Sitting at a rudimentary food stall in Srakar Neak village in Kampot province on
December 28, Sem Nell rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal a skinny arm with protruding
A makeshift hut in Ta Ken Commune, Koh Sla.
Next to the 43 year-old rice farmer stood one of his six children, his belly swollen
with malnourishment and clad in a ragged red sweatshirt.
"We have bones like sticks," said Sem Nell, as half-bald chickens pecked
for food in the dirt.
Nell's family currently has enough rice to eat twice each day. But in March, like
many families in the isolated 200,000-hectare region of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold
known as Koh Sla, their rice will run out.
When that happens, Nell, who arrived here in May 2002, will work as a laborer cutting
trees and making charcoal, though he is suffering from malaria. His capacity for
manual work is limited and he only expects to make 2,000 riel each day. To ensure
his family's survival, he plans to supplement their diets with snails.
Koh Sla, a region in Chhouk district, Kampot province, was one of the last areas
controlled by the Khmer Rouge. When the rebels finally defected in 1997 following
negotiations with the government, many stayed on.
Since the defections, families from elsewhere have flocked to the region attracted
by its fertile land. But endemic malaria and the region's tough terrain have made
it impossible for much of the population to find enough to eat for more than a few
months each year.
In the past, outside private investment in Koh Sla has consisted of little more than
logging and growing cannabis, said Linda McKinney, an adviser to a new NGO Foundation
to Help the Poor who has worked in Kampot for 12 years. The region's Khmer Rouge
stigma is a big deterrent for government support, she said.
"All you have to do is say 'former Khmer Rouge area' and they won't go near
it," she said. "What is going to change lives is not having to worry about
food shortages tomorrow,"
One initiative to help the community was launched on December 22 by UNESCO. It aims
to prevent conflict in Koh Sla through education by improving literacy, teaching
conflict resolution and developing agricultural and business skills, according to
a press statement.
"We are very concerned about immediate aid, mosquito nets and all of that, but
our project is only about education," said Sambo Tey, a UNESCO program officer.
But many people living in Koh Sla said that their immediate needs were for food,
medicine, mosquito nets, clean water and roads.
Some families in Ta Ken commune, which has a population of 10,000, have only enough
rice for one month each year, said Tum Poung, Ta Ken commune chief and a former Khmer
"That includes families [with] widows, cripples and elderly," he said,
leaning across a trestle table in his wooden office. "There has not been enough
rice here for a long time."
Food availability in the commune has deteriorated since the defections to the government
in 1997, said Tum Poung."When they defected to the government they had their
hands [freed]æ no food supply, no knives," he said.
He claims the government tries to help but it is not enough.
Once the rice runs out in March for about half the population, Poung said they will
eat poisonous vegetables from the jungle which have to be soaked in water for a week
before they are safe to eat. He said if people had enough to eat, the commune would
be able to develop and sustain itself.
"If we have food, the people can build the road," he said.
There is also a major shortage of water in the commune. There are only 14 wells for
the 10,000 people in Ta Ken's 12 villages, said the commune chief.
A new 5 km road would enable the local population to trade at the local market, and
begin to become self sufficient, he said. He also appealed for cows, medicine and
There are also simmering tensions evident between the newer arrivals and established
former residents, most of who belonged to the Khmer Rogue.
Long Pen, the chief of nearby Prapeang Plang commune and former Khmer Rouge leader
in the Phnom Voar region, said the new arrivals in Koh Sla are most susceptible to
hunger. He said they are more interested in gambling than in providing food for their
families, "They don't clear land and they try to play games," said Pen.
But Im Ate, a 36 year-old farmer who arrived in Srakar Neak village in 1999, told
a different story. She said her husband died of malnutrition in 1999 and she has
lost three of her children to malaria. She claims former Khmer Rouge have plenty
of land to plant rice as they have been there longer.
"But for the people who have just arrived, they do not have enough land to grow
rice," she said. When she does not have enough to eat, she has to borrow money
from former members of the Khmer Rouge at a high interest rate.
However, aid groups have offered some limited support in the past.
In the last two years, the World Food Programme provided 14 metric tons of food aid
to Ta Ken commune, said Rebecca Hansen, country director for the organization.
"I can't say [it is] sufficient," she said. "We know that with the
resources in Cambodia we can not help everybody." She could not say whether
the food aid would increase.
Tum Poung was not optimistic that more food assistance would arrive in the foreseeable
"It is getting worse each year," he said.