­mi­na­tion. This was what kept Mohd Zulk­i­fli Je­fri alive in Cam­bo­dia for 24 years af­ter be­ing stranded there when his com­pany sud­denly ceased op­er­a­tions.

Hav­ing man­aged to fi­nally re­turn to Malaysia, the 54-year-old was about to be­gin the fi­nal leg of his jour­ney home to San­dakan at the Inanam Bus Ter­mi­nal here when he stopped for this in­ter­view. He was look­ing for­ward, he said, to re­unit­ing with his fam­ily, es­pe­cially his three grown-up chil­dren.

“When I was in Cam­bo­dia, I forced my­self to learn the Kh­mer lan­guage. That was also one of the things that kept me go­ing... I over­came the lan­guage bar­rier be­cause I had to live like the Cam­bo­di­ans and to do that, I had to speak their lan­guage.

“I hid in the forests to avoid the author­i­ties and stayed with the lo­cal vil­lagers. I chopped wood to earn a liv­ing. It was not much, but the wages were enough to eat and to save a lit­tle,” he said.

Wear­ing a jubah and kopiah, Zulk­i­fli tried an­swer­ing as many ques­tions as he could be­fore board­ing the bus home to Kam­pung Tam­bisan.

Re­count­ing his jour­ney to Cam­bo­dia in 1993, Zulk­i­fli said he had gone to Koh Kong prov­ince with 15 other Malaysians to work af­ter a Malaysian tim­ber com­pany ob­tained a log­ging ten­der in the re­gion. He left his wife, Rosimah Maulana (now aged 48) and three chil­dren (now 29, 28 and 26 years old) in his vil­lage.

How­ever, two years later, Cam­bo­dia was hit by po­lit­i­cal ten­sions and his em­ployer dis­ap­peared along with the work­ers’ travel doc­u­ments, leav­ing the 16 Malaysians be­hind.

“Prior to the con­flict, I had writ­ten a let­ter to my fam­ily and told them about my days and my job.

“I didn’t tell them about the sit­u­a­tion in Cam­bo­dia be­cause I didn’t want them to get wor­ried.

“I also re­ceived a re­ply from them. That was our form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion back then. But dur­ing the con­flict, I got sep­a­rated from other col­leagues be­cause ev­ery­one was run­ning.

“I was with two others and we stuck to­gether. But along the way, we kind of went our sep­a­rate ways. One of them died later.

“I’m not sure what hap­pened to my other col­leagues, but I heard some of them man­aged to re­turn home. I wanted to go home, too.

“Not a day went by that I didn’t think about my fam­ily,” said Zulk­i­fli.

He said he had tried to con­tact his fam­ily many times af­ter the con­flict.

In 2002, hav­ing saved enough, he trav­elled to the Malaysian em­bassy to seek as­sis­tance. But the long process left him pen­ni­less and he was forced to re­turn to the jun­gles in Koh Kong to con­tinue chop­ping wood for a liv­ing.

“In 2012, I de­cided to en­ter Malaysia via Thai­land. So, I moved from one state to another un­til I reached Bangkok, but un­for­tu­nately I was nabbed by the Thai author­i­ties.

“They de­ported me to Cam­bo­dia. I should have told them I was from Malaysia but I didn’t. I had been speak­ing Kh­mer and they thought I was from Cam­bo­dia,” he said, laugh­ing.

On April 11 this year, Zulk­i­fli man­aged to hop in a car with others to travel to the Thai-Cam­bo­dian border, then caught another ride to the Thai-Malaysian border.

He then hopped onto a mo­tor­cy­cle and en­tered Malaysia through Bukit Kayu Hi­tam.

In Kedah, he made friends with a man from Sabah and re­lated his plight.

With the help of new­found friends and Raja Muda of Perlis Tuanku Syed Faizud­din Tuanku Syed Si­ra­jud­din Ja­malul­lail, Zulk­i­fli man­aged to ob­tain a tem­po­rary iden­tity card that en­abled him to fly to Sabah.

It was re­ported last month that Perlis Regis­tra­tion De­part­ment di­rec­tor Mohd Nasharudin Md Yu­sof had con­firmed that Zulk­i­fli was a Malaysian based on his old iden­tity card num­ber.

It was also re­ported that Rosimah, hav­ing had no con­tact with Zulk­i­fli all these years, had as­sumed that he was dead and had re­mar­ried.

She now has five chil­dren from her sec­ond mar­riage.

PIC BY ED­MUND SAMUNTING

Mohd Zulk­i­fli Je­fri (cen­tre) ar­riv­ing at the Kota Kin­a­balu air­port re­cently on his way home to San­dakan af­ter be­ing stranded in Cam­bo­dia for 24 years.

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