Drink, drugs, badges of peace and boy soldiers - the battle for O'Smach is, as
one Thai soldier at the border put it, an "unconventional" one.
The forces of Hun Sen and Nhek Bun Chhay have traded bullets, artillery shells and
even insults in their contest for a town which has perhaps more symbolic than strategic
"Hun Sen soldiers, get down...and go back to your wife in one piece," a
royalist soldier was overheard taunting his enemy by radio. "You coward, lay
down your arms before your head gets cut off," came the reply.
One CPP frontline commander used insults as a military tactic: standing up out of
his foxhole, he shouted abuse at enemy dug in a few hundred meters away. The aim:
to get them to open fire, allowing the commander's troops to pinpoint their location
and fire back.
Many of the CPP-aligned soldiers go into battle wearing blue badges displaying the
white dove of peace, issued to them by their commanders.
Photographers covering the war have seen government soldiers smoking marijuana out
of a bamboo bong, and others passing around bottles of rice wine before going out
Amid the thousands of artillery, mortar and machine gun rounds exchanged in recent
weeks, one Thai soldier monitoring the war said that at times he wasn't sure what
either Cambodian faction was shooting at.
Sometimes, "both sides are firing to the sky, like boys kidding around with
their toys," he said.
The reality is that boys are on both sides. Many teenage boys have been seen with
the CPP troops advancing on O'Smach; those too small to carry guns are put in charge
of mortar positions or relegated to carrying supplies. On the resistance side, at
least one boy was among casualties who were seen being carried into Thailand.
While the dangers of landmines and shells are very real, as any of the casualties
can testify, it is nature - in the form of malaria - which claims more victims than
any weapon of war.
For CPP-aligned troops advancing up Route 68, being injured can mean walking or being
carried 30-40km to the nearest hospital in Samrong - nearly a day's trip. For the
resistance fighters, medical treatment can safely be presumed to be meager; the luckier
casualties get allowed to cross the border, to the sanctuary of a Thai hospital.