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History comes full circle

History comes full circle

NHEK Bun Chhay, his military loyalists and the thousands of refugees amassed near

the Thai border town of O'Smach could be forgiven a heavy sense of deja vu.

A key base for the anti-Vietnamese resistance in the 1980s, O'Smach was in those

days home to a large refugee camp, neighboring several others across the border in

Thailand.

Today, this remote border area appears set for a rerun of the past. Many refugees

- between 10,000 and 30,000, according to varying reports - have fled to this border

point in the face of a CPP military advance.

The front-line today - between O'Smach and Samrong town, about 40km south down Rt

68 - is roughly the same as it was in the old days. Samrong, now under CPP control,

was a strategic base for the former PRK/SOC regimes and was never captured by the

resistance. O'Smach, meanwhile, was a main resistance base never captured by Phnom

Penh forces.

Strategically, O'Smach is quite defensible as it sits on top of the Dangrek escarpment

with only one road - Rt 68 - which winds down through dense forest to the flatter

areas of northern Cambodia. Now, as in every rainy season, the road is impassable

save for four-wheel vehicles.

During the 1980s, O'Smach was the site of a major refugee camp, housing both soldiers

of the non-communist resistance and their families. Former residents of the camp

remember the town being shelled regularly by long-range artillery manned by Vietnamese

based in Samrong.

Today, O'Smach's population of about 5,000 - mostly traders who work at its busy

market place stretching down Rt 68 for several kilometers - has been boosted by thousands

of refugees from Samrong district.

Funcinpec officials at O'Smach put the number of refugees at more than 33,000, while

aid workers estimate between 10,000-15,000. There is no established refugee camp

there now; the displaced are spread out over several kilometers, sleeping wherever

they can, the luckier ones renting wooden shacks if they can afford it.

"When we came here, we didn't have anything, just the clothes we were wearing.

We slept on the ground," said leg amputee Cheng Saret, 33, who fled his home

in O'Russei village, Samrong, with his wife and four children.

Saret's 10-year-old daughter, Savuth, lay on a plastic sheet, sick with malaria.

An open-air hospital, with three crude bamboo wards, has been set up by Funcinpec

officials. The NGO Medicins Sans Frontieres, which secured Thai permission to cross

the border three days a week to visit the hospital, said 80% of patients were malaria

cases. A small number of people, injured by the fighting or severely ill, have been

allowed across the border to Thai hospitals.

Humanitarian aid is beginning slowly to filter into O'Smach, with the United Nations

High Commission for Refugees and several NGOs distributing rice - roughly about 4kg

per person to last them four weeks, according to one NGO worker.

Memories of the past are in everyone's minds, particularly aid agencies who are anxious

to avoid a return to the mass refugee camps which dotted the border in the 1980s.

Thai officials and NGOs have prepared a plan in case the O'Smach refugees spill over

to Thailand if the fighting comes closer, but "no one really wants that,"

said one aid worker.

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