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O'Smach vets battle mines & malaria

O'Smach vets battle mines & malaria

osmach.jpg
osmach.jpg

Government soldiers rip down villiagers' houses on land earmarked for a casino at O'Smach

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T least one former refugee has died and several others have lost limbs after 500

families were removed from their homes in O'Smach and forced onto inhospitable land,

to make way for a huge casino and hotel complex.

According to a UN official, the neighboring land was certified clear of mines by

Military Region Four.

But furious villagers protesting in Phnom Penh last month said that the land was

still mined - and that malaria was also prevalent.

Monique Sokha, of UNHCR, said she had visited the returnees in O'Smach, and had seen

one man who had trodden on a landmine.

"Both legs were blown off at the knee," she said. "He said he was

looking for thatch for his roof."

According to the villagers, another man has died from malaria since the move to the

new land, while ten others have fallen seriously ill with the disease.

Although the new land is only two kilometers from their original settlement, conditions

are far more conducive to malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

"The new land is very low lying, whereas before they were on an elevation,"

said Sokha. She added that it was also a forested area, which attracted the mosquitoes.

The evictions of the O'Smach villagers came in late August, accompanied by a "gift

giving ceremony" organized by local authorities to try and soften the blow.

Representatives from the Thai companies building the new complex, Lim Heng and Ly

Yong Phatt, distributed money and zinc roofing to some families from the area.

But the following day, the families were thrown out of their houses. One refugee

told the Post in October that there were beatings, house-burnings and threats from

the military during the evictions.

A delegation of government officials traveled to the border area late last month

to assess the situation of the returnees. Pol Lim, Chairman of the Secretariat for

National Land Disputes, said that the issue was being resolved.

"The committee has prepared another place one kilometer from the old village.

All this land has already been demined," he said. "We have resolved the

cases of 467 families."

He said that the families were receiving 10,000 baht each, but according to an earlier

statement by Senator Nhek Bun Chhay, the money had mysteriously shrunk from 10,000

to 3,000 baht. It is unclear whether there is a new settlement for 10,000 baht.

The Secretariat is traveling to land-dispute hotspots throughout the country to try

and settle claims, but in O' Smach the situation is particularly tricky, according

to Shaun Williams, Co-ordinator of the Cambodia Land Study Project, who has also

visited the site.

"The tranisiton from a principal security area to a civilian area is problematic,"

he said, referring to O' Smach's history as a resistance border post. "It's

not just because of the mines, but because the mechanisms for allocating land use

up there are pretty new."

According to Williams, the returnees have been offered two choices - an immediate

move to land further away from their current site, or an indefinite wait for land

closer to the border, which is currently still infested with landmines. There are

no guarantees as to when this land will be ready.

Pol Lim admitted that the original plan to send the refugees further away was not

popular.

"It wasn't acceptable to them, so we came up with the second plan," he

said, citing the land being offered one kilometer away. But despite this, the returnees

were still forced onto the mine-infested land first of all - where the malaria

and mine casualties occurred.

The situation for the returnees may not improve even if their land claim is finally

sorted out. A new 'international' market being built just meters from the border,

partly on the site of the villagers' old homes, is offering stalls to local traders

at vastly inflated prices, according to one official who visited the area. Many villagers

who make a living trading goods across the border are unable to afford the prices

of the new stalls, and may have to seek new ways of trading.

Some observers, including Senator Nhek Bun Chay, who commanded the resistance forces

at O'Smach in 1998, have expressed worries that the treatment of the villagers, who

include former soldiers, may lead to violence. Many of the villagers still possess

weapons from their resistance days.

Another observer who managed to visit the refugees in their makeshift homes said

the conditions were very bad.

"It's worse than a refugee camp," said the observer. "They're very

brave people, but this is an extremely volatile situation."

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