Preah Vihear province
Sitting under a tent strung up outside a pagoda wall, Chan Vang waits for the day when she can return home.
Like more than 10,000 villagers evacuated from areas along the Thai border due to recent clashes around Preah Vihear temple, Chan Vang – who suffers from high blood pressure – was hurriedly evacuated from her village of Thamacheat in Preah Vihear province, where bombs rained down during the four days of clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops.
“I stayed under tents here during the day and nighttime,” said Chan Vang, 55, sitting on a mat with a few of her grandchildren sleeping nearby.
“I don’t know when I can go back home, maybe I will stay here until the fighting has stopped.”
Evacuees are being housed at various locations in Thnal Keng village, in Kulen district’s Thmey commune, some 90 kilometres from the temple.
Crowds of people flocked outside the entrance of Tuol Kandorl pagoda in the village on Wednesday, waiting for relief from the Cambodian Red Cross and other local NGOs, which handed out food packages and tents to evacuees to use as basic shelters.
The fighting, which erupted on Friday morning and gave way to an uneasy truce on Monday, has left five Cambodian soldiers, including a civilian, dead and 45 troops injured.
The skirmishes unleashed a barrage of artillery shells on both sides of the border, prompting an exodus of villagers from areas close to the fighting, many of whom said they fled without a chance to grab supplies and basic necessities for their evacuation.
Chan Vang said the conditions at the evacuation camp, despite the best intentions of the authorities, were harsh.
“When I came here at the first day, I slept under the dew the whole night,” she said, adding that villagers had no place to dispose of rubbish and other waste matter.
On Wednesday, young children – bare-chested or clad in dusty, unwashed clothes – played inside the pagoda compound.
Many of the villagers interviewed by The Post said the lack of sanitation and proper sleeping quarters at the pagoda posed significant health risks to them and their children.
They say their return to villages close to Preah Vihear still remains uncertain as tensions between Cambodia and Thailand continue.
Adding to her anxiety, Chan Vang said four of her nine sons were soldiers now deployed at a military camp close to the “hot” battlefields of Phnom Trop and Chak Chreng.
Since the death of her husband, a former soldier who perished about 20 years ago while fighting against the Khmer Rouge insurgency, Chan Vang has had to rely on her children.
“I have no information from my sons,” she said.
Many villagers, mostly women and children, are now scattered at Tuol Kandorl pagoda – the main evacuation site – and a primary school in the village, though others are also seeking alternative accommodation in the village.
The number of evacuees has been steadily increasing since Monday, despite the skirmishes drawing to a close.
Another villager, 44-year-old Pheng Sophay, staying in a tent under a mango tree on the pagoda grounds, said on Wednesday that if the fighting continues, his family – including four young children – will start to suffer from food and water shortages.
“I would rather stay here under the mango tree – it is better than inside the pagoda as it is not so crowded,” he said, as his wife cooked food in a nearby rice field, while holding their infant child.
“The situation [at our village] is still bad and my village chief won’t allow me to go back. Staying here we cannot do anything, but it is safer.”
Chum Poy, the governor of Kulen district who has spearheaded the drive to provide accommodation to the evacuees, said that approximately 3,000 families – totaling more than 11,000 mostly women and children – are being sheltered in Kulen, and that they will be returned to their home villages when the situation on the border returns to normal.
“There are shelters at three locations here,” Chum Poy said.
“We will allow them to go back homes when the fighting is stopped. We won’t send them back to die in their homes.”
Chum Poy said that some people had remained in their villages, braving the dangers of a resumption of hostilities.
Though he did not know the exact numbers, he said the authorities would transport emergency supplies to them.
A soldier at Preah Vihear, who gave his name only as Chamroeun, said today that the situation continues to be tense along the frontlines, as Thailand has reinforced its troops and deployed more heavy artillery, including tanks, at the border.
He said a Thai grenade exploded on the Wednesday night at about 10pm, and that Thai soldiers let loose a brief burst of bullets at Cambodian positions around 5am this morning, but added that the Cambodian soldiers did not respond.