P EACE in Cambodia's northwest has prompted a headlong rush for land which has resulted
in the death or injury of at least 50 soldiers from land mines in the past three
Soldiers interviewed early November along national route 10 - which runs from Battambang
to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold at Pailin - revealed that senior officers had
ordered them into heavily mined areas near Treng commune to mark out land claims.
The soldiers, approximately 350 of which had been sent to the region from Phnom Penh
and several provincial commands, reckon at least 50 of their number had been killed
or wounded as they marked land claims by blazing trees.
Demining groups are also investigating allegations that mines from government stocks
are still being laid, probably to protect new land claims.
Soldiers interviewed confirmed they had been laying new mines, but claimed they only
did so to kill animals for food to supplement meager rations.
According to figures from the Mine Action Group (MAG), "new" or "unknown"
minefields in the Battambang region had recently maimed at least two civilians.
Several sources said land grabbing by senior officers of the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces is not unusual and had caused problems in the past.
"In early October we were asked to survey areas in Kompong Speu province for
the resettlement of previous inhabitants," said MAG's Archie McCarron.
"But when we got there we discovered large signs saying this land now belongs
to this or that General," he said
"This has the potential to cause great embarrassment for us - we don't want
to clear land for humanitarian purposes if it is going to end up belonging to a general."
McCarron went on to say he would continue to seek high level assurances that land
cleared of mines by MAG would not be appropriated by military or administrative officials.
According to diplomatic, military and demining sources, the government's enthusiasm
to gain road access to Pailin could provide access and encouragement for people to
move into extremely dangerous surrounding territory.
One noted that without road access, Pailin remained economically and politically
autonomous, despite the rhetoric of recent "integration" ceremonies.
Accordingly, he said, both Prime Ministers, and Hun Sen in particular, saw the opening
of route ten as an urgent priority leading to fears that demining groups may come
under pressure to "rush" the job.
The United States' Ambassador to Cambodia has already given in-principle support
to fund work on route ten and CMAC is investigating the situation along the 20 kilometer
stretch between front line positions and Pailin.
But any survey and consequent reconstruction will be a big job - from the air, significant
sections of the road close to Pailin appear to have been overgrown with jungle and
as one western military advisor put it: "This is really dirty country. Its swampy,
overgrown, malarial and mined..."
CMAC Senior Technical Advisor John Hampson suggested road access to Pailin was still
some way off because deminers were facing an unusually difficult task.
"Apart from being one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, this section
of route ten is extremely difficult to demine - it would have to be one of the most
difficult operations that we've ever done," Hampson said.
"The mines here are deeply buried, at least half a meter below the surface,
so they are very difficult to detect. Sometimes there are stacks of anti tank mines
with an anti-personnel mine on top which is connected to the surface by a stick.
"If you step on the stick you set off the mines - its a very dangerous setup,"
"The other thing we've heard from General Neap [a divisional commander on route
ten], is that he has set up some sort of chemical booby traps along the road.
"We're not sure exactly what it is yet - it might just be bags of CS [tear gas]
powder. We're calling in as much information as we can get, but we don't know what
it [the chemical] is yet.
"The whole process is going to be very slow and very difficult - you can't do
it in a big rush."
Meanwhile, Battambang authorities and demining groups have expressed concern that
the push to open route ten - which passes through what one expert described as "the
most heavily mined place on the planet" - will create a flood of civilians seeking
access to new land and the gem and timber wealth in areas near Pailin.
You Sang, the deputy director of Battambang's provincial hospital, said he and his
staff were bracing themselves for an increase in mine casualties as the confidence
in a lasting peace grew.
"We are very worried about this," he said. "Now the fighting has stopped,
people will feel safer and will move back into these areas."
Sang said provincial authorities had embarked on a campaign to remind people of the
mine danger, but added economic necessity would likely force people to take risks.
"Even if village and commune sites are cleared of mines, these people will have
to move into dangerous areas to herd cattle and to cut wood," he said.
At the instigation of the Royal Government, the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC)
began clearing three commune sites on route ten soon after the August breakaway of
Khmer Rouge forces based at Pailin and Phnom Malai.
The clearing program is designed to provide safe land for the resettlement of at
least one thousand families displaced by fighting during and since the 1994 dry season
CMAC's site one - located just past Sdao at a point about 35 kilometers along route
ten from Battambang's provincial capital - was first mined in 1984.
Since then, according to one source who requested anonymity, the 91 hectare plot
had claimed 25 lives and maimed a further 151 people.
According to the source, the site was chosen because it was an elevated spot in an
area of swamp and dense vegetation. Soon it will be home to 350 families who will
still face considerable danger.
"This area was 'killed' by government forces," the source said. "The
soldiers laid a lot of mines here to protect the approaches to Sdao and to prevent
the Khmer Rouge from ambushing government convoys.
"We have only cleared 19 hectares so far and we have found 370 anti-personnel
mines, eight anti-tank mines and 86 [items of] unexploded ordinance (UXO)."
He said CMAC could make the commune site safe for habitation, but the surrounding
area would still remain dangerous.
"The people want to settle here, so they will come. But they must go out to
cut wood and to earn a living, so they will still get injured."