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French platoon wakes up sleepy Bokor

French platoon wakes up sleepy Bokor

Former Mountain Resort Now a U.N. Relay Station

Once a holiday spot for wealthy Cambodians escaping the heat, Bokor Hill Station's

casino crumbled into ruin and the town was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge regime.

But recently, signs of life began to return to the former mountain resort, where

UNTAC stationed a platoon of French troops in mid-August.

Immortalized in a film by Prince Sihanouk in the 1950s, Bokor sits on a plateau at

the highest point of the Elephant mountain range, 30 kilometers from the town of

Kampot.

Pleasantly cool during Cambodia's dry season, the climate turns cold and rainy between

July and October, when the town is covered by a heavy layer of clouds. The locals

call Bokor Phnom Popok-"the mountain where clouds turn around."

During the last two decades of war in Cambodia, the town was ransacked and abandoned,

the road fell into disrepair, and the surrounding plateau-once a cattle-rearing area-was

heavily mined.

In August, UNTAC decided to station a French military platoon at Bokor. Because of

its height, the mountain was seen as the best place to put a radio relay for communications

within UNTAC's Sector VI, which extends from Koh Kong in the west to Kampot in the

south to Takeo in the east.

Before setting up operations in Bokor, the French needed authorization from the Khmer

Rouge, who held the area. Apparently this wasn't a problem.

"The Khmer Rouge suffer from a lack of supplies there," explained Sector

VI commander Col. Iratfofza. "They are in a weak position and they have often

asked us themselves to settle [UNTAC] troops on their territory to avoid fights with

[Phnom Penh] government troops."

On Aug. 25, an UNTAC engineering regiment began to clear the road to Bokor, repairing

nearly 20 years of neglect as well as removing trees that the Khmer Rouge put across

the road to block enemy vehicles.

Reaching Bokor on Sept. 1, the platoon demined the area surrounding the casino and

Palace Hotel, where they made their camp.

Cold, stormy weather at Bokor at this time of year added to the difficulty and danger

of their work.

"It's really hell over there," said Sgt. Herve-Bazin, who was stationed

in Bokor for two weeks in September. "There are mines everywhere and you can't

see anything more than five meters away. We had to camp in the old Palace Hotel,

where there's more than three centimeters of water on the ground."

In early September Col. Iratforza made his first inspection of Bokor. As his helicopter

took advantage of a break in the clouds to land on the summit, Lt. Ramirez, who commands

the company in Kampot, began the trip from Kampot by truck.

It took an hour and a half to make the 25-kilometer climb to the peak, passing waterfalls

and lush pine forests.

The column passed two Khmer Rouge soldiers watching the road, who waved and smiled

at the UNTAC troops. Relations between UNTAC and the Khmer Rouge in the vicinity

of Bokor are generally good, Ramirez said.

"We have already shown the Khmer Rouge that we want to be neutral with each

faction," Ramirez explained. "That's why we treat them the same as we treat

[the other factions]. And that's why we are able to speak and negotiate with them."

Soon afterwards, the vehicles approached the outskirts of Bokor, joining Col. Iratforza,

who had almost finished his inspection.

Second-Lt. Gaillard, who commands the platoon at Bokor, led a tour of the few buildings

that remain standing in Bokor: the casino, the Palace Hotel, a French-built Catholic

church, and a Buddhist temple.

"All the stupas have been ripped open," a Khmer interpreter told the UNTAC

troops. "You can see the ashes of the monks who were cremated there after their

death."

Gaillard says the platoon's mission is to reassure the people living in the vicinity

of the hill station, by showing them that UNTAC is present throughout the country.

While the day that tourists begin to return to Bokor is still far away, already the

ghosts are starting to disappear from the mountainside.

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