samraong city, Oddar Meanchey province – A Thai mortar shell landed meters from a banana field here on Saturday and spewed shrapnel into a farmhouse yard. Standing at the small crater left behind, the local primary school is visible up a small rise, about 100 meters to the west.
When the mortar landed, the school was closed for the Khmer New Year.
Yesterday, the school was still closed as most parents have kept their children away from the area where a brief, yet intense battle took place between Thai and Cambodian forces on Saturday morning.
It was the first armed confrontation on the hilltop in O’Smach commune since negotiations ended months of factional warfare between Funcinpec and CPP soldiers in 1998.
Saturday’s fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops has left locals with serious concerns about the immediate future. Some residents in the area said they have a bag packed, ready to flee at a moment’s notice if the fighting resumes again.
“I am very, very worried about the fighting,” said Houth Seng Khim, the headmaster of O’Smach II Primary School, near where the mortar landed.
“Normally there are about 300 children at the school, but today only 50. A lot of the students are the children of soldiers. Their parents keep them away because they know the situation that is happening,” he said.
“I worry because we are teachers…. We know how to teach only, not how to protect hundreds of children from bullets.”
The fighting reportedly broke out over a disputed section of land between two temporary border posts, about 3 km east of the international border crossing at O’Smach.
RCAF soldiers stationed near the borderline said that Thai troops tried to ambush them on Saturday morning when some of their colleagues were away with their families for Khmer New Year.
“They come from behind and start shooting,” said Lieutenant Lam Saroeun, 46, standing in front of the soldier’s 90-cm-deep trench on Tuesday night.
“Previously they have come and set up tents in the area but we negotiated and then they moved away,” he said, pointing to a tall tree about 100 meters away where the Thai trenches are almost visible.
“This time they sneaked in and shot first. Our soldiers were at their homes and heard the fighting and come running down the road to help.”
Soldiers from both sides used assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades on Saturday, Lt Saroeun said, adding that the Thai soldier’s also fired two mortar shells at one of the RCAF bases but overshot their mark by several hundred meters and landed near the primary school.
“I too am very worried about [civilian] injuries but I think Cambodians are lucky people,” he said.
Thai media reports said that no troops were injured during Saturday’s clash but Lt Saroeun is certain that his soldiers left dead and injured on the opposing side.
“Our source from Thailand told us this,” he said, adding that his soldiers also found a bloody Thai soldier’s bush hat and radio in the field in front of their trench on Sunday.
Nith Horn, a local farmer living just 50 meters from where the mortar shell dropped said he would send his wife and children away from O’Smach town if the situation gets worse, adding that a soldier had told him to dig a trench in his yard to hide in if there was more fighting.
“We heard the sound on Saturday go ra, ra, ra…whoomph,” he said, mimicking the noise of the impacting mortar and he picked up pieces of shrapnel he found within meters of his house.
“We rang the authorities [to tell them about the mortar] but they did not believe us. They said we were blaming the Thais for no reason but finally they came to see. They could not believe it,” he added.
Mr Horn said local police eventually came and retrieved the remains of the shell and took photos for evidence.
A truce was negotiated within hours of the fighting on Saturday but the soldiers are not certain that it will hold.
“They always come here and say one thing, then go back to their side and say something else,” said a soldier at the border.
Reports of a build up of troops on both sides were confirmed by Mr Sam Ath, O’Smach commune chief, who said that 100 extra RCAF soldiers had been sent to the area. Though, on the front line of where Saturday’s fighting took place, only a handful of soldiers were present on Tuesday night.
“We heard that the Thai soldiers want to fight again, so right now we are waiting to see how many reinforcements they bring in,” Lt Saroeun said.
“Many are already supplying the Thai side. They plan to fight. Now, we will wait for them and see if they really want to fight us.”