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Villagers haunted by the scars of conflict

Ven Rathavong / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
A specialist team will try to remove two CS gas bombs from a school and pagoda. KT/Ven Rathavong

For Sar Hun, memories of the US bombing campaign during the Vietnam War are still clear as day.

He recalls seeing all manner of US planes and helicopters in the sky from the 1968 to 1975, when America dropped thousands of bombs on Cambodia, with the aim of destroying Viet Cong invaders.

More than 500,000 Cambodian citizens were killed, with large areas of the countryside destroyed.

Five districts of Svay Rieng province were affected by the US bombs because it has border with Vietnam.

Romeas Haek district was worst hit, since it was believed to be the area where many Viet Cong were hiding.

Mr Hun was born in Romeas Haek district’s Korki village, where two unexploded chemical bombs will be removed by chemical weapons experts and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre today.

The 63-year-old school teacher remembers how bombs rained down on his village when he was a teenager.

Sitting at home, he drew pictures of the US bomber planes and helicopters from back then, explaining how he and other locals gained an understanding of the US’ activities against the Viet Cong and the timing of their operations.

During the Vietnam War, Korki village was isolated and covered by forest with a small population, making it a suspected haven for the Viet Cong.

Mr Hun said the aerial bombardment of the Cambodia-Vietnam border started in 1968, while Korki village was targeted from May 1970.

“There would be about 30 planes flying overhead at some points,” he said, adding that he would also see convoys of up to 15 helicopters.

“The US forces wanted to get the Viet Cong out of Cambodia,” Mr Hun said. “They dropped the bombs until the earth shook. Night was like day.”

His drawings of the planes and helicopters were rudimentary, but sufficient to identify models including C-123 Provider planes and B52 bombers, Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar and Dakota cargo aircrafts, plus Chinook, Sikorsky CH-54 and Huey Attack helicopters.

Chemical weapons experts and Cambodian Mine Action Centre staff will be in Korki village today. KT/Ven Rathavong

Mr Hun recalled how surveillance and bomber planes would protect the helicopters and troop carriers. There were never less than three planes on each operation. The C-119 Flying Boxcar and Dakotas would fly nightly from 7pm until 4am, he added.

Mr Hun said the US dropped many kinds of explosives, including cluster and napalm bombs, as well as chemical weapons such as Agent Orange and gas-filled barrel bombs.

Agent Orange was used widely by US forces during the Vietnam War in a bid to drive out Viet Cong members hiding in the forests. It contains the chemical dioxin, which causes serious health problems and can damage genes, leading to cancers and deformities.

According to data released in 2000, the US dropped two million bombs – 800,000 tonnes – on Cambodia from 1963 to 1975.

When planes dropped Agent Orange at night, the leaves of plants nearby would be dead by noon, Mr Hun said.

“B52 bombers carried out about 300 manoeuvres each day and night,” he said, “I slept in trenches every day.”

According to villagers, the unexploded barrel bombs found recently were dropped on Korki pagoda in February 1971, almost destroying the temple.

That particular type of bomb, containing CS gas, would cause victims breathing difficulties, while their noses and eyes would run. Some people said it felt like they had rubbed chilli on their faces.

“It was like being scalded by hot water,” Mr Hun said. “People got rashes on their skin and pregnant women and their babies were affected.

“Villagers would urinate on their krama scarves and soak them with pounded pandan leaves before putting it over their faces, which could mitigate the effect of CS gas by about 70 percent. We wanted to live, so we forced ourselves to get over the disgust of the urine.”

Many villagers suffered serious ulcers that took a long time to heal, while others fainted after being exposed to the chemical bombs, he added.

“Korki village was a remote area and there were no authorities here so it was miserable,” Mr Hun said.

“After the US dropped their bombs, no one found justice for us. Many families were killed. We had to hide before the planes arrived. If they saw, they would shoot. They shot only Khmers, not Viet Congs. No one talked about human rights and those illegal acts even though many people died.”

More than 40 years on, the two bombs in Korki village were uncovered when villagers attempted to clear land on the site of their primary school and pagoda.

The barrel bombs did not explode when they were dropped in 1971, so local monks and villagers moved and buried them in the ground to prevent the CS gas from leaking out.

“The bombs disappeared and everyone forgot about it,” Mr Hun said, until students made the grim discovery while gardening.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last week called on US ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt to visit Svay Rieng province and see the bombs for himself.

The premier said the US focussed on asking Cambodia to repay $500 million in war loans accrued during the Lon Nol era and on repatriating the remains of its troops, but failed to do anything to deal with the legacy of weapons it dropped on the country.

Mr Hun Sen raised the issue once again when talking to thousands of garment workers yesterday.

But US Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes said the embassy had not received any requests to assist in removing this ordnance.

“We are happy to consider any requests for additional assistance, if asked,” he said. “We are confident that the Royal Cambodian Government has the capability to handle the removal of this ordnance due to the extensive training and support we have provided, including within the last year.”

“We have no objection if CMAC were to use some of the $2 million we provide annually to take care of this ordnance,” he added.

Mr Hun said he and other villagers in Korki village are not satisfied with the US response.

“I have never forgotten the damage that was caused in Cambodia, especially in Korki village,” he said. “We suffered so much. The US should compensate Cambodia.”

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