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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Massacre commune prepares defense

Massacre commune prepares defense

K'DOL TAHEN commune, Battambang - Grieving and in shock over the Khmer Rouge massacre in which 50 bamboo cutters died on Oct 24, villagers here are preparing to defend themselves from further attacks by the guerrillas.

A wave of terror has spread through the commune which has a had a blood feud with the Khmer Rouge stretching back to 1973.

Massacre survivors told of the Khmer Rouge threatening to "kill every man woman and child, even babies in their hammocks." But the 1,200 families say they are ready to stand and fight.

They have seen the fate of thousands of others driven from their homes by the Khmer Rouge. The refugees have been left landless, jobless and homeless, hungry and without hope. For many there is no prospect yet of rebuilding their shattered lives.

Commune chief Tep Dum said: "The people are feeling scared but if they [the Khmer Rouge] come we will defend ourselves."

Twenty five rusting AK-47s and machine guns were propped up beside him, given to the commune by the provincial authorities in the wake of the massacre.

Dum, who sports a trilby hat, said the men were taking turns to patrol during the night.

"We often hear them on the radio saying they are going to attack but mostly they just say that to frighten us," he said.

The commune may well become a key battle ground in a dry season KR offensive with reports that the guerrillas are building a road to transport arms, which will pass nearby.

The commune is certainly in a vulnerable spot.

When asked where the KR were, Dum pointed in two opposite directions and said: "One km that way and one km that way."

None of the people in the commune were in touch with the guerrillas he said, adding; "If they did they [the KR] would be here now."

The commune lies 6 km south of Bavel town on a dusty dirt track passable only by moto. Land to the west of Stung (stream) Mongol Borei is considered Khmer Rouge territory and if unwary travelers venture too far south on the track they will also be stepping onto rebel land.

Hundreds of people in the southern villages of the commune are so frightened they are abandoning their homes at night to sleep outside in the center of the commune, said Koat Ear, a 64-year-old construction worker.

Many in the commune are desperate for any means to survive and risk their lives to cut bamboo in KR areas for 2-5,000 riel per day. Earning money from bamboo is particularly crucial this year for the villagers who are expecting a poor rice crop.

A Khmer businessman from Bavel town is understood to have formed a business relationship with the KR to pay "taxes" in return for being allowed to cut bamboo. He gathered laborers together, mainly from K'dol Tahen for a trip on Oct 21 and led them south on the Stung Mongkol Borei in seven boats.

But that day things were different. A group of eight guerrillas ordered the villagers out of their boats at 3 pm and marched them into the jungle and towards a KR base called Dangkor Tacharagn.

Their final destination was another KR encampment at O'Tasok. According to one report two villagers here saw KR wounded from recent fighting on the night of Oct 23. The witnesses say KR guerrillas helping the wounded accused them of being government spies.

They were led 500 meters up a muddy track to what turned into a killing ground. KR cadre questioned each one about why they were there. The villagers all said they were simply cutting bamboo.

But after talking on a radio an officer said he did not believe them. Without warning guerrillas opened fire on the group.

A woman who cried: "I am a widow. I have many small children. Please don't kill me, " was one of the first to die. In all 45 men and five women were killed leaving hundreds of children back at the commune either without a father or a mother.

In the confusion of the carnage a number of people managed to escape. One survivor is reported to have played dead all night amongst the pile of corpses before creeping away.

Survivor Chen Chuan, 32, showed the Post a flesh wound on his arm and said he had been very fortunate to escape. A cousin of his, Krung Sunny, 34 was not so lucky. The businessman is also among those still missing.

"After I escaped I kept running for six days and five nights until I reached home," said Chuan who shaved his head to rid himself of bad spirits which caused him to be involved in the massacre.

"The KR spoke nice words and we just thought we would have to go and work for their army on the border," he added.

The massacre seems to be history repeating itself. The commune came under attack in 1973 as the Khmer Rouge strengthened their grip on Lon Nol's Cambodia.

The villagers chose to side with the government army and a militia put up heavy resistance to the guerrillas. The KR won after taking some casualties, then marched 200 families out of the commune and massacred them, monks and local government officials recall.

Foreign aid workers in Battambang were puzzled by the motives for the latest massacre - there was no suggestion that any of the victims were Vietnamese, the KR's traditional target for mass killings.

Some speculated that the guerrillas linked the presence of bamboo cutters on their territory to the government's ability to pinpoint artillery attacks on their bases.

In one such attack, sources said, the KR lost 18 men.

"It's as though the KR want to send a message out to the villagers telling them to keep out of the way, particularly as they may be building a supply road," said the aid worker. The message has got through loud and clear. But the people of K'dol Tahen say they will not be moved.

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