Sam Kimsreng, 45, stands outside CVD's homes for disabled former KR soldiers and their families.
he district of Samlot in Battambang province, western Cambodia, has an intimate
association with the Khmer Rouge. It was here in 1967 that the first uprising took
place against then-Prince Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, after the government
in Phnom Penh tried to force farmers to sell their rice at below-market prices.
The Khmer Rouge claimed it was behind the revolt. The government's brutal repression
helped the KR gain converts.
Samlot thus saw one of the first actions of the Khmer Rouge, and by a quirk of fate
the last too. It finally fell in 1997 after the July coup, when army troops moved
in, drove out the soldiers and their families, and sowed the area with tens of thousands
Only five years ago most of the people of Samlot were stuck across the border in
Thailand, but a year later the two sides signed a peace agreement, and the former
rebels returned with their families. The area was short of schools, health clinics
and bridges, and many of their fields, homes and roads were mined.
Today the area is still poor, although facilities have improved thanks mainly to
the efforts of NGOs who were invited by the government to help with the reintegration
But there are still major problems. Although the land is extremely fertile, the sheer
number of mines laid five years ago, coupl-ed with the expense of clearing them,
means many areas are effectively off-limits for farmers. That problem links with
another. The deputy district governor says more than 800 people - or 3.5 percent
of the 23,000 inhabitants - have been injured by mines since 1999.
That is ten times the national disability average, and has helped Samlot gain the
dubious distinction of having one of the worst disability rates in Cambodia, which
already has one of the highest rates in the world.
And the problems with mines are still there, just beneath the surface: a survey carried
out earlier this year estimated 720 square kilometers was mined, making it the second
worst in Cambodia.
That, says the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international demining NGO, makes the
"profoundly contaminated" district one of the worst affected areas in the
The road to Samlot is extraordinarily bad. From Battambang the pot-holed highway
runs for several tortuous hours towards Pailin. A left turn after the halfway mark
leads across several rickety bridges, through low hills, and eventually to Samlot
Its inaccessibility was its strategic virtue for three decades, but today it is a
hindrance. Access to Thailand, which lies around thirty kilometers away, is possible,
but farmers wanting to take their produce there need a special pass from the district
authorities. Getting to Pailin or Batt-ambang means a long and uncomfortable trip.
A brighter future awaits Samlot's children.
Samlot's deputy governor Ben Sovann, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, came here in
1979. The Vietnamese invasion in late 1978 meant many KR retreated to Samlot, markedly
increasing the population. Today most of the 4,700 families in the area are former
Sovann says that after the fighting between government forces and the KR in 1997,
the army planted between 3-5,000 mines a day, particularly on roads and near the
border area, causing numerous casualties. But in 2000 the Cambodian Mine Action Center
(CMAC) came to clear them, he points out, and the number of people injured has since
"But we definitely still have problems, such as low living standards, and spiritual
difficulties that caused mental problems and stress. We are tired of war," he
These days the most pressing problem is food shortages. That, Sovann explains, is
because so few have access to safe land on which they can plant rice and peanuts.
And although the situation has improved, the people are still only able to grow five
or six months worth of food a year, leaving them reliant for the remainder.
"Things are getting better and better, and we hope that in the future they will
be more so," he says. "What has improved is that NGOs have built roads,
bridges, schools and health centers. Often they give food for labor. And there is
the government's SEILA program [a support structure for local communes]."
Life has already improved for Sithy (not his real name), who is one of the thousands
of former KR still living in Samlot. The small salary he earns through formal employment
means he is better off than his friends, although it is still not enough to feed
and clothe his wife and two children.
Sithy joined the KR when he was twelve, fled to Samlot in 1979, and lost his leg
to a mine five years later. He says the most difficult period in his life was during
the fighting in the late 1990s: with only one leg, he had a difficult time escaping.
"Because I had lost my leg, I could not run away when there was bombing. That
made me very afraid," he explains. "Other people walked for half a day
to get away, but that journey took me three days."
Today, says Sithy, both he and his wife work hard to ensure their children go to
"I think my children will be better off than me. I hope they will have a bright
future," he says. But as he points out, life is much more difficult for families
with large numbers of children.
"They get a poor education because they have to work rather than go to school,
because their parents need money for food and household goods."
Sithy says his friends feel they have benefited from the reintegration program. They
can undertake business, sell their goods, and move freely. He says he is not angry
that 25 years with the KR has brought him hardships he would have wanted to avoid.
"Although I spent more than 20 years with the Khmer Rouge, I am not upset at
them," he says. "I am very, very happy with the current regime because
my life is better, and I hate war very much."
Kao Buon, Yorng Horn and Yen South clear bushland for a ricefield in Samlot.
Although life is difficult for many in Samlot, the district is generally better off
than some other parts of the country, says Eric Ducos, country program manager of
Handicap International/Action Nord Sud.
The NGO started in Samlot helping the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) with returnees after
the 1997 fighting. HI/ANS is now scaling down there, but Samlot was at that time
its biggest project, rendering assistance in agricult-ure, education and micro-credit.
"Samlot has always been removed and rich, because the land is very fertile -
you can grow peanuts and other things that you cannot grow anywhere else in Battambang
province for example," says Ducos.
"There is a lot of wood, there are some gemstones, there is the proximity of
the border. You have many people who have a pick-up, so it is not a poor area, and
it was never in the past a very poor area."
Ducos says that the very fact the 1967 uprising took place in Samlot is indicative
of the area's natural resources.
"Revolutions never start in the poorest areas - in the poorest areas people
just think about eating," he says. "To have the strength to complain you
have to have something in your belly."
The problem with landmines, though, is a significant and ever-present problem. The
huge expense of removing mines in the fields, Ducos says, means they are unlikely
to be cleared.
"Clearing land for agriculture is never a priority of demining, and that is
a big concern. People who want to cultivate an area will always face problems of
Not surprisingly, the people of Samlot are exceedingly aware of the dangers of mines.
Some of those worst afflicted by landmine injuries are helped by a local NGO called
Cambodian Vision in Development (CVD).
Program manager Leng Sothear says CVD has worked in the district for three years
on projects to help the most vulnerable, including mine victims. It also provides
social services for women-led households and the very poor, and runs programs on
civil society and health education.
CVD's highest profile group is a collection of disabled former Khmer Rouge soldiers
whom they found living in desperate circumstances several years ago. The men and
their families - around 100 people in all - caught the attention of Hollywood actress
Angelina Jolie, who visited them and gave money to help them achieve a better quality
"We call them a self-help group, and combine handicapped people living together
and working to farm together," says Sothear. "Under the Pol Pot regime,
they were provided with food. Since the government and Khmer Rouge reintegrated,
they live together with support from CVD, like self-help, some food, materials and
He says that most of the mines were laid in 1997.
"When the people moved to Thailand, their fields weren't mined," he explains.
"I am not sure who put down the mines, the Khmer Rouge or the government forces,
but when the people went back to their fields, most of them were mined."
Sothear says CVD's ambition is that the men clear enough land to grow rice, so that
in five years they can be self-sufficient.
"Our aim is to achieve that, but we cannot do it in one or two years,"
he says. "The vulnerable are different from the others, but in the future they
will have to live without any support from NGOs."
The men are busy working with machetes to clear bushland opposite their homes. Once
that is done they will grow dry-season rice, Sothear explains. Two of the men in
the field-to-be are in wheelchairs, while the rest are missing an assortment of legs
Vice-governor Ben Sovann.
Fifty-year-old Yorng Horn, who is missing his lower right leg, is among them. He
joined the movement 30 years ago, and eventually commanded 1,000 men. Horn does not
feel the reintegration program has helped much.
"There has been no progress - our standard of living is still poor. We have
only a small plot of land to sustain our lives, and still lack many things,"
says Horn. "We would like NGOs to help us more, because we have many problems."
Nearby is his friend Kao Buon, 44, who is maneuvering his wheelchair through the
undergrowth, pausing only to hack away at it. Buon stepped on a mine in 1987, which
blew off both his legs, but says he is happy simply because he now has a house.
The cluster of wooden homes also accommodates Yen South, 34, who lost his arm. With
the same affliction is Sam Kimsreng, 45, father of seven children. In another wheelchair
is 32-year-old Bun La.
Horn says that what the men lack most is money and sufficient land.
"All of these people are my friends from the days that we lived together in
the Khmer Rouge, and they still face the same problems as me," he says. "CVD
has helped with a large piece of land, and if other organizations assist, I believe
that in the future our lives will improve."