As the end of the UNTAC mandate nears, the UNNOs (United Nations Naval Observers)
continue plying the rushing brown waters of Cambodia's waterways on missions to observe
and monitor all aspects of life on the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers and their tributaries.
The two main rivers of Cambodia flow in opposite directions during the monsoon season;
the Mekong winds south while the Tonle Sap changes direction and flows northwesterly.
The opposite directions these rivers flow are symbolic of the realities of river
These naval observers, officers and enlisted men, are volunteers from Canada, New
Zealand, Britain, with support from Philippine, Chilean and Uruguayan marines and
their indispensable Cambodian interpreters.
In much of northern Cambodia, the tributaries and the banks of the major waterways
are under the control of the Khmer Rouge.
The UNNO fleet consists of inflatable boats, a few landing craft used for resupply
purposes and Volcanos-Russian-made diesel-powered boats that can carry eight with
a Cambodian at the wheel.
The team in Kratie has used the Volcanos for meetings with the Khmer Rouge, a dialogue
that has been going on for several months. In the jungle 35 kilometers north of Kratie,
the Khmer Rouge maintain a shadowy presence. They have a gold mining operation and
200 fighters. In the last several months, the guerrillas have not ventured from their
The naval observers in Kratie, under the command of Capt. "Tug" Wilson,
do not favor any of the factions-but see them all as Cambodians.
The biggest problem on the Mekong is the collection of "taxes" by Khmer
Rouge and government soldiers. As central control of these armies has broken down
after the election, units rely on extortion to maintain their positions along the
Mekong. They collect taxes to allow traffic through their territories. The Khmer
Rouge take rice. The government soldiers prefer cash.
Along the Mekong, extortion is rife as ferries carrying passengers north are stopped
by rifle fire, and soldiers demand several thousand riel to pass government check
points from Kratie to Stung Treng. On a routine river patrol to meet with Capt. Ming,
the Khmer Rouge commander in the area, the UNNOs observe ferries pulled in by government
troops almost every kilometer.
"The captain of this ferry told us that if we stayed with them, he would have
to pay twice as much at the next check point," says Royal Navy Petty Officer
"There's nothing we can do except observe and report what we see," said
The Mekong is rising and running too fast for the Russian-made boat to rendezvous
with Capt. Ming. The next time, they will bring a drum of fuel to complete the journey
up the river.
On the Mekong, children run to the bank and wave as the white boat and large blue
flag passes noisily by.
The UNNOs, decked in the camouflage of many nations all wear blue krammas-as do the
"We wear them to show our support for all Cambodian people," says CPO Keith
Marsh of the Royal New Zealand Navy.
The relationship between the UNNOs and the Khmer Rouge on the Tonle Sap is more frosty.
For the last three months, Lt. Dave Badior, has negotiated through written messages,
to meet with an NADK commander named Sngoon.
It is his forces that are suspected of the killings of ethnic Vietnamese on the Tonle
Sap on the 8th or 9th of July.
After three decomposed bodies were recovered from the river in mid-July, the Civpol
Unit took forensic photographs and began its investigation.
As the Civpol teams discovered who went fishing that day-and who was still missing,
Chilean Marines buried the dead, marking the graves.
"The NADK told the fishing families not to fish on the north bank of the river,
" says Capt. Steve Mclaughlin of the Royal Marines.
"On July 8th, the NADK rounded-up everyone fishing in that area, checked the
boats for weapons, separated the ethnic Vietnamese from the Cambodians, and let the
Cambodians go. We know eight were killed and 16 are missing. They are in the lake,
and will never be found, " he said.
Further up the Tonle Sap, children still wave, but along the tributaries filling
the forest, a child is subtly nudged when his welcome is too enthusiastic. Two British
Marines and Hok, the interpreter approach the boats slowly and talk to the occupants
as thick rain clouds loom over Tonle Sap Lake.
"He said the 'NADK don't bother him, CPAF do not bother him, fishing is poor',"
The village spokesman, surrounded by several children keeps an eye on the storm as
he speaks to Hok.
At dusk, a floating village of 47 boats and more than 100 ethnic Vietnamese families
arrives at the last outpost before the great lake. The convoy's long tail rides the
eddy around the squat house boat flying the U.N. flag.
The boats have come from their temporary moorage near Phnom Penh. They didn't complete
the mass exodus last May.
A government army gunboat escort herds the flock of boats, then beaches itself. The
captain and five men reposition a heavy machine gun, slipping on spent shells that
litter the oily gray deck of the gun boat. It is a diesel- powered vessel from another
The captain says they have been ambushed. The heavy machine gun is missing a piece
of the gas system. It couldn't fire very quickly.
But after they leave, the tugboat skipper disputes the captain's version of events
saying the escort fired on anyone who got too close to the flock of boats. He said
the fee for the escort is $400 per family.
By mid-morning the village should be in the lake. As for Lt. Dave Badior, the meeting
he spent three months putting together has come to nothing. Sngoon has gone into
the forest and will not be coming back, he is told.
The new leader is named Chhan. He appears educated, and he knows the issues. He wants
to be part of the new Cambodian army.
Chann is in control of this unit. Its weapons are clean and it is well deployed through
out the village.
The troops wear pieces of uniforms, and the blue and white checked kramma.
While Lt. Badior is meeting Chhan, UNNO zodiac inflatables hum through the back waters.
The teams all know each other, two outstations listen to the radio net and wait.
A U.N. Special Investigation Team member looking into the murders radios Lt. Badior
asking for his next destination. The call was intercepted by another UNNO, on station.
Lt. Badior doesn't answer. Fishing boats with no women, no children follow the UNNOs'
inflatable boats if they stray within a kilometer of the meeting.
The murders on the Tonle Sap were not discussed. Perhaps there will be other meetings.
As the nature of rivers is fluid, so the situation has changed on the Mekong. An
UNNO from Kratie says he was on a landing craft going up-river when it was ambushed.
A B-40 rocket was fired at the bridge in a hail of gunfire. As the NADK rocketeer
prepared to fire a rocket propelled grenade from the river bank, he was killed by
fire returned from the landing craft. Other NADK were killed and wounded, he said.
For now, all meetings between the NADK and the Naval Observers have been canceled
as the river and the tensions rise.