sdau, Battambang province – District-level officials are encouraging 3,000 to 5,000 returning refugees and displaced persons to relocate from temporary resettlement sites into a heavily mined area in northern Samlot, officials and returnees said Tuesday.
The plan calls for the civilians to demine the land themselves rather than wait for professional miners to get to it, a prospect of concern to local and international humanitarian groups. Experts say that self-demining, while still fairly common in Cambodia, increases the risk of civilian injury.
“It is a bad idea,” Prak Sary, regional director for the Mines Advisory Group, said when told of the resettlement plan. “I’m very worried about these people….I would like to tell them, please don’t do this.”
Returnees are already going into the now-uninhabited Duong Tong area during the day to clear the land of both forest cover and mines.
Sok Leang, a 48-year-old mother of five, said Tuesday her husband, Pen Lun, had gone to Duong Tong to clear “our land.” He has done so every day since authorities suggested it, she said.
Pen Lun uses a long stick to poke the ground in front of him and a knife for clearing brush and digging out any mines he might see, his wife said. But she knows that there is the risk that unseen, buried mines will maim or kill her husband.
“I am very afraid for him when he is away,” Sok Leang said. “He doesn’t want to go there, but we have no land and cannot feed ourselves. If we do not do this, it might mean our children will die.”
“We cannot wait for CMAC…. This is the best way,” she said.
Johann Soffointe, Battambang field office director for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the UN does not support the resettlement plan and probably will not carry out its planned aid projects if the move is made.This is the best way,” she said.
“We don’t want to give the wrong signal by assisting people to move where it is mined and a volatile security area,” Soffointe said. “For us, Samlot is still a no-go zone.”
But local officials insist there are few alternatives because the Ratanak Mondol district can no longer support the two main resettlement camps that are home to more than 1,000 families.
Kol Both, deputy district chief of Samlot, said he supports resettling in the mined zone and said he has encouraged people to go there. The resettlement is expected to begin in December or January, he said.
“We have to take a risk,” Kol Both said. “We have to go there because if we stay here we have nothing, no way to make a living.”
In an agriculture-based economy like Cambodia’s, having no land can be akin to having no hope. And so, an unknown number of Cambodians—displaced by decades of war and discouraged at the inevitably slow pace of clearing the country of 4 million to 10 million mines—are moving onto mined land, attempting to clear it themselves.
In Battambang alone, 56 people were injured last year while either demining or clearing mined land of brush to make it arable, according to figures by the Mines Advisory Group.
Most of the resettlement camp residents are from Samlot and fled in late 1997 when fighting exploded again between former Khmer Rouge leaders in the area and government troops. Since then, Khmer Rouge defectors led by Im Phan and Ta Muth have kept most of the province in turmoil with hit-and-run raids.
The residents of the Ratanak Mondol camps, Borei and Thvak, are a mixture of “internally displaced persons” who fled the fighting but stayed in Cambodia and refugees returning from Thai border camps. The Cambodian Red Cross has been forced to stop food aid to the resettlement camps because of funding shortages, but a “food for work” program sponsored by the UN World Food Program is supporting 300 to 400 people, UN officials said.
Most of Samlot remains too volatile for families to return home.
But Em Horn, the Ratanak Mondol district chief, said the RCAF has firm control of Samlot up to 10 km south of Route 10. It is this area, south of Treng commune, that the returnees and displaced families are to move to, he said.
It was unclear Tuesday exactly who came up with the idea. Em Horn said it was the displaced Samlot residents themselves, although he supports the plan. “It is a good idea because if they stay they won’t have any land.”
But, he added, “the government cannot be responsible for their safety.”
He said that district officials have contacted CMAC to ask about demining the area, but were told the government demining agency could not get to the area right away. CMAC already has a backlog of requests.
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