The Land of the One-Legged Man : Maimed by Years of Civil War, Cambodians No Longer Care Who Wins. They Just Want the Violence to Stop
Near the tiny town of Banan, in Cambodia’s northwestern corner, a Buddhist temple sits high atop a hill. This being one of the few vertical occurrences for miles around, the view is truly panoramic. Flat land spreads out in all directions, toward horizons Magritte could have painted, the kind that go on forever and then some more. The earth looks dry and dusty, beaten by the relentless sun. A mud-choked river the color of chocolate neatly splits the vast expanse of brush and rice fields. Clusters of bamboo shacks with thatched roofs sit along its banks.
This solitary temple is 700 years old, a survivor of the Angkor period, the golden age of the Khmer empire that once dominated much of Indochina. Three sandstone towers, a tall one symmetrically flanked by its two shorter attendants, stretch skyward. Inside, statues of the Buddha share the cool shade of the high-ceilinged domes with several hundred mortar shells.
This is a gun emplacement. Government soldiers man a Soviet-made artillery launcher perched on the edge of the hill in front of the temple; its long barrel stretches westward toward Thailand. The soldiers await orders to unleash its firepower on the countryside.
Five miles away, somewhere out in the scrub, guerrillas of the communist Khmer Rouge are camped. They launch artillery of their own and stage raids on the villages caught helplessly in between, held hostage by a war that has gone on for more than a decade for reasons no one seems to understand.
Pouk Soutin is one of those caught in the middle. One evening in May, he was in his house with his wife and four children when shells began whistling overhead, landing nearby with loud explosions. This was hardly unusual; his home lies just outside Sisophon, still one of the most hotly contested towns in Cambodia. Resistance forces regularly shell the area. Soutin and his family weren’t particularly alarmed until two shells fell on the house. Incredibly, no one was hurt. Panicking, they ran outside, behind the house, toward trenches dug for protection.
They never reached them. A shell landed on Soutin’s wife, instantly killing her and their 7-year-old daughter. The explosion severed both of Soutin’s legs. Now, lying in a hospital bed in the town of Mongkol Borey, his aunt at his side calmly shooing away flies, Soutin looks vacant as he discusses his future now that he can no longer walk or even stand. “There is nothing I can do. No one will hire me. Maybe I can open a market stall outside of my house.”
He shrugs when asked why this war has gone on for so long. Then he adds: “I don’t care who wins, just that the war ends.”
Some Cambodians, including members of the anti-government factions--the Khmer Rouge and two non-communist guerrilla groups--are proclaiming that this war without end is actually in its final stages. Peace talks, which had seemed futile since they began in 1990, last month brought results: Each faction agreed to cut its armies by 70% and contain the remaining 30% in barracks under the surveillance of a vast United Nations peace-keeping force. Representatives of the Supreme National Council, an interim body comprising government and resistance representatives, triumphantly proclaimed that an end to the war was in sight.
While the potential for peace in Cambodia is growing--an official cease-fire is now in its fifth month--an end to the people’s suffering remains very far away. And few nations know suffering as intimately as Cambodia. Granted independence from France in 1953, the country was drawn into the Vietnam conflict in 1969, when the United States attempted to curb the flow of the communist Vietcong down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing sections of northeastern Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had ruled since 1953, tolerated the presence of the Vietnamese--he correctly calculated that the communists would win in Vietnam, and he feared that his political survival could be in jeopardy if he attacked them. But in March, 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a U.S.-backed coup; two months later, the government of Lon Nol opened the door to an American invasion. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed in the bombings, and half the population abandoned the farmland and packed into the cities.
Amid the chaos, a Chinese-backed revolutionary army flourished. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had but a few thousand soldiers in 1970. Five years later, that number had reached the tens of thousands. The army chased the Americans out of Cambodia, overthrew Lon Nol, and the Khmer Rouge gained control of the nation.
Incomprehensible tragedy followed. In its attempts to build a purely agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered anyone deemed alien to its mission. Most of the nation’s artists, doctors, intellectuals and teachers--anyone who clashed with the profile of a peasant--were murdered. Wearing glasses, being able to speak a foreign language and having uncallused hands were all considered offenses against the revolution and usually resulted in death. Between 1 million and 3 million Cambodians, of a population of about 7 million, died during the more than three years of Khmer Rouge rule. People were slaughtered in the “killing fields” and dumped in pits like refuse. The seas of rotting corpses left behind were a monument to stunning brutality.
The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January, 1979, citing fears that Pol Pot would soon attack them. The Khmer Rouge fell, but the suffering continued. From the day that Vietnam installed a pro-Hanoi government in the capital, Phnom Penh, three guerrilla factions--the Sihanoukists, the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) led by former Prime Minister Son Sann--have waged war to overthrow it. They claim that the Cambodian government, headed by Premier Hun Sen, is nothing more than a puppet regime controlled by Hanoi.
The resistance would be insignificant were it not for the tremendous support of the United States and China. The Khmer Rouge’s troop strength is estimated to be about 30,000, and the KPNLF and the Sihanoukists (referred to as the “non-communist resistance” as a bloc) total no more than 25,000 men, while Phnom Penh has at least 100,000 armed men under its command. But the Khmer Rouge has received virtually limitless supplies of arms from Beijing, and refugee camps in eastern Thailand--subsidized by the United Nations International Border Relief Organization to the tune of more than $55 million per year--function as support bases, and recruitment camps, for resistance guerrillas.
The United States has spent $30 million in foreign aid since 1986 to build schools, roads and hospitals in areas close to the Thai border, where the largest part of the resistance is based. It is a strategic allocation, providing resistance-controlled enclaves within western Cambodia where refugees can be settled. It is this sliver of western Cambodia, along with a few mountain pockets across the country, that is controlled by the guerrillas. The rest of the country, where the vast majority of Cambodians live, is controlled by Phnom Penh, but, apart from a token shipment of medicine earlier this year, not a single penny of U.S. money has been spent in those areas. Aiding the resistance is viewed by policy-makers as a good way to maintain influence with China and counter Soviet influence, via Hanoi, in the region. Fragments of Cold War logic continue to drive policy, and other considerations are forgotten, including the fact that several hundred thousand Cambodians and Americans died during the failed effort to prevent the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge--the very group now indirectly supported.
Although all U.S. aid to the resistance is classified as “non-lethal,” it provides uniforms, medicine and everything short of arms necessary to fight a war to the KPNLF and the Sihanoukists, both of which share supplies with the Khmer Rouge. In July, 1990, stung by charges that U.S. policy was boosting the chances of the Khmer Rouge, the Bush Administration withdrew diplomatic recognition of the non-communists. But Washington continues to funnel some $10 million a year in aid to the groups, which, according to diplomatic sources, also received as much as $20 million in covert military aid from the United States last year. Sixteen years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War rages on.
Yet it is, in part, the influence of China and the United States that has pushed the peace talks forward. If the promised reduction in forces occurs, it will smooth the way for further negotiations of a U.N. peace plan that has been on the table for more than a year. Progress on the plan has been escalated by the recent rapprochement between China and Vietnam--Beijing has encouraged the Khmer Rouge to end hostilities. The State Department also has insisted that the United States will not normalize relations with Hanoi until there is a comprehensive settlement, preferably one that would end the Hun Sen regime. The plan would bring a U.N. peacekeeping force into Cambodia in the near future to work with the Supreme National Council to supervise free elections. The current cease-fire has been extended and strengthened by the presence of the U.N. monitors. The peace talks will resume in October.
But the issue of who will rule between disarmament and elections has yet to be resolved. Agreements about surrendering weapons are complicated by the difficulty of knowing how many guerrillas lurk in the hills and how many arms are stashed underground. Parties to the talks have gained international distinction for changing their minds with little notice and even less explanation. And what goes on when diplomats meet is decidedly different from what occurs on battlefields and in villages. For now, the suffering continues.
Fifteen-year-old Khon sits on a mattress in a bare room at the Australian Red Cross hospital in Cong Pong Speu province, a half-day’s drive south of Phnom Penh. Her legs dangle over the edge of the bed, but one ends abruptly just below the knee. It was amputated three days before, after Khon, who had been tending the oxen in the family fields, stepped on a land mine. Three hours later, having been ferried by truck with no anesthesia, Khon arrived at the hospital.
“The trademark of this country is the one-legged man,” says Dr. James Ellis, a burly, gregarious Australian who is the hospital’s chief surgeon. One out of every 85 Cambodians has lost a limb to a land mine, according to the International Red Cross in Phnom Penh. Mines have been scattered by all four armies for years. They can be hard to spot--many are no larger than a camera lens cap, and some can float, permitting them to be carried by the rivers and irrigation ditches that take them to virtually any farm anywhere. One hears loud booms several times a day as they are set off. Often cows wander over them and are killed. Sometimes people do.
Prang Choeun stepped on a mine in May and lost her foot. Her husband had to sell the family’s oxen to pay for her medical treatment. “I’m very worried about our future,” Choeun says. “It’s going to be very difficult to make a living without our oxen.”
In another hospital nearby, 22-year-old Prak Vuth sits alone, bandages covering the sockets that once held his eyes, his left arm cut off sharply above the elbow. Prak Vuth, a government soldier, was clearing mines one night after a skirmish with Khmer Rouge forces in Cong Pong Speu province when he accidentally set off a thermal-triggered anti-personnel mine. He lay on the battlefield for almost 24 hours before he was brought to the hospital because, he says, all of the trucks under his unit’s control were being used to remove ammunition from the area; the evacuation of a wounded soldier was a lower priority.
Lack of emergency transportation and a critical shortage of blood are the things that most frustrate the hospital doctors. Most of the buildings are strikingly bare by Western standards, the insides similar to storage sheds with cement floors filled with cots, but the facilities generally have what doctors need. “We do basic Third World medicine,” says one surgeon.
The Red Cross seems to send out only the hardiest souls. Rare is the doctor in Cambodia who does not have a story about using a pair of pliers to do cranial surgery or cleaning a wound with the juice of a green coconut. “Listen, you can perform basic surgery with a butcher knife,” says the chief surgeon at another hospital. “Of course, I prefer not to have to do it that way.”
Mop Ny, 27, is recovering from his seventh operation in eight months; this time doctors cleared bone fragments from his chest. Mop Ny, the captain of an A-3 unit--an elite government fighting force that regularly engages the guerrillas in hand-to-hand combat--caught shrapnel in his chest when the Khmer Rouge launched a B-40 hand-held rocket from close range, killing two of the men in his unit and wounding seven others.
He is eager to rejoin his unit and get back to the battlefield; it is the only life he knows. “Pol Pot killed my father, my mother and two of my brothers. They come into the village and rob the people still. I want to avenge that,” Mop Ny says. He has not heard of the U.N. peace plan, nor can he explain why the war has continued. “I don’t know when the war will end, because I don’t know about the political system. I only know fighting.”
A cease-fire was technically in place for the entire month of May, but on one day in the middle of that month at the Mongkol Borey hospital near the front lines in western Cambodia, there was no shortage of war-wounded. “Land mines don’t respect cease-fires,” says Chris Giannou, the Quebecois chief surgeon at Mongkol Borey. Neither, apparently, do soldiers and guerrillas--though the numbers of war-wounded had been down markedly in May, the cease-fire had by no means halted the fighting.
With so many weapons circulating, there would be wounded--war or no war. In April, a quarrel among three government soldiers in the middle of a village festival in Takeo province turned ugly, and the soldiers started throwing grenades into the middle of a crowd that included many children. Ten people died and more were wounded. A couple of weeks later, three people died of gunshot wounds when soldiers argued in the middle of a crowded market in Cong Pong Speu.
There are no reliable statistics on the average age of the men fighting the war in Cambodia, but it clearly is not much higher than the teens. The soldiers hospitalized at Mongkol Borey are quite young, many no older than 15, their strangely calm, childlike faces incongruous on their mangled bodies. These soldiers have generally received what they expected from life: fighting in the woods, maybe losing a limb or gaining some shrapnel, perhaps dying. For a generation of Cambodians, this is manhood.
“A lot of these guys are relieved when they get here,” a Western surgeon says. “Even the ones that have lost legs. They figure they’re not dead and they don’t have to fight anymore. Not a bad deal considering the options.”
A train loads up in Phnom Penh for its daily haul to Takeo, four hours to the south, a town not far from where fighting takes place regularly. The old French-made diesel engine is pulling 13 cars, most of them carrying freight. But one car houses a huge machine gun for protection, with a gunner in place throughout most of the journey. This is a dangerous ride. The Khmer Rouge attack trains from time to time in their attempts to spread terror through the countryside and undermine any faith the people might have in the Phnom Penh government. A large dent in the front of the locomotive made by a rocket is testament to the risks of the rails.
The locomotive driver, Sok Choeun, 40, has lived through seven ambushes in his 18-year career. He uncovers his right shoulder to reveal scars from a shrapnel wound he suffered when the Khmer Rouge ambushed his train on this very same run last April, killing seven people. “Yes, I’m afraid,” he says with a small grin, “but it’s my duty to drive the train. The train is the same as the soldier: It has to go.”
Up in front of the locomotive are two flat cars filled with people garbed in colorful batik, their belongings piled on despite the fact that the threat of mines is especially great here. Baskets of mangoes and sacks of rice crowd the dozens of chickens that lie tied together by their feet; a few live pigs are tied to bamboo poles. The sun is throbbing.
“Sometimes I worry about riding the trains, but I need to make money,” says Pokong Phoeung, 35, who was once on a train that hit a mine. Though she was unhurt, Phoeung says that many people died in that incident. Nonetheless, she makes this trip three times a week, back and forth, buying dried fish at a good price in Phnom Penh, then bringing it to Takeo to sell at the market. For each trip, she pockets a profit of about $6--not an insignificant amount, given that the average Cambodian lives on slightly more than $100 a year. Cambodians have coexisted with war for a long time and have grown accustomed to playing its percentages.
Cambodia’s gentle land nurtures an illusion of safety. Traversing the country is monotonous and hypnotic. Flat, motionless fields stretch out unbounded, the emptiness and quiet framing images of dreamlike intensity: A monk wanders alone through the paddies, his saffron robe cutting a path of flame through exquisite stillness. Farmers push their oxen through muddy earth, seemingly oblivious to the fact that each step could set off a land mine. People haul produce to and from market in ox carts and on bicycles. Children play as a twilight sun sneaks through low-hanging clouds the color of ash. The conflict is somewhere else, far away.
But nightfall changes perspective. Boundless landscapes that seem to hold nothing by day could hold anything at night. It is under cover of darkness that guerrillas are most active. They employ the element of surprise to compensate for their manpower disadvantage relative to Phnom Penh’s forces.
All along Cambodia’s major highway, a horribly rutted, mostly dirt track that connects Phnom Penh to Battambang, the largest town in the west, government soldiers are seen frequently. During the day, they look bored, sitting for hours on end at the checkpoints, eager for the cigarettes all travelers must carry if they wish to pass without hassle. (Liberation is the favored brand.) But when darkness comes, approaching vehicles on the generally quiet road are visually reduced to menacing-looking headlights--there is no way to tell who is on the way--and the soldiers’ faces take on the look of cornered animals; their automatic rifles are always at the ready.
In the villages, night is a time of fear, the time when resistance units often conduct raids. Usually, they arrive in search of food or cattle (which can be traded in Thailand for arms). But violence erupts quickly. When there is any chance that they are in danger, any slight unease, the guerrillas tend to pull the trigger.
In May, 7-year-old Nav Savy was sleeping next to her grandmother in the family’s house in Cong Pong Chhnang province, roughly in the center of the country, when guerrillas arrived. It was late at night, and Nav Savy’s mother was slow in answering. They were probably just looking for valuables to loot, but when the door didn’t open quickly, they opened fire on the house, killing Nav Savy’s grandmother. Nav Savy took shrapnel in her leg, and, while doctors say she is recovering nicely, the look on her face--one of someone a million miles away--raises doubts that the deeper wounds are healing .
“They might have been Khmer Rouge--they sometimes come to our village. But their uniforms looked a bit like KPNLF,” says Nav Savy’s mother when asked which guerrillas she was talking about. “I don’t really know who they were.” A roving band of Khmer Rouge guerrillas stumbled upon Ngoun Orn, 25, and 14 other people cutting firewood far away from their village in Cong Pong Chhnang province in May. They were kidnaped and taken to a neighboring province where they were forced to carry ammunition. Several nights later, Ngoun Orn and four others managed to escape. They made it to a village where Ngoun Orn has relatives. But the guerrillas followed them and fired a rocket at the house where Ngoun Orn lay sleeping, puncturing his lung and sending shrapnel into his intestines. His family had to carry him by hammock all through the night and well into the next day to get him to a hospital.
There, he scoffed when asked if the Khmer Rouge has any popular support in the area. “When they come, they take rice and chicken and fish from the village and they never pay. Nobody likes them.” And the KPNLF, what about them? “They are the same. Sihanouk too--all the same. They betray the people.”
On a muggy morning in May, Chan Somoc walked through the lobby and into the ballroom of the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Phnom Pen--an elegant remnant of French rule. Unescorted, and showing no signs of having been physically coerced, Somoc, a Khmer Rouge soldier who had recently defected, walked past half a dozen foreign journalists and sat down alone at a table set up for him. Though slightly ill at ease, Somoc answered questions directly and earnestly, painting a picture of a tripartite resistance devoted solely to its own material gain--a well-armed gang of thieves wandering through the countryside, killing and stealing under the banner of nationalism. “I have seen everything with my own eyes,” he says. “Their (the Khmer Rouge’s) main activities are plundering the people, raping the women and destroying the country.”
Somoc said he joined because the Khmer Rouge had motorbikes and lots of rice, and he quit after recognizing that the resistance is responsible for mass destruction and terror. Most important, Somoc claimed that any distinction made between the non-communists and the Khmer Rouge is artificial, that the Khmer Rouge has infiltrated much of the Sihanoukist and KPNLF leadership. He himself claims to have infiltrated the Sihanoukists under orders from his Khmer Rouge commander.
This is, of course, precisely the image of the resistance Phnom Penn wishes to convey to the world in order to halt the flow of arms to its opponents. The State Department would not disagree with the charge that the Sihanoukists and the KPNLF cooperate tactically with the Khmer Rouge. In fact, Congress passed new legislation last year mandating a halt to all U.S. funds flowing to the resistance if any of the money is shown to reach the hands of the Khmer Rouge--a clear sign of alarm within some quarters in Washington that the connections between the non-communists and the Khmer Rouge were getting too close for comfort.
Ties between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge are hardly new. The prince was, in fact, instrumental to Pol Pot’s rise to power in 1975, forming a united front with the Khmer Rouge after he was deposed by Lon Nol. In one of history’s most tragic instances of sour grapes, Sihanouk exhorted his followers to support Pol Pot, claiming that he would be best able to defend Cambodia’s sovereignty in the face of foreign intrusion. Sihanouk’s face--an icon of Cambodian nationalism--was plastered across their banners. Then, as now, Sihanouk seems to follow whatever path appears most likely to lead back to the palace.
It is often taken for granted that Sihanouk would win any election, that he continues to be loved by his people, especially among the older generation who remember the relative peace and prosperity of his rule. But there is no shortage of people who despise him.
“Sihanouk is the Khmer Rouge,” says Pali Hoi Sem at his stall in the Sisophon market where his family sells clothing. “I like Hun Sen. He has much affection for the people of Cambodia.”
Although it is not clear who would win a free election, Hun Sen, the charismatic premier, certainly cannot be ruled out. He has distanced himself from Hanoi, sacking several Vietnamese-controlled ministers in recent years, and has ushered in sweeping economic reforms. He is often praised by foreign-aid workers in Phnom Penh for his effective crafting of a functioning government.
“Considering what he had to work with when he took power, I think he’s done a remarkable job in bringing back basic social services, particularly in the field of health,” says the director of a major international aid organization, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the government remains repressive--Amnesty International claims in its 1991 report that at least 200 political prisoners are being held without trial, and that some are being tortured--and though Hun Sen has cultivated a considerable base of popular support, the issue of Cambodian sovereignty still strikes a chord with many. Vietnamese military advisers remain in the country despite the fact that Hanoi officially withdrew from Cambodia in 1988. Claims that Vietnamese troops remain as well are widespread, both on the street and in diplomatic circles. The accusation that Hun Sen’s government is being run by Cambodia’s longtime enemy, Vietnam, continues to evoke public distrust.
“Hun Sen is the front for Vietnam,” says a 25-year-old Cambodian doctor who is afraid to discuss politics except while cruising along at 45 m.p.h. on his motorbike. “The only thing that I want is peace and freedom in my country. I want the U.S. to intervene militarily before Vietnam takes over my country. Cambodia is the same as Kuwait.”
Does the doctor fear the Khmer Rouge? “Yes, of course, but it is the Vietnamese that I fear the most.”
But didn’t the Khmer Rouge kill millions of your people? Didn’t you lose any family?
“No. Only my three brothers and one sister.”
Just outside the northwestern town of Sisophon, more than 100 bamboo shacks sit packed together in a sea of mud. Families forced to flee their land because of the fighting now live in this government-controlled camp, many sharing their thatched roofs with farm animals they brought with them. They have lost everything they know to this war and will go wherever it seems safest.
The resistance forces claim that they have been working to cultivate popular support among the people, undertaking projects for their well-being; a campaign to capture the people’s “hearts and minds” is under way. But this camp outside Sisophon, stuffed with families who have had a great deal of contact with resistance guerrillas, offers no evidence that the effort, if it really exists, is having any impact. Most of the hearts and minds here are too dazed and tired of war to be captured by anything.
Vorn Ron fled the family farm near Top Siam province in January, 1990, with his wife and two children. Repeated shelling by the KPNLF had made life intolerable, he says. “There was unlimited land there, good, rice-producing land, but we just couldn’t bear the shelling. We harvested what we’d grown and left.” The family has lived in this camp ever since.
Vorn Ron and his wife cannot name the premier of Cambodia. They are unaware of the possibility of elections and the existence of a U.N.-sponsored peace proposal. They say that they don’t care who wins or loses the war, that what they do care about is the chance to go home. “Here we have no land to cultivate,” Vorn Ron says. Virtually everything the family eats is supplied by aid organizations.
Nobody in this camp knows anything about the resistance factions other than what their uniforms look like and that they often enter villages to steal food and cattle, sometimes shooting people in the process. Not even slogans or propagandistic phrases leave the refugees’ mouths to indicate that the resistance or the government has told them anything.
It is as if the war has been going on for so long, with all of the players dutifully fulfilling their roles--the soldiers shooting one another, the land mines exploding, families moving on from one place to the next--that it has all become part of the seasons.
No one seems to remember what started all the trouble in the first place. Asking the people in this camp to explain who or what is responsible for bringing suffering to their lives is like asking Bangladeshis to explain what is behind the cyclones that rage across their land with regularity.
“If there is a reason for the fighting, I don’t know what it is,” says Duk Louer, 35, who abandoned her family’s farm after her husband was repeatedly harassed by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Duk Loeur did not choose to come to this government camp out of any affection for the Phnom Penh government, however. Like most of the refugees, she and her family came here instead of going to one of the resistance-controlled camps in Thailand simply because getting to the Thai border would have entailed walking through heavy fighting.
But they haven’t been able to truly flee the fighting. Camps north of Sisophon were shelled repeatedly in the spring, report refugees, even during the cease-fire technically in place during May. A Western aid official based near Sisophon claims that the camps have been deliberately targeted by resistance forces.
Peak Lot, yet another displaced farmer, grows weary of all the questions. As a misty rain drifts lazily under her roof, she says: “I don’t know about any of that. I just want to be able to go home and grow rice on my land.”