Preah Vihear province
Life has not yet returned to normal in Svay Chrum village, four kilometers south of the front lines in Preah Vihear, more than two weeks after it was shelled by the Thai army.
Buildings lie empty, while abandoned bicycles and clothes hanging on fences are testament to the hasty departure of the village’s residents.
“There were 250 families in this area; now there are five,” said Rany, a shopkeeper, who returned to the village two days after her home was nearly hit by artillery on February 7.
“We are the risk-takers, the people who have property to protect. I hear from the camps that [villagers] all want to come back, but they are still afraid of the situation here,” she said, referring to the thousands of residents who fled the area during and in the aftermath of the fighting.
In addition to the anxiety about returning to a potential war-zone, displaced people are faced with a new fear.
Cambodia has accused Thailand of deploying an unspecified number of cluster munitions during four days of border skirmishes earlier this month.
Neither country has signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was adopted in 2008 and became binding international law for all signatories in August 2010.
“My base was shelled between 3:15pm and 4:10pm on February 4,” said Lieutenant Colonel Sok Min of Svay Chrum’s border police force.
“I was standing at the gate looking at the mountain, and I heard incoming [shells] and made it just in time to the bunker. The only thing I could hear was a boom, pop, pop, pop – like popcorn – and all I could see was smoke,” Sok Min said.
Kim Samnang, a border police officer, said the shell sounded unusual.
“I suspected there was something different when I heard the pop, pop, pop. I had heard about bombies [cluster munitions] in other provinces,” he said.
“At 6pm [on February 6], we turned the generator on to pump water and decided to watch the Sunday boxing. Someone came in with this thing with a white string, and I put my hand up and told him to put it down,” said Kim Samnang.
The man, identified as border police officer Cheng Mol, put the object on the table and it exploded, killing two and injuring eight others.
Kim Samnang and Cheng Mol both lost forearms and are now sharing a ward at Siem Reap provincial hospital.
“I was injured by cluster munitions,” Kim Samnang said.
“Two days ago, an NGO showed us a photo. It had slightly different coloring, but it’s the same kind of bombie [submunition],” he said.
“It looked like a cow bell or something,” Cheng Mol said.
So far, Thai officials have steadfastly denied deploying cluster munitions in the recent border clashes.
Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd instead accused Cambodia of using the controversial weapon, claiming that a cluster bomb had killed a Thai officer during the skirmish.
Cambodia denies the claim.
Photo by: Hurley Scroggins
A military official shows where a cluster bomb exploded.
Cambodia has a long and tragic history of unexploded ordnance from years of revolution and civil war, but the bombies described by Kim Samnang and Cheng Mol were something new.
Officials from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre arrived in the village the following morning.
“I had never seen anything like them before. They’re not like the American war bombies,” said Saem Ponnreay, manager of CMAC’s Demining Unit 3.
“People were playing with the things, spinning them in the air by their cords. We sent photos to HQ and they confirmed that they were M42/46 submunitions. We had recently cleared the area. Now we have to come back.”
CMAC issued a statement on February 10, in which they stated: “During the crossfire there was identified evidence of heavy artillery such as 105mm, 130mm and 155mm shells used by the Thai military, and CMAC experts have confirmed that these artilleries contained cluster munitions including M35, M42 and M46 types.”
Cluster Munitions Coalition member Sister Denise Coughlan surveyed the situation near the border last week.
“I am saddened by the suffering and displacement of people from both sides of the border.
I witnessed with my own eyes cluster munitions on the ground,” she said.
“I have also spoken to the victims who identified the M46 as the munition that injured them.”
Coughlan said the legacy of cluster munitions was long and tragic.
“The use of cluster bombs causes devastating consequences years after the conflict. A friend of mine lost both his arms from cluster munitions from the 1970s in 2004. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
CMAC officials say they have an enormous task ahead of them even if the fighting stops soon.
“We don’t know how many shells landed around here. Some could have fallen in unpopulated areas,” said Saem Ponnreay.
“Before we let civilians back in [to their homes], we need to educate them. We have reached 4,000 families in the camps, teaching them not to touch these [bombies] and to call our hotlines if they see one.”
Most of the people remaining in Svay Chrum are in uniform. Soldiers either walk or hitch rides down the mountain to buy supplies or get a drink in one of the two places that serve them.
Some soldiers live about 50 metres from opposing troops and relish the opportunity to take a break. Morale remains high.
The few women still in the village have more practical concerns.
Rany worries about her land.
“It was announced on [February 3] that we must register our property.
Then the war started the next day,” she said.
“I had to come back because I was afraid somebody would take my inventory and my house. At least if I stay here nobody will take it apart.”