toul poungro village, Banteay Meanchey province – Man Phoeun sat at her roadside food stall, watching the pickup trucks and cars rumble through this former Khmer Rouge village.
Never mind the dust. The newly rebuilt and demined road has boosted fortunes and freedoms in this once-isolated region in the deep northwest.
“Formerly, we had to go across the Thai soil if we wanted to buy supplies we needed,” she said Friday. “Now, after reintegration and the newly constructed road, we all feel like we are entitled to go anywhere we want.”
She was hailing Route 502, which officially opened Friday, linking the former guerrilla stronghold of Phnom Malai with heavily traveled Route 5, which in turn leads to Sisophon, Battambang and the rest of the nation. Government officials and aid workers held a ceremony Friday in Man Phoeun’s village to mark the road’s completion.
“Soon, Malai district will become one of the most beautiful zones in Cambodia because this road connects it to the most economically advantageous points,” said Malai District Chief Chay Buny.
The 45-km road had been passable by automobile during the dry season, and by anyone on foot year-round. But it was a hazardous journey. The region is strewn with land mines, laid to fortify the base for Khmer Rouge radio communications during the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Road 502 was also the scene of fierce fighting between troops of the former State of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
“Uncountable land mines had been laid to prevent attack,” said Sam Sotha, general chief of the Cambodian Mine Action Center, which demined 12 km of road.
After the rebels defected to the government in 1996, aid workers and region officials began planning the rehabilitation of the road, hoping to open Malai district to development and to aid the reunification of families separated by years of civil strife.
“This road is so important for thousands of families of refugees and people displaced by war,” Sam Sotha said.
About 24 km of the road was rebuilt through a combined effort of UNDP’s Cambodia Area Rehabilitation and Regeneration, or Carere; CMAC; the government; and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who contributed $40,000 for earthwork along one stretch. The UNDP and Carere put $370,000 into the project.
CMAC deminers, including three platoons of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, removed 552 anti-personnel land mines, 75 anti-tank mines and thousands of pieces of shrapnel.
On Thursday, the day before the ceremony, dozens of CMAC employees were busy using mine detectors along portions of the road. Red and white warning signs, with the familiar skull and bones, dotted the landscape.
Deminers faced many hurdles, including a dense jungle and bamboo forests with deep roots covering the mines. During the work, which is not complete, three deminers were injured; two lost legs and a third was blinded.
Peter Robertson, provincial program manager for Carere, expressed sympathy for those who were injured during work on a “very difficult and complex minefield.”
“Accessibility is the most important for the population everywhere,” added Banteay Meanchey Governor Duong Khem. “Residents can more easily transport their agricultural products to better markets.”
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