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Impoverished Pailin struggles to make ends meet

Impoverished Pailin struggles to make ends meet

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THREE people had been killed in one week, while outside a man's house an unexploded

shell, found by his son, waits to be made safe by demining experts.

Village children spend their days walking between home and the only water source, a river four kilometers away.

In a village not far from town, children cannot attend school because they spend

their days walking to and from the nearest well, four kilometers away. And despite

the acres of high quality land, fruit and vegetables are imported from Thailand by

the cartload.

Known as home to retired Khmer Rouge soldiers, it's an area few charities and Non-Governmental

Organisations have dared to enter, despite its obvious need.

But the countless landmines hidden beneath the ground and sporadic violence tell

only one side of the story.

Things are beginning to change as enemies on the battlefield put down their guns

and look to the future.

For years Keo Sameth and Pal Som fought on opposite sides of the battlefield; Sameth

as a general commanding 1,000 Khmer Rouge troops while Som was a member of the RCAF.

The pair are now director and deputy director of the Cambodia Border Community Development

Organisation, or CBCDO, an NGO founded in January 2000 to help the residents of Pailin

and around Cambodia's western border with Thailand.

Som said: "After the war Pailin was left with many widows who had no one to

support them and a very deep sorrow to bear.

"The American help did not come and we were left in great poverty. It takes

a very courageous NGO to come here and give us the help we desperately need.

"So we decided to put our differences aside, and after many meetings over many

years, slowly and with a lot of determination, we were able to work together.

"It is proof that great enemies can become great friends. More than friends,

they can become brothers. Now the widows and people who lost loved ones are ready

to forgive and look ahead."

As the only NGO operating in this desperately poor area, CBCDO has its work cut out.

It is starting with the basics.

The village of Tum Nub near Pailin is typical of the areas CBCDO seeks to help.

The only water source is the river, which is between two and four kilometers away

from most people's homes.

The distance, and the lack of water storage facilities, means children are denied

the chance of an education. They are forced to spend their days carting small containers

to and from the river while their parents labor in the fields.

A proposal has been submitted to an international charity for a grant of $5,000 to

build two wells and buy water storage jars for the 100 people living in Tum Nub.

The grant will also help build the local school, and keen to help themselves, residents

have been storing timber to build the roof of the building themselves, hoping the

grant will pay for the foundations.

There are plans in the pipeline to build three more schools in other villages, but

unless new water sources can be built releasing children from the cycle of walking

for hours to and from the nearest well every day, such schemes will be wasted.

Sao Nimeth is originally from Kratie and has lived in Tum Nub for nine years. A former

Khmer Rouge soldier, he is now a "simple farmer who has put down his gun."

But life is still hard.

His 14 year-old-son Sao Bay found an unexploded shell a week ago and carried it home,

where it now lies in a bush awaiting disposal by mine clearance experts.

Nimeth has lived in the village of Tum Nub for six years, yet can only farm a small

patch of land because the area is so heavily mined. He helps experts from the Cambodian

Mine Action Centre (CMAC) locate landmines and unexploded ordnance.

He said: "I was Khmer Rouge but I want to put it all behind me.

"I am afraid of the mines, afraid of what lies hidden around this village; when

my son found an unexploded shell I was very frightened.

"I am worried about the children, there is a lot of danger here, but I work

to educate the community about mines and ammunition. We work together.

"A dam was built near here so now many people come to bathe, but the water is

very dirty and we often get stomach ache."

Despite the hardships, Nimeth says he is happier now than he has ever been, having

spent three years in prison at the hands of the Khmer Rouge for the crime of looking

for food to feed his starving body.

"When I was in the Khmer Rouge life was very hard. Now I am a simple man living

a simple life and I'm very happy," he said.

"I cannot answer if the peace will stay; we are facing new challenges. I cannot

make money and we have no public services. There are many obstacles: health, education

and especially access to water."

Tum Nub village chief Mao Sopha is realistic about the future. All the residents

in this settlement outside Pailin are refugees from other provinces.

He said: "It's very difficult for people to farm here because they cannot get

enough water.

"I'm lucky because I have a motorbike to bring water back from the well, but

some people live four kilometers away, further than me, and have to walk there and

back.

"It is very, very difficult for children to go to school because their families

are so poor - they must work. If we all had the money to support ourselves we could

build a school for them, but there is not even enough food in this village.

"If we had more wells there would be more water to grow food and our children

could go to school. Keo Sameth (CDCDO director) is working hard to find donors to

help us, it is easy to be positive.

"I am very happy with peace, and it will last because people want it to last."

Three weeks ago Australian Mike Roberts arrived in Pailin to take up a post as voluntary

advisor. Roberts has worked with NGOs around the world from Papua New Guinea to the

Middle East.

CBCDO has also linked up with Oxfam in an experimental reforestation project to combat

the slash and burn farming by rich individuals. If the small scale project is a success

it stands a chance of being extended, and perhaps repairing some of the damage caused.

There are no easy solutions for Pailin, none that will not require a lot of hard

work, determination and negotiation.

But Roberts said: "We've not got any money to give the people for their projects,

but we are trying to help them get it.

"There is hope here. There is a lot of hope."

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