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The ashen road to O'Smach

The ashen road to O'Smach

SAMRONG - No stupas, no urns and no burning incense for the dead of O'Smach; only

pyres on the parched fields near the military hospital here attest to the cremations

of government soldiers here since CPP-led forces first laid siege to the resistance

stronghold in August.

On these 25 charcoal beds, the bodies of an unknown number of boys and men were put

to rest. While staff at the neighboring military hospital said the remains of the

dead are swept into small satchels and sent to their families, the dry season breeze

still blows white ash off of the gray heaps, spreading it like hourglass sand onto

the brittle brush at the edge of town.

A sign marking private property on the edge of the informal cremation site reads:

"It is prohibited to burn or bury corpses in this rice field."

Establishing an accurate death toll in the protracted fight for O'Smach, 40km from

Samrong town, is virtually impossible.

Samrong hospital staff said on Dec 26 that at least four dead - one from malaria

and three from battle wounds - were cremated outside in the preceding two weeks.

Their toll did not include two civilians killed in a Dec 15 ambush on a logging truck

near Cheu Krom village between Samrong town and O'Smach. It also did not appear to

include four more soldiers killed since Dec 9 in a series of resistance ambushes

outside of the neighboring village of Kong Kriel.

"Three men were killed in the back of that truck," said a soldier at a

military base, gesturing to the passenger side of the vehicle where a hail of bullets

left a trail of holes in the window glass. "They tried to kill the driver, who

drove on through [their fire], but they got the ones in the back of the truck."

Another soldier has been killed and several others injured in separate ambushes,

which locals and military officials said have become a "daily event" on

the perilous stretch of Route 68.

Staff at Samrong's military hospital said more than two dozen soldiers had died there

in recent months, adding that even more soldiers may have been killed since the government

launched a new series of powerful attacks on Dec 15.

In Siem Reap town's main military hosptial - where many of the most seriously wounded

are evacuated from Samrong - officials citing orders from their superiors refused

to disclose casualty numbers or allow access to medical staff or the wounded.

The number of deaths reported solely in Samrong appear to far exceed the estimates

of several of the nation's top military officials who have claimed that just two

government soldiers have been killed and 10 others wounded in the latest assault

on O'Smach.

At press time, casualties on both sides appeared likely to climb as sick and wounded

government troops continued to arrive in Siem Reap and the government continued to

pummel resistance positions with heavy weaponry on an almost daily basis.

At the hospital in Samrong, a 30-year-old soldier wrestled with severe malaria and

typhoid virtually unattended. Laying in the fetal position and clutching his stomach,

Moeun Rom let out gut-wrenching screams between dry heaves. Young hospital staffers

- several of whom admitted to having no medical training - looked on sheepishly.

Military hospital officials said Rom is one of many soldiers who contracted both

illnesses at the front. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes do not discriminate between the

soldiers battling each other in the jungle, but typhoid is allegedly being used by

the Khmer Rouge to poison the government force's water supply, according to military

chiefs and hospital staff.

About half of the close to 100 wounded transferred to Siem Reap town in the week

after the new offensive suffered solely from diseases, with the rest either wounded

or enduring multiple complications.

Many of the 25 patients who remained in Samrong writhed deliriously in hammocks strung

over scraps of food or puddles of urine.

Among those lucid enough to be interviewed, several said they have long wanted to

leave the army and escape the fighting, but that they have no choice but to return

to the front.

"If I stop fighting, maybe someone will go to my house and take my water buffalo

and eat it and then they will burn my house down," commented one soldier who

said he defected from the Khmer Rouge three years ago because he was tired of war.

Yet the soldier, who asked to remain unnamed, said he expects to be reactivated to

duty as soon as his chest wound heals and he overcomes the malaria he contracted

near O'Smach.

Asked what he would do if he wasn't ordered to fight anymore, he looked off in the

distance as though imagining a far away dream: "Rice, I would plant rice."

At Siem Reap's new military hospital annex, where patients are sent when the main

hospital is overcrowded, a number of wounded from the front expressed similar sentiments.

Serei Phat, an eight-year veteran of war who became a soldier because the Khmer Rouge

"came to our village, took the men into the forest and beat and abused them",

said he will report back to his commander to resume receiving his monthly salary

of 50,000 riels ($14) after he recovers.

While Phat appears to be one of the better-off patients in the ward, what seems to

be a small black mark on his face is actually a hole cut by a small piece of shrapnel

that struck him as he advanced within 30 meters of resistance forces in O'Smach's

market on Dec 17.

As he describes how the tiny fragment of 80 mm rocket shrapnel pierced his cheek,

knocking out four of his teeth and slicing a hole through his tongue, his neighbors

in the hospital ward broke into laughter about how such a little piece of shrapnel

could cause so much damage to a human body.

Asked if he will return to the frontline if ordered, Phat replied: "I don't

know...the big men can avoid going to war, but the little people can't. There is

a saying: When the elephants fight, the ants die."

His companion, Sok Ly, a five-year veteran who said he joined the army because the

Khmer Rouge pulled out of the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, said poor conditions at

the front are undermining the confidence of the soldiers. "The troops don't

want to fight but there are orders. Some soldiers want to desert, they want to run

home. A few have done that, [but] the commanders arrest deserters and send them back

to the front."

Ly, 23, said that while the meager salary of a soldier keeps many in uniform, conditions

at the front-in particular boredom and problems with food distribution-continue to

undermine RCAF soldiers' resolve. But the real moral problem of the offensive, he

said, is that government troops do not have any reason to fight other than their

orders from above.

As Ly waited in obvious pain for doctors to remove shrapnel from his knee, he added:

"Now that I know what war is, I don't want to fight anymore."

As the wounded await relief and eventually more orders, fighting rages on in O'Smach.

The steady firing of mortars and the pounding of shells landing can be heard in muted

drum-like explosions that resound from the front all the way back to Samrong, some

42 km away.

The realities of the battle, meanwhile, are beginning to reach much farther as frontline

commanders admit that the prolonged attack on the resistance base is chipping away

at the moral of their men.

"Soldiers are not happy...no one wants to fight. No one. But the man at the

top keeps pushing them to," said one battalion chief from Banteay Meanchay who

asked to go unnamed.

Such sentiments are heard by several in charge of the offensive who fear that pushing

the resistance out of O'Smach may only cause guerrilla activity around the nation

to spread. Despite their reservations, field commanders will continue to follow orders

that come "from the top", they said.

"We are waiting for a political solution," said one deputy commander who

asked to remain unnamed. "We could push them out of O'Smach, but then what would

they do? They would attack us from other places."


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