Cambodia's war still takes toll with land mines Refugees in Thailand fearful of returning

December 01, 1991|By Philip Shenon | Philip Shenon,New York Times News Service

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand -- As hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees in Thailand hail a peace settlement in their country and prepare to return home, many express the fear that they may be maimed or even die from land mines that were laid across the Cambodian countryside during the last 12 years of civil war.

No one has a reliable figure on the number of mines laid during the war by guerrilla factions and by troops of the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government in Phnom Penh. The estimates vary from 500,000 to 5 million, and some say that it will be several years before the bulk of the mines can be detected and disabled.

"Because of the mines, the suffering from the war will last for many years after the war is finally over," said Soeun Mao, a 30-year-old Cambodian waiting for his new artificial leg to be sanded down at a prosthesis workshop at the largest Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, known as Site 2.

Soeun Mao lost his left leg in 1982 when he stepped on a mine while on patrol as a soldier with one of the rebel factions, the rightist Khmer People's National Liberation Front.

He said he now fears that his family -- a wife and four young children -- could also be maimed by mines if they are forced back across the Thai border into Cambodia too soon.

"It enters my dreams," he said. "In my nightmares, I worry for my family and I remember the mines. Many people will die because of the mines."

Cambodia is covered by dense jungle and paddy fields that make locating mines difficult. The job is made more difficult by the fact that many of the mines were made of plastic, rendering traditional metal mine-detection equipment useless.

Mines were used by all four factions in the civil war: the Phnom Penh government, backed by Vietnam and the Soviet Union; the Khmer Rouge, supported by China; and two non-communist groups that had the backing of the United States and other Western nations -- the Khmer People's Front and a smaller faction headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's former head of state and now chairman of a transitional state council.

The United States says that its assistance to the rebel groups did not include weapons or ammunition, although it is widely believed that some U.S. aid was converted into weapons, including mines.

None of the four factions -- the same groups now forming amounts to a Cambodian coalition government -- have shown any ability, or inclination, to find the mines and disarm them.

Nor is there any international strategy for removing the mines. The job, which will cost millions of dollars, may eventually fall to United Nations peacekeeping troops, but that is undecided.

"Armies are very good at laying down mines, but they don't have the answers for finding them again," said Rae McGrath, a retired British soldier and mine specialist who traveled to Cambodia earlier this year on behalf of Asia Watch, a New York-based human rights organization.

"Finding all the mines will be a process of years," he said. "It could be 15 years before some Cambodian villages are inspected. Even if you had all the resources you needed and there was no limitation on money, this is not a problem that Cambodia can solve in a few months."

Relief organizations report that hundreds of people in Cambodia, including many children, undergo amputations each month after stepping on mines. Mr. McGrath and the other Asia Watch investigators reported last month that there were now 30,000 amputees in Cambodia.

The United Nations, which will be responsible for the repatriation of the Cambodians on the Thai border under the peace plan signed in Paris last month, is warning refugees of the dangers they face by returning home too quickly, urging them to wait at least several more months.

Despite the danger, many Cambodian refugees in Thailand are expected to try to go home soon, fearful that if they delay too long, they will be unable to claim good farming land.

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