Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Airport's only visitors the ghosts of the past



Airport's only visitors the ghosts of the past

Airport's only visitors the ghosts of the past

KOMPONG CHHNANG - When one remembers that the lives of some 350,000 people were said

to be lost in the building of Kompong Chhnang's airport (pictured right), the first

sight of this massive, deserted runway is unnerving and extraordinary.

Just north of the town, at the end of a seldom used turn-off that becomes a 10km-long,

concrete highway, is the entrance to the second largest airport in Cambodia. Its

immaculate runway is five meters wider and only 500 meters shorter than Pochentong's.

It can easily accommodate the biggest airplanes now servicing the country, but it

has never been fully operational and is lucky now to see half a dozen landings a

week - usually light daytime traffic of air force planes or the occasional student

pilot practicing landings.

In fact the facility has remained largely deserted since being built in the late

1970s by an estimated 400,000 forced Khmer laborers, arguably the most grandiose

construction project of the entire Pol Pot regime.

Pol Pot himself regarded the building of the airport as a cornerstone of his defense

strategy. According to local villagers, Pol Pot often conducted secret meetings in

a nearby hillside cave while on occasional visits to the site checking the progress

of his pet project.

The complex today is off limits, a strictly guarded military zone. The vast concrete

runway is completely deserted except for an occasional soldier carrying out weeding

duty.

Thousands of massive eight-inch thick concrete slabs lie on top of gravel bedding

a meter and a half deep, all this achieved in two years at a cost of an estimated

350,000 lives. Set in an idyllic plain of vast coconut palm groves and rice paddies

ringed by hills to the south and west, the airport is one of the lesser known killing

fields.

"Most of the workers were people accused of espionage from Prey Veng, Svay Rieng

and Kampong Cham. These unfortunate people were political prisoners labeled as enemies

of the government," says Mr Lang Huer, a local health department official and

long time Kampong Chhnang resident. "Only ten percent of the workforce survived,

and at one time hundreds of bodies littered the ground in the area," he said.

Pol Pot chose Kampong Chhnang as the site for his airforce headquarters because of

its strategic location in the geographical heart of Cambodia, and construction began

on the giant complex in 1977. However when he was driven out of the country, work

on the project ceased and it still remains only 90 percent finished, with parts of

the sloping edges of the aprons resembling a checkerboard due to missing slabs.

According to commander Norodom Vatvani of the Royal Cambodian Air Force, there are

fresh plans to base airforce headquarters at the airport but this will not happen

in the near future due to lack of government funding.

"We need to spend $2 million on the control tower and all the necessary radar

equipment, and another $2 million to repair the various buildings and infrastructure

on the site. If we had the money, the airport would be operating in six months time,"

he said.

The enormous dimensions of the airport are impressive but the project takes on even

greater significance when one realizes it was built almost entirely by hand with

minimal use of machinery, using mind boggling methods to obtain the raw materials

required for the job.

In a massive engineering feat, vast quantities of water were sucked from the Tonle

Sap, pumped four kilometers to a nearby mountaintop reservoir and then channeled

downhill another seven-kms to the construction site. The water was a vital component

of the millions of cubic meters of cement required to build the taxiways and runway.

Obtaining rock needed for the gravel bed was not as logistically complex but turned

out to be a far more lethal exercise.

"A kilometer away you can see a hill that has been quarried and many thousands

of people died there whilst using explosives to knock out the rock. This blasting

was one of the main causes of so many deaths. Together with the toll taken by exhaustion,

malnutrition and disease," says Mr Lang.

"The rock was smashed by hand-held hammers into gravel, loaded into trucks and

sent to the airport site," says Mr Lang. "On the other hand, cement was

transported by rail from Kampot. Pol Pot ordered that a special track be built, branching

off from the Phnom Penh to Battambang line and leading right up to the site."

Other than the almost immaculate runway and taxiways, the site is rundown and unkempt.

Brick and cement block buildings in various stages of collapse skirt the edge of

the complex., once inhabited by many of the several thousand strong team of Chinese

engineers and building experts brought in to supervise the airports construction.

The shell of a burnt-out Russian helicopter lies in two pieces by the side of one

of the taxiways, apparently abandoned at the airport several years ago after crashing

five-kms away while carrying 21 military personnel.

The only indication that this neglected place once buzzed with air traffic and personnel

is a clump of 35 mobile homes sporting "donated by the Australian government"

stickers, a lasting reminder of UNTAC military activity at the site.

"During the UNTAC time, the airport was used by many aircraft as it was the

only place many of them could land other than Pochentong. They needed a large airport

and as this is almost as big as Pochentong, it was ideal," said one military

guard working there.

Commander Vatvani admits to a fair degree of frustration knowing that this potentially

ideal facility exists but that it can currently only be used in a minor capacity.

"It is in a superb position, economical and easy for the airforce to utilize.

I can protect all my territory from Kampong Chhnang, but I'll just have to wait a

while."

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