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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Foot soldiers from rival armies share cynicism about leaders

Foot soldiers from rival armies share cynicism about leaders

NORTH OF HIGHWAY SIX, Cambodia. From a trench in abandoned ricefields in Kompong

Thom province, young conscripts of Phnom Penh's army peered wide eyed from their

foxholes as two journalists and a score of heavily armed guerrillas emerged from

enemy controlled jungles and approached them.

Popping up from camouflaged foxholes, they grabbed automatic rifles, and curiously

approached the group. The soldiers-from rival factions-greeted each other warily.

For the guerrilla fighters, it was the first time they had spoken to the enemy in

more than 13 years of war, although some knew each other by reputation.

A soldier was dispatched to seek a superior's approval for a request for the journalists

to pass into Phnom Penh territory. While waiting, the young men exchanged cigarettes

and asked about each other. It turned out a guerrilla and his government counterpart

came from the same village in the far away province of Prey Veng.

"You see what the war has done to us," said Meas, a guerrilla fighter,

pointing to the Phnom Penh soldier. "We could be related and we wouldn't know

it."

Meas had fled Cambodia's turmoil to the Thai border more than a decade before, eventually

joining the guerrilla faction led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The Phnom Penh soldier

had been drafted into the army some three years earlier and sent to the jungle.

Another Phnom Penh soldier said that he had recently found out that his brother,

who had been missing since the Vietnamese invasion in l979, was a soldier with the

guerrillas.

"Do you know my brother and if he is well?" he asked the guerrilla.

Another young fighter said, "Now in Cambodia, a whole generation must ask our

elders if we are related, because we don't even know who we are since the war split

us apart."

"In Cambodia, all our leaders are getting rich while we suffer," another

soldier added. Everyone nodded in agreement. It was a theme we heard everywhere.

A photographer from Impact Visuals photo agency and I had rented a Soviet jeep in

Phnom Penh and set off alone on a 15-day journey that would take us through nine

provinces, across dozens of minefields and frontlines to territory under the control

of all four Cambodian factions.

Many Cambodians living under the control of, or working for each of the four factions

expressed deep cynicism and resentment towards their leaders whom they blame for

incompetence, corruption, and continuing a conflict largely for personal gain. Soldiers

from all four factions said they had not been paid for months, and worried about

what would happen to them in a post-war Cambodia.

No commanding officer could be found that day, and after some debate, we were allowed

to pass, for the 100 kilometer trip back to Kompong Thom city.

Soon after our arrival, two Phnom Penh interior ministry police officials arrived

at our guesthouse. Initially, they were not happy.

"My job is to protect the party," the young intelligence officer announced

rather cheerfully. "You have no permission to be here and I have to ask you

some questions."

After an hour of interrogation, the intelligence officer asked whether we could talk

as friends. "I hear that maybe I will not have a job after cantonment and demobilization,"

he said, "Is journalism a good job? How is the pay? I think we have similar

jobs. We both have to ask a lot of questions and find out what is going on."

In Banteay Meanchey province, large tracts of land have been made uninhabitable by

mines planted during heavy fighting for control of the area.

Soldiers guided us through oxcart paths snaking through mined ricefields, across

frontlines, delivering us to forward checkpoints of their erstwhile enemies.

During more than a score of such transfers, we would request a couple of soldiers

from a forward position to accompany us for security until we reached another faction's

base.

There was never a shortage of volunteers, most eager for a break from the boredom

of isolated outposts. Because of the abundance of mines and bandits, it was good

to have guides with weapons who were familiar with the terrain.

Killings and robberies were daily events in the area where rogue bands of former

soldiers from each of the four factions routinely ambush anyone with valuables.

The young fighters in the guerrilla zones would pepper us with questions: Are there

a lot of Vietnamese in Phnom Penh? Are there jobs for people like me? Do you think

we will be safe and welcomed back now that the war is over?

It was not unusual for our Soviet jeep, which we rented from an army officer in Phnom

Penh, to be filled with a half dozen fully armed uniformed soldiers from different

factions. We would discuss politics but mostly their fears for the future and being

able to provide for their families after years of living in the jungle.

In scrubland north of the district capital of Banteay Meanchey, we drove to isolated

villages under the control of the Khmer Rouge, where villagers and Khmer Rouge cadre

spoke about their hopes for the future.

"We must rid the country from the Vietnamese first before the war can stop,"

said one Khmer Rouge cadre. "But we all want peace. Everyone has suffered enough."

"I don't know why so many people died when we were in power," said one

young Khmer Rouge fighter, who seemed genuinely perplexed by the issue.

A Khmer Rouge medic we met at a Khmer Rouge division headquarters near the Dongrek

mountain escarpment asked if we could give him a ride south so he could pick up some

medical supplies.

"You are American," he said cheerfully. "Do you know my sister? She

lives in New York." He said that he had spent three years in China training

as a medic, and was proud of his skills.

"I can do any kind of operation, but mostly amputations," he said.

I asked him how many amputations he had performed. "Oh, too many to count,"

he said, "At least 200."

In the bustling market town of Tmar Pouk, under control of the Khmer People's National

Liberation Front, government soldiers in uniform mingled easily with their former

enemies.

"We don't have any problems with each other," one said. "We are just

regular soldiers. It's our leaders who can't get along."

One KPNLF soldier asked whether he could accompany us back to Phnom Penh controlled

town of Sisophon. He could not cross the frontlines by himself, but he said with

foreigners he had a chance. He wanted to catch a bus from Sisophon to visit his mother

near Siem Reap, whom he hadn't seen in ten years.

"I left home to join the KPNLF when I was 12," he said. Quickly removing

his jungle fatigues and switching to civilian clothes, he got in the back of the

jeep, sharing the seat with an elderly woman who was returning to her government-controlled

village after visiting her son, a KPNLF officer.

A guerrilla fighter guided us to an oxcart path. "Just drive along the tracks

of the oxcart," he said, "Don't leave the path. Both sides are mined."

Further down Highway 69, where hundreds died in recent years' fighting for control,

rogue soldiers piled mortars on the road in a crude roadblock. Soldiers with grenades

in one hand and assault rifles in the other, stopped the rare vehicle demanding money.

"They don't get paid enough to eat," said the soldier in the back, after

we passed.

"I'm glad I'm with you," the mother said, "They would have taken everything

I had if I was alone."

We left the two passengers in Sisophon. "I don't even know if my mother is still

alive," the soldier said.

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