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Misery as 40,000 flee fighting in B'bang

Misery as 40,000 flee fighting in B'bang

S OME of the estimated 40,000 refugees fleeing along Battambang's Route 10 from

the Khmer Rouge advance went by oxcart, others by motorcycles, but most walked.

A month earlier, people in the villages of Rattanak Mondol talked of

moving into new rice lands.

Despite the bright red deadhead signs and

tape that marked some of the most heavily mined acres in Cambodia, local people

did not fear the future.

The RCAF were pushing the Khmer Rouge from

Pailin, it seemed, the rich acres of western Battambang would be opened to the

returnees and internally displaced people living in Sdau and the small villages

which dotted surrounding countryside.

Three weeks later the villagers of

Rattanak Mondol were moving again, This time most did not even have time to

pack.

"We brought the children and one old bike", said Tom Kuhn, whose

six children were gathered near her underneath a fruitless tree.

"Everybody walked. We put the luggage on the bicycle and the children

carried small luggage. I carried the baby.

"I left the ax, the spade, all

the wooden spoons. But the only thing I worry about is the house. It had such a

good roof, the best thatched roof," Tom Kuhn continued, staring at the ground as

she breast fed her youngest child.

Many who fled took their families to

safety, only to return to the village of Sdau, Treng and Snung, in which

shelling and fighting continue, to retrieve possessions and animals.

Motor taxi drivers would only carry people to the edge of villages, then

each person had to make their own way.

"It's all I could take," said

Sophat, looking at the small bundle of clothing strapped with green plastic

twine to her bicycle's handlebars. "I brought my mother out. Then I went back to

Treng to get what I could. It was seven in the morning. Shells were falling so I

left without taking as much as I wanted. Everything I own is there."

"I

promised my children," said an exhausted Chei Sarin, clutching his dog Pram.

"The dog pined for the house and ran back when we were only 3 km from Bung

Ampil.

"The children cried for the dog so I promised I would find him. I

kept going with my family and settled them. It was too dark to go back so I went

this morning. There was shelling and nobody around except soldiers. But the dog

was underneath the tree by the house. I just called his name and he came as if

nothing was wrong."

Many refugees streaming along Route 10 are returnees

from the Thai border camps. Others were displaced by fighting last year between

government forces and the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Bantey Meanchey

province.

"I spent 11 years in Sok San camp," said 62-year- old Preah

Pram, squatting next to two bulging blue plastic bags stamped United Nations

High Commission for Refugees. "Then I was moved to Sdau. Now I'm in Phum Krapov

[Crocodile Village]. We'll keep going if it's not safe."

A woman standing

beside him said: "We don't have a tent, a roof. When the rains come we will die

if we don't have a roof."

Many of the refugees huddled in the shadow of

Crocodile Mountain were worried how they would survive.

Open trucks

bearing troops and the occasional tank or heavy artillery hurtled down the road

through the lines of walkers, carts and cattle.

Weaving among them were

market sellers with fully grown pigs stuffed into wicker baskets slung across

the back seat of the motorcycles.

People along the road said the

motorized meat buyers were paying less than half what they would have paid for

swine the month before.

"Can you help us? We left the rice. The chicken

and the ducks are still there," said Veng Sey, who had camped his family of ten

under the rafters of a half-built school house.

Despite the worries of

many, some of the refugees had set up a volleyball net in the small space in

front of the school and played a fierce game while Sey talked.

Earlier

this year Sey's family had fled from fighting in Samlaut district. "I only have

enough rice for tonight. When the new people arrived in this town prices

immediately went up. It's always like that for new people."

"The agencies

all want to do something for these people," said a relief worker in Battambang

city. "But until they stop moving and stay in one place it's logistically

impossible. And they've managed to get out before the shelling began in their

villages. They've been through this before."

Not everyone who wanted to

flee could.

"We had to leave some handicapped people behind because they

couldn't walk," said Kahn Sot, a rice farmer from Sdau.

"Some of the old

people couldn't walk very far so we left them 2-3km from where we started. They

had water but I don't know what they will do for food."

On Saturday

night, as the empty white clouds which harbinger Cambodia's rainy season

gathered at dusk, the front line lay in Treng, 20 km from Crocodile Village.

By 5.30 pm on Sunday, Crocodile Village had become a RCAF stronghold.

The villagers who had been refugees were now joined by the ice-cream

sellers and rice farmers who owned the fields the first refugees had camped in

the night before.

By Sunday night the front line had moved back several

km. Phnom Sampoa market had been emptied, and the army had stationed artillery

at the roadside, pointed toward the new front.

After heavy artillery

duels between the Khmer Rouge and the government all through the night, Monday

morning, May 2 found some farmers, barely 10 km from Battambang, packing rice

stores onto trucks in case they, too, had to abandon their homes. Rumors in

Battambang said the refugees were not being allowed further east than the army

camp, to ensure calm in the city.

Trucks with tables, mattresses,

plastic buckets and rice passed into the town, though, and even one or two

oxcarts.

But for 12 km along Route 10, from the edge of Battambang to

within 1 km of Phnom Sampoa, people camped under oxcarts, trees, houses, Thai

mats and blue plastic sheeting from the refugee camps. Some camped simply

beneath the sky.

"I sent the children ahead in an oxcart" said Saroun as

dusk fell.

She walked with a pole balanced across her shoulders.

At one end hung blackened cooking pots. On the other, three chickens

with trussed wings dangled as they pecked for food at the dusty air. "I don't

know where we'll finish."

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