When two Cambodian soldiers died of a reported case of food poisoning during a mission to Mali in June 2014—the first-ever deaths of Cambodian peacekeepers abroad —the case received broad media coverage, from local newspapers to Chinese state media.
But when a third peacekeeper died about two months later in a violent sandstorm that battered the U.N. base in the city of Kidal in the northeast of Mali, the case received almost no attention.
Malinda Kosal, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Peacekeeping Forces, said she did not know why the death of Chan Somkum, an airfield engineer in his 30s, received scant coverage, but she believed it was reported on state television and perhaps in a Khmer-language newspaper.
“He was working under the tent, and when the sandstorm came, one of the tent flaps kind of blew and hit him on the head,” Ms. Kosal said, adding that the force of the impact had knocked him unconscious.
“There were actually quite a number of soldiers injured, but they were minor injuries that didn’t need to be reported,” she said, adding that the Cambodian contingent lived alongside peacekeepers from countries including Senegal, Chad, Togo and Bangladesh.
Ms. Kosal said that Chan Somkum remained unconscious until his death on August 31, after being transferred to the mission’s “principal” hospital in Dakar, the capital of neighboring Senegal.
Radhia Achouri, spokeswoman for the U.N.’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, confirmed the timeline of Chan Somkum’s death.
“He had been severely wounded during the 22 July storm in Kidal and was evacuated to Dakar on 23 July. He was among the 31 peacekeepers wounded during the severe sandstorm that hit Kidal,” she said.
A U.N. Security Council report issued in September 2014 said the sandstorm damaged 95 percent of the tents at the Kidal camp and wounded 31 peacekeepers, with an unnamed peacekeeper “succumbing” to his injuries.
The U.N.’s mission to Mali has proven to be its most dangerous peacekeeping effort, with 69 peacekeepers from 11 countries having died while stationed there as of December 31, including four Cambodians.
Prior to Chan Somkum’s death, Meak Sereivathana, 26, and Ny Nol, 32, died of “respiratory problems” after eating contaminated food in June 2014, according to Cambodian officials, while Suon Sambo, 31, died from a severe case of malaria in September.
According to Ms. Kosal, the investigation into the two food poisoning deaths was “terminated” sometime last year.
Asked why no one else in the unit had gotten sick, Ms. Kosal said that Meak Sereivathana and Ny Nol “actually brought their own food from home.”
“It was a small group, a party— not really even a party—and they gathered together and ate that food. That is what the commander said,” she said. “Some others got sick as well, but it was only minor and so they recovered quickly.”
(Additional reporting by Ouch Sony)