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Cambodians Recall Horror of Bombing

March 13, 1999

DA KANDAL, Cambodia (AP) _ The concrete bridge in the midst of rice paddies seemed the only shelter as the dreadful droning of a warplane approached, so the old man and his grandson ran to it.

For the American pilot high above Cambodia, hunting for Vietnam War enemies, the little span over a sluggish stream presented a target _ and the bombs fell, ripping the refuge with searing shrapnel.

His face pulverized, 8-year-old Sok Nee died in his grandfather’s arms that afternoon three decades ago.

The unannounced U.S. bombing of Cambodia that began on March 18, 1969 killed an uncounted number of innocent civilians, violated Cambodia’s neutrality and sucked it into the Indochinese firestorm by forcing Vietnamese communist soldiers deeper into its territory. It also may have bolstered the Khmer Rouge rebel movement.

Sok Nee’s grandfather, So Tuan, died of multiple wounds after the youngster’s death.

``My boy was beautiful. He had a big round face,″ Sok Nee’s mother, So Soen, recalls, standing by the replacement bridge. ``I could not sleep. I could not eat for months. I still miss him.″

So Soen’s family had the misfortune of living in a swath of rice fields and rubber plantations along the frontier with Vietnam that the Americans believed harbored a communist nerve center directing guerrilla operations in South Vietnam.

For 14 months, B-52s flew 3,630 missions, raining huge loads of bombs on Viet Cong bases and peaceful Cambodian hamlets alike. Cavernous craters still scar the tropical countryside.

Some believe the bombing strengthened the fledgling Khmer Rouge rebel movement that went on to ravage their homeland, causing the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians.

``It gave the Khmer Rouge the means to convince people to join them. They just had to say, `See they bombed our village ... join us and fight the Americans,‴ says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, a U.S.-financed project to document Khmer Rouge atrocities.

As pressures to put surviving Khmer Rouge leaders on trial intensify, Youk Chhang agrees with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent assertion that the United States should also face a tribunal for its bombing of Cambodia.

But in the old target zones, survivors reserve the most bitter comments for their traditional enemies _ the Vietnamese. Rather than the Americans of long ago, it is the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese troops and today’s alleged cross-border thieves and land-grabbers who are vilified.

``There were lots of Viet Cong in the area _ that’s why the bombing,″ says Len Thary, a village chief. ``If they had wanted to kill the villagers, none would be here today. The Americans knew who to kill.″

For this embattled corner of Cambodia, the bombing was only the start of a continuum of suffering that has just begun to subside, and the survivors count themselves lucky.

``I’ve experienced every kind of war and violence in Cambodia,″ says Ung Sorn, 63, and it was an American pilot who came closest to killing him.

Leading journalists through a marked minefield near the town of Krek, Ung Sorn points out the spot where he ran across his field to escape a shower of bomb fragments when a U.S. warplane attacked a Cambodian truck on the adjacent road.

San Phoem, a 75-year-old Buddhist monk, smiles at the memory of the old village temple at Sa-Om. Viet Cong troops encamped around it, he says, so it was bombed into ruins one day. ``It was a very happy pagoda,″ he says.

Today, a huge bodhi tree shades the crudely reconstructed shrine. An old, sacred image of Buddha sits on an altar scarred by bomb shards.

At Beng village, where many houses were obliterated by U.S. bombs, Lon Mitr, 60, heads through the undergrowth of his farm to the crater where his brother-in-law was killed.

The gaping hole holds banana palms, dead leaves and fish in a pool of water. Insects chirp and frogs croak. But there is no trace of the home where his relative lived and died.

The bridge where So Soen’s son died has been rebuilt of wood, but the surrounding scene is much the same as 30 years ago. An ox-cart rolls along the red dirt road, and water buffalo graze in the paddies. An orange temple roof peeks over a lush palm grove.

``I did not even swear at the Americans,″ says So Soen’s mother, Phok Sot, who was left to farm and raise six children as a widow. ``There was no time. We had to keep running and hiding from place to place.″

Brittle as a withered rice stalk, the tiny 81-year-old woman stands on the bridge beside her daughter. Before heading back to their village, they turn toward a distant line of trees, where little Sok Nee is buried.

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