O'SMACH - After two weeks of artillery bombardments of this border resistance stronghold,
government troops have been able to advance a sum total of about 300 meters closer
to the fortified positions of their guerrilla enemies.
For the soldiers gaining ground through this rugged and heavily-mined terrain step
by step, foxhole by foxhole, life is one of danger and frustration. They rarely see
their enemy, but must dodge mines and malaria, and shelling from both sides. They
are as close as a kilometer from Thailand, but that doesn't mean much.
"This much land - if they were not on the border, we would crush them within
two hours," said one fretful officer who identified himself as a deputy commander.
He claimed that taking the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng would be easier
than capturing this one-road market town of little military value but great symbolic
For now, though, O'Smach is the epicenter of the government's bid to squash the seeds
of the anti-Hun Sen resistance. For those on the frontlines, life is alternately
boring and frightening.
In the quiet periods, the soldiers entertain themselves with jokes and card games,
and the occassional visit to the booming brothels of Samrong town a two-and-half
hour moto drive away. When the guns sound - or when their commanders urge them forward
a few more meters - it's back to business in O'Smach.
The best view of the front is obtained by hiking to Wat Kiri Mongkul, a hillside
pagoda over-looking the remains of what was once a bustling market stretching along
the last kilometer of Route 68 to the border.
The snaking path up the hill exposes the government grunts to enemy fire, but they
rarely see who's shooting at them.
"Don't wear white or blue up there because it makes you an easy target,"
a soldier cautioned. Stripping down to your knickers is even recommended.
Enemy fire is not the only concern. "Right now - get into the foxhole!"
barked a soldier one morning. "Here you will be safe from the breakfast offensive."
Moments later, and right on schedule, 80mm cannons thundered to life, the beginning
of a one-hour government attack that sent smoke trails across the sky.
While they worry about being hit by their own side's shells, and the enemy's response,
mines become an even greater danger as they scurry for cover. Soldiers said that
three of their comrades were injured during one barrage when they tripped homemade
mines on the frontline allegedly made by the Khmer Rouge.
Soldiers expressed a healthy fear of what they called "flying mines", which
are lofted into the air after being triggered by people, military vehicles, animals
or just about anything else that moves.
One claimed the resistance plants at least 10 such devices daily in an attempt to
hinder the arrival of supplies for the government's 3,000 troops in the area.
Other rituals of life at the front include temporarily laying mines for self-protection,
several government soldiers said. The resistance has acknowledged planting the lion's
share of the mines around this little town to stymie RCAF advances, but government
forces admitted to having mines in their possession as well.
Even the attackers need defensive weapons sometimes, said Dop Sarin, a former KPNLF
officer in charge of 40 soldiers from Div 12. He explained that his men lay mines
around their camp at night. In the morning, they are retrieved, he added.
Government forces - contrary to the resistance and Khmer Rouge - are conscientious
when they use the limb-destroying weapons, according to Sarin. "The government
only puts the mines in areas where they are fighting, not on the road."
Back in Samrong, a fresh arrival at the military hospital recounted his own slip-up
while clearing homemade mines for a prize he will probably never collect.
"[My commanders] said they would give me a watch if I went clearing and made
it back, but they didn't give me anything," the 20-year-old former Khmer Rouge
veteran said with a hint of disgust.
"I stepped on a mine and cried out in pain... the enemy fired off a round of
rockets at me. Fortunately, they missed," said soldier Seng Yeum, as he waited
for shrapnel to be removed from his feet and one of his hands.
Regardless of who is laying mines, there are already enough of them and other dangers
on the 42 km of Route 68 between Samrong town and O'Smach to make soldiers nervous
when they travel toward the front.
The top military commander stationed in Samrong encourages intrepid travelers to
keep as low a profile as possible on that road, and to avoid making the trip in one
of the many Chinese- or Soviet-made military vehicles that carry soldiers, weapons
and provisions to the front each day because they are too obvious a target.
"Take a motodop," General Pou Sabut Dy said after lumbering out of bed
for lunch on Dec 26.
The general, who fears he has contracted malaria, added: "But don't go until
tomorrow. There is too much fighting on the road today. We will clean it up and the
road will be clear tomorrow."
As he spoke, troops continued to depart for the front, many on motos. One group of
four soldiers, including a small boy, hunched together on a single bike along with
an impressive array of B40 rockets, launchers, AK47s and other gear.
The following day, the general was proved correct - there were few problems on the
road and security seemed intense, especially around the numerous bridges on the way
to the front. Before each bridge, a soldier with an AK-47 appeared to be aiming his
gun at the oncoming traffic, which was somehow no great shock to the moto driver
who approached it at full speed, ignoring the warnings of his passenger.
The menacing guardians of the bridges turned out to be nothing more than militarized
scarecrows set up to keep mischievous rebels away.
At the front, many soldiers spend their free time playing cards. Some smoked ganja,
while many others lounged around in their foxholes or sat behind large boulders that
shelter them from potential attacks but still allow them to be out of their holes.
Others napped or ate. Some looked nervous and young, others just looked stoned.
But all in all, few expressed confidence that they had the upper hand in their struggle.
Other soldiers who are luckier at O'Smach take risks back in Samrong, where the brothel
business is booming as a sideshow to the war.
Local brothels have been pumped with new life in town since thousands of soldiers
began arriving here in August. Business rises and falls with each government military
push in neighboring O'Smach, prostitutes said.
"I'm very busy on payday and when soldiers return from the front," prostitute
Prom Chroep, 29, said on a slow night.
Her brothel mamasan interjected: "Tonight is very quiet because [most] soldiers
are at the front line and others are not allowed out of their compound."
Prom Chroep, who is known as Mi Kwak (one-eyed woman) for her missing eyeball, said
she relies entirely on the business of soldiers and claims she has not had sex with
one civilian in Samrong.
She said that she can earn 400 to 500 baht in a single night if she is lucky enough
to have five customers come in for a visit, but she lamented that few of them are
willing to use condoms, even when she asks.
One local soldier said he is ready to keep taking his chances with unsafe sex.
"The fighting on the bed here is much better than fighting with guns in the
front line," he said laughing through a waft of cigarette smoke. "Here
I am afraid of AIDS. On the battle lines, I'm afraid of mines."