Foot Soldiers from Rival Armies Share cynicism About Leader
By Nate Thayer
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 07 August 1992
NORTH OF HIGHWAY SIX, Cambodia--From a trench in abandoned ricefields in Kompong Thom province, young conscripts of Phnom Penh's army peered wide eyed from their foxholes as two journalists and a score of heavily armed guerrillas emerged from enemy controlled jungles and approached them.
Popping up from camouflaged foxholes, they grabbed automatic rifles, and curiously approached the group. The soldiers-from rival factions-greeted each other warily.
For the guerrilla fighters, it was the first time they had spoken to the enemy in more than 13 years of war, although some knew each other by reputation.
A soldier was dispatched to seek a superior's approval for a request for the journalists to pass into Phnom Penh territory. While waiting, the young men exchanged cigarettes and asked about each other. It turned out a guerrilla and his government counterpart came from the same village in the far away province of Prey Veng.
"You see what the war has done to us," said Meas, a guerrilla fighter, pointing to the Phnom Penh soldier. "We could be related and we wouldn't know it."
Meas had fled Cambodia's turmoil to the Thai border more than a decade before, eventually joining the guerrilla faction led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The Phnom Penh soldier had been drafted into the army some three years earlier and sent to the jungle.
Another Phnom Penh soldier said that he had recently found out that his brother, who had been missing since the Vietnamese invasion in l979, was a soldier with the guerrillas.
"Do you know my brother and if he is well?" he asked the guerrilla.
Another young fighter said, "Now in Cambodia, a whole generation must ask our elders if we are related, because we don't even know who we are since the war split us apart."
"In Cambodia, all our leaders are getting rich while we suffer," another soldier added. Everyone nodded in agreement. It was a theme we heard everywhere.
A photographer from Impact Visuals photo agency and I had rented a Soviet jeep in Phnom Penh and set off alone on a 15-day journey that would take us through nine provinces, across dozens of minefields and frontlines to territory under the control of all four Cambodian factions.
Many Cambodians living under the control of, or working for each of the four factions expressed deep cynicism and resentment towards their leaders whom they blame for incompetence, corruption, and continuing a conflict largely for personal gain. Soldiers from all four factions said they had not been paid for months, and worried about what would happen to them in a post-war Cambodia.
No commanding officer could be found that day, and after some debate, we were allowed to pass, for the 100 kilometer trip back to Kompong Thom city.
Soon after our arrival, two Phnom Penh interior ministry police officials arrived at our guesthouse. Initially, they were not happy.
"My job is to protect the party," the young intelligence officer announced rather cheerfully. "You have no permission to be here and I have to ask you some questions."
After an hour of interrogation, the intelligence officer asked whether we could talk as friends. "I hear that maybe I will not have a job after cantonment and demobilization," he said, "Is journalism a good job? How is the pay? I think we have similar jobs. We both have to ask a lot of questions and find out what is going on."
In Banteay Meanchey province, large tracts of land have been made uninhabitable by mines planted during heavy fighting for control of the area.
Soldiers guided us through oxcart paths snaking through mined ricefields, across frontlines, delivering us to forward checkpoints of their erstwhile enemies.
During more than a score of such transfers, we would request a couple of soldiers from a forward position to accompany us for security until we reached another faction's base.
There was never a shortage of volunteers, most eager for a break from the boredom of isolated outposts. Because of the abundance of mines and bandits, it was good to have guides with weapons who were familiar with the terrain.
Killings and robberies were daily events in the area where rogue bands of former soldiers from each of the four factions routinely ambush anyone with valuables.
The young fighters in the guerrilla zones would pepper us with questions: Are there a lot of Vietnamese in Phnom Penh? Are there jobs for people like me? Do you think we will be safe and welcomed back now that the war is over?
It was not unusual for our Soviet jeep, which we rented from an army officer in Phnom Penh, to be filled with a half dozen fully armed uniformed soldiers from different factions. We would discuss politics but mostly their fears for the future and being able to provide for their families after years of living in the jungle.
In scrubland north of the district capital of Banteay Meanchey, we drove to isolated villages under the control of the Khmer Rouge, where villagers and Khmer Rouge cadre spoke about their hopes for the future.
"We must rid the country from the Vietnamese first before the war can stop," said one Khmer Rouge cadre. "But we all want peace. Everyone has suffered enough."
"I don't know why so many people died when we were in power," said one young Khmer Rouge fighter, who seemed genuinely perplexed by the issue.
A Khmer Rouge medic we met at a Khmer Rouge division headquarters near the Dongrek mountain escarpment asked if we could give him a ride south so he could pick up some medical supplies.
"You are American," he said cheerfully. "Do you know my sister? She lives in New York." He said that he had spent three years in China training as a medic, and was proud of his skills.
"I can do any kind of operation, but mostly amputations," he said.
I asked him how many amputations he had performed. "Oh, too many to count," he said, "At least 200."
In the bustling market town of Tmar Pouk, under control of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, government soldiers in uniform mingled easily with their former enemies.
"We don't have any problems with each other," one said. "We are just regular soldiers. It's our leaders who can't get along."
One KPNLF soldier asked whether he could accompany us back to Phnom Penh controlled town of Sisophon. He could not cross the frontlines by himself, but he said with foreigners he had a chance. He wanted to catch a bus from Sisophon to visit his mother near Siem Reap, whom he hadn't seen in ten years.
"I left home to join the KPNLF when I was 12," he said. Quickly removing his jungle fatigues and switching to civilian clothes, he got in the back of the jeep, sharing the seat with an elderly woman who was returning to her government-controlled village after visiting her son, a KPNLF officer.
A guerrilla fighter guided us to an oxcart path. "Just drive along the tracks of the oxcart," he said, "Don't leave the path. Both sides are mined."
Further down Highway 69, where hundreds died in recent years' fighting for control, rogue soldiers piled mortars on the road in a crude roadblock. Soldiers with grenades in one hand and assault rifles in the other, stopped the rare vehicle demanding money.
"They don't get paid enough to eat," said the soldier in the back, after we passed.
"I'm glad I'm with you," the mother said, "They would have taken everything I had if I was alone."
We left the two passengers in Sisophon. "I don't even know if my mother is still alive," the soldier said.