KEPT ALIVE BY HOPE AND DETERMINATION
Man stranded for 24 years had to learn local language, chop wood to survive
AVILA GERALDINE KOTA KINABALU firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.