samlot district, Battambang Province – It was near the end of the battle and, as he and his fellow Khmer Rouge soldiers ran from government forces, Ping Dus felt a bullet slam into his abdomen, worm its way through his body and exit near his spine.
He fell to the ground looking at the fighter who shot him, a government soldier perched in a tree 50 meters away. A cadre dragged Ping Dus to safety, and into a lifetime of dark memories.
“I feel very sorry for what happened in the past,” he said. “Now I am tired and I don’t want to fight anymore. We lost everything in the war.”
If it were not for the bullet that struck him, Ping Dus said, he might not even recall the battle that left him bloodied 13 years ago. There were so many battles, he said recently, leaning forward on a bench at the military headquarters in Samlot district to cradle his head.
I’m sick now, he said.
It’s not difficult to find soldiers like Ping Dus in Samlot district. Considered a safe area for wounded Khmer Rouge soldiers during the rebel movement’s long-running battle with the government in the 1980s, the maimed were left here, an area once considered the back lines of the battle.
Today, the government counts nearly 1,000 disabled people—51 of them women—among the district’s 22,061 residents. Many are one-legged. Widows head one of every seven families. When government officials helicoptered into the dense jungle near Samlot village a few months ago to hand out relief supplies and announce plans for demobilization, they were greeted by hundreds of crippled soldiers who were only too eager to show the sacrifices they made during years of warfare.
Their requests for relief will be answered next month when the government is expected to discharge 15,000 soldiers as Cambodia continues to reduce its massive military.
Another 15,000 are scheduled to be released sometime next year, as the government integrates former fighters—many like Ping Dus who first battled the government as a Khmer Rouge soldier—into the peacetime life of a civilian.
The demobilization program will cut the nation’s military by one-third, to just under 100,000 soldiers. Like those at this remote jungle camp, many of the soldiers to be discharged are lame with war injuries or are too old to fight, government officials say.
The program will cost nearly $45 million, but just $7.2 million will come directly from the government. The remainder will come in the form of an $18.4 million loan from the World Bank, from funds from the World Food Program and from donor countries Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Because donors resisted an earlier plan to simply hand out cash payments of nearly $1,200 to soldiers, the government’s Demobilization and Reintegration Project instead will deliver an array of supplies to each soldier, from mosquito nets to farming implements to animals or even a moto.
The soldiers also will receive a $240 cash payment, equal to about one year’s pay, based on the typical $20 per month paycheck given to a government soldier. For some, it’s a welcome release from a tour of duty that, for some, has stretched decades.
“I am thankful for what I get from the government,” said 55-year-old Ping Dus. “If the government supports me now, it means that what I did before is not meaningless.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen told the international community just before the annual donors’ meeting in June that demobilization was a government priority, and that $7.2 million would be allocated for the program.
If divided among 30,000 soldiers, the money comes to $1,500 apiece. But not every soldier will receive that much support.
Colin Gleichmann of German Technical Cooperation, or GTZ, told the Cambodia Daily last year that the demobilization funds will come to about $1,000 per soldier, after administration costs are covered.
Soldiers, however, have complained that the money is not enough to start their new lives, since it would require more to buy enough land or animals to run a profitable farm.
A private demobilization effort led by the Phnom Penh-based GEB Development Corporation, an NGO run by US citizen Geoffrey