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'Not afraid' at age 13

'Not afraid' at age 13

HEL lies on a bed wrapped in his green mosquito net. His eyes burn with the fever

he caught several weeks ago, and from time to time his body shakes with coughing.

Hel, who doesn't own anything but a green hammock, is one of many soldiers in the

Siem Reap military hospital. He's 13 years old. He has been in the army for more

than two years.

"My father was killed by a witch when I was nine. He forbade her to enter his

field and the witch put a curse on him," explains Hel, one of seven children

his mother had to look after.

The boy whispers his answers to questions with short sentences. "I was looking

after the cow at home, but I was very lazy. My mother got angry with me and chased

me," said Hel.

The boy joined the army at the Division 11 headquarters based in his home district.

"I like to be a soldier because they have a very nice uniform," he says,

a dimple appearing on his left cheek as he smiles.

Hel, when unsure of how to answer a question, shyly looks at the injured soldier

in the next bed for guidance. Man Sankriem, about 30, is Hel's chief and the boy

accompanied him to the hospital after he was injured in a skirmish with the Khmer

Rouge near Top Svay in early August.

Hel, who later came down with malaria, was also there. It was his first battle since

joining the army.

"The Khmer Rouge came from the east, they started fighting us. It lasted two

hours. I was not afraid and I fired back one shot," he says proudly. He doesn't

know if he hit somebody.

He declares that is happy to be in the army, because "it's better than looking

after the cows".

Hel didn't have any training when he joined. At first, he carried supplies and cooked

for the other soldiers. After a while he was given a gun - a 'CKC' - as he calls

it: "A coup par coup."

Everyone around him in the hospital laughs when he says what kind of gun he was using.

It's a single-shot rifle, not very efficient. But - after his comrades sawed off

part of the butt to make the weapon lighter - at least he could carry it.

Hel is proud of the gun, and of being a soldier. "I'm not afraid," he repeats.

"I'm not afraid of being injured. I'm not afraid of the mines - I know where

they are."

While chosen to accompany his chief to hospital, Hel would have preferred to stay

and fight. "I would have liked to go to Samrong and O' Smach to fight with the

others," he says.

Samkriem listens to Hel, and from time to time adds a few of his own comments.

"Hel is very brave. He doesn't fall down when he shoots his gun," he says,

earnestly trying to stop the laughter of the people around.

Sankriem protects Hel, whom he helped to join the army.

"I went to see his family and they are very poor. So I offered to help out and

I gave 60,000 riels to his mother. It is logical that he joined the army because

in his family he does not have enough food," he says.

Hel adds that another of his brothers joined the army in Phnom Penh.

Asked if he thinks it is a good idea for a kid to be a soldier, Sankriem says: "When

you are young you are free, not yet married and you do not have children, so it is

possible to join."

Sankriem underlines that Hel joined in the fighting like any regular soldier. "I

only hide him during inspections because underage soldiers are forbidden," he

explains. That rule, according to human rights workers and anyone who visits the

front-lines, is frequently ignored by forces on both sides of the conflict.

Hel, just before he falls back to sleep, says that of a group of 20 soldiers in his

unit, five were boys of about the same age as him.

Hel goes to sleep, and Sankriem looks at him. "I myself entered in the army

when I was 14 years old," he says. That was 15 years ago.

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