O'SMACH - The United States Stars and Stripes flag flutters
over the top of this rebel stronghold - a bizarre reminder of the
hope that Nhiek Bun Chhay's forces once had for US government
aid following the visit of congressman Dana Rohrabacher last year.
O'SMACH - The United States Stars and Stripes flag flutters over the top of
this rebel stronghold - a bizarre reminder of the hope that Nhiek Bun Chhay's forces
once had for US government aid following the visit of congressman Dana Rohrabacher
Actually, the flag - tattered into shreds by the wind - flies on a pole of PVC plastic
piping above a bombed-out armored personnel carrier, which sits protecting the entrance
to Bun Chhay's own personal underground bunker. The bunker is long unused now.
Perhaps even more bizarre is the sight of government and rebel soldiers - mortal
enemies at the beginning of the month - now sitting side by side playing cards, getting
drunk, making harnesses for buffalo and doing other assorted craft works, like dismantling
shelled houses to scavenge wood for their own projects.
Rohrabacher left the flag behind but contributed little else to O'Smach, aside from
a healthy dose of rhetoric (describing, for instance, the rebel O'Smach as the "only
real democracy" in Cambodia), culminating in his resolution before congress
condemning Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But with last week's announcement of an amnesty for Bun Chhay and the reintegration
of his ex-RCAF forces, the prospect of a home-grown peace for the area now looks
However, reminders that this has been a battle ground for 18 months are everywhere
and are likely to remain a long time after future reintegration ceremonies are performed,
photographed and forgotten.
A bombed-out armored personnel carrier, which sits
protecting the entrance to Bun Chhay's own personal
underground bunker. The bunker is long unused now.
O'Smach is a township divided in half - the RCAF holds the Cambodian hill, which
runs down to a 50m-wide strip of mined No-Man's Land, running up again to "O'Smach
II", a hill hugging the Thai border held by Bun Chhay's ex-Funcinpec resistance.
The moto ride (40kms, 420-baht a day up to the front line) from Samrong to O'Smach
ends abruptly at a broken wooden bridge. Government soldiers guarding it say it was
destroyed by mines.
"I'm not scared," says the moto taxi driver, "I used to come here
all the time, even during the heavy fighting."
Why? I needed the money, he says evenly. He points out items of scenic interest along
the red-dirt road - a surprisingly good one - through the largely uninhabited tall
grasslands. "Even now we're worried when we drive past Kon Kril to O'Smach,"
he says. He describes machine-gun positions set up by each warring side just 100m
off either side of the road.
Every so often one comes across a skeletal village, and perhaps the odd RCAF soldier
on patrol. "They're from the former KR Division 15," says the taxi driver.
"They are jealous of us," he says. "They could be robbers".
Into O'Smach, over the hill and past the broken bridge, the natural stop from entering
the deadly stretch of flat No-Man's Land is - oddly - a bed without a mattress plonked
down in the middle of the road. Here is the "RCAF O'Smach", and a few soldiers
mooch around scavenging timber.
This 13-year-old has packed a lot in a short life: a former RCAF soldier
who defected to "man" this rebel machine-gun post in O'Smach.
They aren't worried that some-one would like to cross the front lines and head to
"rebel" O'Smach, just a pistol shot away on the next hill. In fact one
of them is happy to give some advice.
"Don't go to the top of the hill by the road because there are plenty of mines.
You have to go up the narrow path," he says helpfully.
The occasional soldier ostensibly guards the path but a cigarette or a few hundred
riel soon clears the way.
Along the path one of the few houses still remaining upright is being demolished
by soldiers to build their own homes now that the fighting appears to be over.
It is touching scene of cooperation. When asked about the way to the rebel-held O'Smach
one of the government soldiers gestures to his workmate and says: "Ask him!
He's a para [rebel soldier], he knows the way." The para's name is Pil So Van.
Actually, quite a few people know the way, despite the heavily mined roads leading
up to O'Smach.
The soldier confesses that there is a "secret gate" into the area that
is known to apparently only a few from both sides so they can visit each other. However
he quickly adds it is "unofficial."
But the "secret gate" is no guarantee of safety.
Huge homemade mines mainly made from fertilizer and fuel oil guard the way. Both
hillocks and the entire 50m-wide stretch of vacant land between them are thick with
Rebel Pil So Van (left), the Post's guide through the "secret gate",
relaxes with his new-found RCAF friends in O'Smach.
Their trip wires cross the path which wends its way through head-high grass. But
there is one route, through the grass but carefully only to the width of one person's
shoulders, where it's possible to tip-toe through.
So Van comes across one of the wires - just 50m from the RCAF base - concedes to
the one following behind him that it's there, and gives it a bit of a kick with his
sandaled foot. In answer to the alarmed suggestion that he nearly killed himself
and the person following, So Van laughs and explains it needed a bit more force to
detonate the mine.
Another rebel soldier said that many people who fled Phnom Penh after participating
in the September street demonstrations made their way to O'Smach, and there bribed
government soldiers to let them cross the mined hills via this "secret gate".
The new grass which has sprung up so high since the beginning of the rainy season
contrasts with the trees and logs on the hill of rebel-held O'Smach. Each one is
scarred with shrapnel and scorched by explosions.
The guide points out key aspects of the resistance defenses, particularly the bunkers
which he says are reinforced with timber and dirt so that they could withstand the
daily rocket attacks.
However, most people here seem more concerned with comfort rather than safety.
Bunker construction has given way to house construction.
Smoky bonfires in the area mark the rebels store of timber for house-building. A
timber market in the area has been mutally agreed to belong to the government soldiers.
There is a relaxed atmosphere inside the camp.
Two RCAF tanks which have been moved back 100m from the
O'Smach frontline - but still pointing in the right direction.
Bin Saloeun, the rebel commander of Regiment One, Division Nine, offers a tour of
the camp once he has finished his lunch of rice and a green papaya salad.
Saloeun is happy to explain their guerrilla tactics and relates past battles.
As he walks round the camp he points out items of interest: the place where an APC
was hit by a rocket; the commanders house, now destroyed.
"During the fighting we used to make homemade mines with 250-liter drums, three
bags of fertilizer and some metal and pieces of glass, cans, nails. Anything that
could kill," he says.
He says the mines were very effective because he had a pair of night vision glasses,
so he could see the government troops sneak up during the dark, and then he would
detonate the mine when they were close to it.
The mines made a terrible sound, he says, and killed a lot of soldiers.
Saloeun says he would like to be reintegrated into the RCAF but he is not sure that
he can trust the government and until he is reassured that it is not all a trick,
he will stay where he is.
"I have no salary here but the food and medicine is adequate and we do not have
malaria because we are eating and drinking well.
"I will be staying here until the government and the resistance join and find
real democracy in Cambodia."
As an aside, Saloeun adds that when Rohrabacher visited here he told the soldiers
that O'Smach was the only area of Cambodia that had "real democracy" and
the soldiers should keep up the struggle for it. However many of the soldiers in
O'Smach seem more than prepared to forego the struggle if there is a peaceful alternative.
One of Saloeun's soldiers sitting next to him says that he has been in the army for
12 years and this is the hardest fighting he has ever been in. But he concedes that
they do have good bunkers to avoid the worst of the govern-ment's shelling.
He says he would like to be reintegrated with the army but he is concerned that he
will be badly treated by his new commander because he was a rebel.
"We worry that when we are under their command they will take some revenge on
us but we do not hate them," he says.
He says he is disappointed that the fighting in O'Smach has destroyed so much and
cost so much.
If the effort and money had have gone into developing the area it would be a very
good place to live, he reckons.
Other soldiers tell similar stories. Pil Sovan, 33, now spends his days trying to
gather enough wood to make a house. He hopes soon to be able to return to a normal
"I don't know yet about integration but I don't want to fight any more. But
all this depends on the top man," he says.
Meanwhile the arrival of RCAF soldiers into O'Smach - many of whom have turned up
to buy alcohol from the local market - has added a surreal atmosphere to sur-roundings.
They argue and gossip about when attacks had been planned, and who called them off,
The rebels say that the government had plans for a big push on Nov 13, but a government
officer scoffs and says the rebels had planned to attack in October but could not
get their soldiers to fight.
"They sent the force to fight us but their soldiers did not attack, we had to
pursue them to fight them," he says.
He quickly adds that the contact between the two groups of soldiers is unofficial
because there has been no reintegration arrangement made yet.
The officer says that there were two divisions in O'Smach who did not like each other
- Division 9 and a special division.
"When they fought each other the bullets would sometimes drop into the RCAF-controlled
areas," he says.
It is good that the politicians are working towards a peaceful settlement, the officer
says, because RCAF had heard that O'Smach was about to be reinforced.
"We received some news that Ta Mok has sent troops to O'Smach." Everyone
- even the taxi-driver who is patiently waiting for his client to return from across
the front line - says that the Khmer Rouge of Ta Mok fought side-by-side with the
"para" soldiers of Bun Chhay and his military deputy, the recently-elected
Funcinpec MP for Kampong Cham, Khan Savoeun.
But not everyone is confident peace will last.
Loy Ny, who claims to be just 13-years-old and a front line soldier from the RCAF's
Division 3, says he heard that if the reintegration issue is not sorted out by the
end of the month, fighting will start again.
However there is another tangible sign that life is getting back to normal.
The new market now set up in O'Smach is starting to do a brisk business, particularly
the drinks shop. Marketeers say that RCAF soldiers often come through for an early
morning drinking session.
Khien Kam, 30, is one marketeer who has returned to set up shop. She came back because
"it is the best place for business".
"I had a very difficult life when we moved out from here last year," she
says. "It was hard to find business in Samrong and other areas."
Meanwhile one group that is keen to see an end to the fighting is the military hospital
Hospital chief Lom Siem says they have had to battle a lack of supplies and equipment.
The hospital managed to borrow serum from a private pharmacy in the town but their
biggest handicap is the inability to test blood for malaria or typhoid.
"Yesterday (Nov. 18), one of the soldiers from the front line died because he
got typhoid and we treated him for malaria.
"We have no way of checking. We just have to look at the reports from the front
Even though the fighting has ended for now they still need medicine, he says, to
treat wounded civilians, particularly the farmers and hunters who are wounded by
Siem will not miss having to treat the wounded rebel soldiers because they had to
be guarded 24 hours a day.
"When we treated the resistance forces who were sent here we had to work hard.
We had to patrol them because they are in the same room as their enemy.
"The wounded government soldiers used to say bad things to them. The resistance
side was quiet and afraid of other side.
"We were afraid one of them would kill the other side, even if they had pain
from their wounds," Siem says.