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Battle for O’Smach , Thai-Cambodia border 1997-98

Following the coup in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in early July 1997, initiated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, there was a push to control the whole country, that he had once co-shared with Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh, known as FUNCINPEC, were led by General Nhek Bun Chhay who had escaped the fighting in Phnom Penh, then headed to the iborder area of O’Smach , not far from the Thai city of Surin in northeast Thailand.  Other FUNCINPEC forces had settled along the Thai-Cambodia border, determined to hold their ground against the government.

As Hun Sen’s forces neared the border to engage Bun Chey’s army, the Thai military opened the border gates as over 20,000 Cambodian refugees flooded into Thailand.

Soon the fighting could be heard in the distance as the FUNCINPEC, engaged with Hun Sen’s military, the CPP.

The Thai army issued a stern warning…watch where you are firing.

Artillery shelling and small arms fire could be heard in the distance, as O’Smach now resembled a ghost town, while small groups of soldiers from the FUNCINPEC and Khmer Rouge milled about the border.  Over the next few days, makeshift bunkers were dug with timber laid across the top and timber logs on top of sandbags to provide extra cover once the shooting drew closer.

On the morning of August 27th, the artillery shells came in a constant stream as a Thai soldier close to the border fence blew a warning whistle of incoming rounds. By now they were very close to the Thai side and the whistle blew often as the ground shook and reminded us how close they were to our position.

I was with two other photographers  from  Associated Press and Reuters. When the whistle blew we headed for the log barriers or the bunker. The ground shook from the rounded that pounded close by.  By noon time, the shelling stopped.

The two photographers headed back to Surin to process their film and file the photos for the day. I decided to stay and see what would happen in the afternoon.

By 2pm, the fighting had started again, only this time, the sound of rapid gunfire sounded off in the distance.  I joined a group of photographers who headed back to the border.

The shelling was closer to the border now, some landing inside of the Thailand.  The number of wounded soldiers being let through the border, increased as we all took photos of the wounded Cambodian soldiers being carried to waiting trucks that took them to hospitals .

All of a sudden a explosion hit in front of us and a blast of hot air pushed me back. I dropped to the ground. AP cameraman, Jerry Harmer fell back, his camera hitting the ground. I knelt beside him and asked if he was hit. “No I’m ok, but where is my camera?”

Another journalist had picked it up after he fell and handed it back to him.

Twenty meters in front of us, a cloud of smoke, where the shell had hit, blew towards us.  There was yelling from a group of soldiers, as they carried a lifeless body of a bloodied soldier towards us, to a waiting truck. Jerry and I headed towards the truck as I shot off photos of the soldier being placed into the truck. It had all happened so fast. I looked down at my hands and they were shaking.

Within minutes, the Thai military fired back into Cambodia, disabling the artillery encampment that had been firing the shells along the border. Soon there was silence as all firing seized.

Cambodia was issued a stern warning to seize all engagements along the border.

That afternoon I processed the film.  One of the photos I had shot of the Thai soldier who was killed, Sergeant Major Pichit Jaikla, was transmitted by AP that evening and ran in numerous newspapers, in Asia and the USA.

A few days later, I headed back to Bangkok, then returned a few weeks later to document the refugee camps that now where over 20,000 Cambodians sought shelter until the fighting stopped. The camps would be there for another year, until a peace agreement was settled.

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