R ATTANAK MONDOL - Phan Phon cannot remember how many times war has interrupted
his life, forcing him and his family to flee their home and land.
know, in one year I left three or four times. In total, though, I don't know -
maybe 20 or 30 times since I started living there in 1982.
would leave for a month or two, then we could go back. Now it's different - we
stay away for a long time. There is no way for us to be safe there."
Phon, his wife and seven children are veteran IDPs - Internally Displaced People
in the sterile official term - regularly made homeless by war.
- when they can live there - is Treng commune, at the heart of one of the main
frontlines of Cambodia's war with the Khmer Rouge.
Treng, about 40km from
Battambang city, has fallen into KR hands three times in the past 15
It lies mid-way on the pot-holed dirt road which is Route 10 -
linking Battambang to the KR stronghold of Pailin - in Rattanak Mondol
Scene of a protracted tug-of-war between the KR and the Royal
Cambodian army which neither side seems capable of winning, Rattanak Mondol has
become the IDP capital of Cambodia.
Tens of thousands of villagers live
like "yo-yos", as one aid worker puts it, alternatively fleeing and returning to
In a cruel irony, the land pockmarked with scars from
artillery shells and landmines that they flee is also among the most fertile in
all of Battambang. Rice, peanuts, mung beans and other crops grow
It is that - and the lack of any alternative - which keeps the
villagers returning there.
"Treng is my home," says Phon, one of 26,000
people who fled Rattanak Mondol early this year as fighting
"Here is no place for me," he says, pointing around the IDP
camp on Route 10 about 15km from Battambang where he now lives.
stayed here for four months but I just sleep and eat here. I have no way to get
a job for money, and no land to grow food.
"I have no way to get out of
Treng. I have no relatives anywhere else. I will go back there," says Phon, who
lost a leg to a mine while collecting firewood near Treng five years
Since fleeing Treng, Phon - like many other men in IDP families -
has several times run the gauntlet to briefly visit the commune to scavenge for
food and wood.
IDPs otherwise rely on food from NGOs.
enough," says Chhim Heng, another Treng refugee.
"Everyday we eat boiled
rice and water. My family uses just two or three spoons of rice, the rest is
water. It's like what we ate in the Khmer Rouge times.
"I worry a lot
about my children's health, especially about dengue fever and about their
"There are children here who have got thinner and thinner from day
to day. I don't know what happened to them."
Five Rattanak Mondol
children died of malnutrition or associated illnesses in May, prompting a boost
in NGO food programs.
A survey of nearly 1,000 children aged under 5 last
month found that 17 per cent of them had "moderate" or "severe" acute
Among those aged 6-29 months old, 21 percent were
"For some families, it's a critical problem that they
haven't got enough food," says nurse Ruth Ashe of the NGO World
"They're not in their home environment. They haven't been able to
grow vegetables and get enough types of food.
"The last two years have
been awful, the way these people have been in and out of their villages like
"The people who go back have no alternative...They say 'Well,
I've got my rice or my peanuts there. What have I got here?
Some 2,500 IDP families returned to several Rattanak Mondol
communes last month, but not Treng, while the rest are waiting till it is
"Some of the men, and the braver families, have gone back," says
Martin Fisher of the World Food Program (WFP).
peanuts or trying to get their fields going. Once the seeds are in the ground,
they can leave.
"They're ready to leave, with oxcarts full of stuff, at
any time if anything happens."
The remaining IDPs are scattered along
either side of Route 10 between two to 20km from Battambang.
They live in
makeshift shacks of bamboo, thatch and the NGO-provided blue tarpaulins which
have become the trademark of IDPs.
Vulnerable families - such as those
with ill or elderly members - can get free food from NGOs. The rest are eligible
for the WFP's Food for Work scheme, where they are paid in food for digging
canals, irrigation ditches and the like.
Some NGO staff in Phnom Penh
privately question the willingness of villagers in some parts of the country to
"throw themselves into the arms of NGOs and say 'Feed us'".
Fisher is adamant that "we are not encouraging people to become IDPs" and says
it is government policy to "get off this concept of free food".
an emergency, we will respond to it but nobody would choose to leave their
homes, even if there was free food.
"If they knew we were doing a rice
distribution on a Friday, maybe they would wait until the Saturday to return
home, but if they have to work for their food, they'll say sod this, I'd rather
get back to my land."
The cycle of war and IDPs is by no means limited to
The districts of Banan, Mong Russey and Bavel - hit hard
by scorched-earth attacks by the Khmer Rouge - have between them produced as
many IDPs as Rattanak Mondol.
Further west, KR attacks on the town of
Poipet recently sent 23,000 IDPs to the Banteay Meanchey town of
In Battambang, some IDPs have been away from their homes for
over a year, losing at least two rice crops.
"I don't know whether it's a
KR policy to totally destabilize food production, but they're doing a good job
of it," says Fisher.
The rice crisis has ensured it is not only IDP areas
affected. Of the 75 communes in Battambang, 45 are on the WFP's target list for
As well as malnutrition, the health dangers - for IDPs
and others - include respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, malaria, dengue fever and
For those close to the war, mines, shells and bullets can be
added to the list.
Ruth Ashe tells the story of a mother from S'dao
commune, near Treng, whose family was systematically devastated by a combination
The woman, nine-months pregnant, stepped on a mine and lost
her leg and her baby. Her husband later also trod on a mine. One of her four
children died of malaria.
Last month, the women's husband went to
neighboring Pursat province to collect bamboo to sell. He was killed by a
trip-wired grenade set up to kill pigs.
"His wife is absolutely
despondent and desperate. She has no work skills, no way to make money and three
children to look after."
But Ashe maintains that despite everything, even
Rattanak Mondol has its positive side.
She points to the district's local
hospital staff, who, when the local hospital at S'dao was destroyed by the KR
last May, had medical services up and running again within two days.
same staff now run three medical clinics in IDP areas.
Mondol may be the most disadvantaged district in Battambang, but it has one of
the best district health staff...continuing to work under terrible conditions in
a war zone," says Ashe.
Meanwhile, Phan Phon and Chhim Heng wait in hope
for the day when that war zone may become peaceful.
Heng, asked what his
biggest wish in the world is, gives the simplest of replies: "To do farming."