samraong city, Oddar Meanchey province – During a sixth straight day of fighting yesterday between Thai and Cambodian troops posted along Oddar Meanchey’s contested northern border, civilians and officials alike appeared to be preparing for the long haul.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a cease-fire in Phnom Penh, plans here were under way to send the more than 31,000 Cambodians, now displaced by the fighting, to a new, larger camp further from the border, a sign that the government was not planning to send civilians home anytime soon.
Thailand and Cambodia blame each other for starting the latest round of border clashes, which erupted around Ta Krabei and Ta Moan temples on Friday.
Thai shelling around the temples continued through Tuesday night until 5 am yesterday, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.
General Neang Phat, secretary of state at the ministry, said that yesterday’s fighting injured five soldiers but killed none. Cambodia has said that since Friday the fighting has killed six soldiers, and Thailand claims four casualties.
At a supply station for the 42nd RCAF Brigade, below Ta Krabei temple at the foot of a 10-meter escarpment, boxes of food and water sat in stacks beneath a tin roof yesterday.
Ready-made meals for soldiers lay in individually wrapped bags. Taking an advantage of a lull in fighting, they took stock and lounged in hammocks between camouflaged bunkers.
Though the soldiers declined to give their names, one pointed out a fresh crater from a mortar round. Another held out the mangled end of a spent shell, evidence of the morning’s attack, they said.
Along the dirt road heading back to Samraong City, 30 km from the border, fields and homes lay empty but for a handful of men and women that fleeing families’ left behind to watch over their property.
Most of these evacuees have headed for the city, where the government has set up nine camps.
They may have to move again.
Ros Sovann, deputy secretary-general of National Disaster Management Committee, said the government was preparing to send all refugees to two new sites–one of them measuring eight hectares–in Changkal district’s Changkal commune.
“It is about 50 kilometers from the area of fighting, out of reach of the artillery shells,” he said.
Mr Sovann said the premier’s bodyguard unit had started clearing the land yesterday in preparation for new wells, toilets and tanks for drinking water.
Oxfam Country Lead Francis Perez said consolidating the sites would better help authorities register new arrivals and monitor conditions. He said a joint team of monitors from the government aid agencies and NGOs visiting the current camps has found less than ideal conditions.
“What they have reported is that there is not enough food…especially because of the dramatic increase [in refugees] in the last few days,” he said. “Sanitary water is also a problem.”
The lack of separate bathrooms for men and women has also raised fears of sexual assault, he said.
But the prospect of such a large new camp raises logistical challenges of its own.
Since “the Khmer Rouge era, we haven’t seen a camp that big. That’s one concern,” Mr Perez said.
Mr Sovann said he did not know exactly when the new site would be ready.
“As soon as possible,” he said.