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Refugees return to mines, destruction

Refugees return to mines, destruction

K ILO 38, ROUTE 10-Refugees say authorities are coercing them to return to their

homes along Route 10 in Battambang province, even though there has been

re-mining.

One man has died and another has lost a leg after tripping

newly-laid mines at their commune on the highway, Kilo 38, said mother-of-two

Chhay Pary.

Along with other villagers she said she was told by her

district chief that rice handouts would only be made at their homes and no

longer at their refugee camp outside Battambang.

She said as she clutched

her baby: "The government said if we did not come back we would not have rice,

though we were afraid to go back. There were mines here before but they had

already been cleared.

"They have laid them again and now I am afraid to

go in my backgarden."

Following the RCAF's embarrassing withdrawal from

Pailin in April, the Khmer Rouge pushed them back along Route 10 all the way to

Phnom Sompoeu.

Some 40,000 people fled their homes along the highway

ahead of the guerrillas. But though the majority have now gone back to their

villages the re-mining and destruction caused by the fighting mean their misery

is far from over.

During a visit by the Post on June 20, a cow triggered

a newly-laid mine just off the highway at Boeng Ampil, just 100 meters in front

of photographer Gary Way. The beast lost part of a back leg and was butchered by

villagers. It was one of several to trip mines around the settlement.

The

Mines Advisory Group's Russell Bedford said that there was even evidence that

anti-personnel mines had been laid on paths between houses.

He added:

"We can't say which side is responsible as they are both using the same type of

mines."

Bedford's colleague Sandy Powell said: "There has been re-mining

but we can't say to what degree. It is going to be dangerous for the refugees at

least in the short term.

"It would help if people in the provincial

government were on the same wavelength, some are quite helpful but others

aren't."

Some villagers were even literally taking their lives in their

hands by digging up the mines themselves, or throwing rocks at them.

The

shophouses at Boeng Ampil's market were among the estimated 1,820 homes

destroyed during the fighting along the highway.

Van Som returned two

days before with her family to find their home, where she sold fruit and

vegetables, was among those burnt down.

"I'm very upset most of our

clothes and cooking things were here," she said as her son began working on

erecting the wooden framework for a new home on the ashes of their old

one.

Yut Pon, who returned with her four children and grandson, said she

was not confident that the RCAF could protect the villagers from new attacks by

the Khmer Rouge.

Pointing to hills to the northwest and south she said:

"The KR is always living in the forests and they can shell us."

The old

lady said her home had been burnt down for the third time in the last few years

and added: "Now we have to sleep on the ground."

A little farther up

from Boeng Ampil lies the wreckage of a civilian truck used by the army which

struck an anti-tank mine as it pulled out from a sideroad onto Route 10 ten days

earlier. A nearby soldier said three died and two were injured in the blast. One

of the corpses, minus arms and legs, was blown 30 meters into a field opposite

and was cremated where it lay.

At Sdau on June 20 another refugee Meng

Hieng said she had returned with her family after the government told her rice

would only be distributed at her village.

She said: "I was afraid to come

back because of the mines and DK [Khmer Rouge] shelling but I am also afraid we

would have no food."

The Ratanak Mondol district center at Sdau, like the

nearby hospital and school were burnt out and left as empty shells. The district

center was burnt out three years earlier and refurbishing work was just being

completed went it was set alight again during April's fighting.

Battambang's First Deputy Governor Gen Serei Kosal denied rice was being

used as a weapon to persuade refugees to return to their villages.

He

said: "We are not forcing anybody to go back but people want to go back quickly

before we can look for mines."

Gen Kosal estimated that two thirds of the

40,000 refugees had gone back but admitted that if all the refugees had stayed

in camps near Battambang it would have created a long-term problem.

The

rice planting season would be missed and the government and NGOs would have to

go on supporting families, he said.

Gen Kosal added that teams from MAG

and the Cambodian Mine Action Center were warning people to beware of

mines.

One Western observer said: "It is difficult to know where the

orders came from. It could have originated from the district chiefs where the

refugees were staying. They may have wanted to move them out of the way so his

own people could plant rice on the land. There may have been nothing in the

threats but it was enough to move a lot of people."

Gen Kosal said the

damage ran into several million dollars and he appealed to the outside world to

assist in reconstruction.

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