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For American family in Cambodia, a week of peace and a weekend of war

July 9, 1997

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Eager to show their young sons the world, Suzanna and Peter Banwell listened to the assurances: Peace had taken hold in Cambodia and would prevail over occasional political flare-ups.

Within 10 days of coming to Phnom Penh, the young family from Takoma Park, Md., was dodging rocket-propelled grenades and hurtling past armed checkpoints in a sedan, seeking refuge from a coup.

In their apartment last weekend, Willy, 3, cried every time his parents forced him into the bathtub to shield him from the bullets and rockets exploding nearby. Otis, 5, whimpered for a hug at every bang and pop, and refused to leave the tub for 30 hours.

``He was scared and worried. I think we were worried ourselves. We did not try to hide it from him,″ Peter Banwell said.

The Banwells were among more than 100 Americans taking shelter in a riverside hotel in Phnom Penh after fighting erupted over the weekend between rival factions of Cambodia’s feuding co-premiers.

While the warring sides have made no effort to target foreigners, stray fire reportedly killed a Canadian and a Japanese visitor.

The United States ordered 41 of its 61 diplomatic staffers out of Cambodia on Wednesday. While Phnom Penh largely was calm under coup leader Hun Sen’s control, Washington said there were no assurances it would remain so.

The United States urged the 1,000-1,300 private American citizens in Cambodia to leave as well, either on charter planes or commercial flights when the capital’s airport reopens Thursday.

The Americans bedded down on mattresses in the ballroom of the luxury Cambodiana Hotel mostly were travelers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, said an official of the U.S. Embassy, which arranged the accommodations. Many were Cambodian-Americans visiting their homeland.

There also were people like the Banwells, who had plans to settle in this troubled Southeast Asian nation.

With the goal of exposing their children to life in a developing country, the Banwells had decided that Suzanna, 36, would accept a post in Phnom Penh with the Asia Foundation’s Women’s Economic and Legal Rights program. Peter, 35, took a year leave of absence from the Environmental Protection Agency.

They knew before they left Maryland that the political situation in Cambodia had worsened dramatically on March 30, when four grenades were lobbed into a political rally, killing 16 people and wounding more than 100.

But the foundation’s local representative argued that ``hotheads would continue to spark stuff here and there, but cooler heads would prevail,″ Suzanna said.

Once in Phnom Penh, Otis and Willy soon felt at ease. Enchanted by such novelties as cyclos _ bicycle-powered rickshaws _ Otis demanded that the family vote on extending their stay here.

Tensions between Cambodia’s leaders, Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, reached the boiling point as the Banwells settled into the city.

Cambodian friends told them that their children were being sent home from school. ``A couple of hours later, we started hearing grenades,″ Suzanna said.

Fighting intensified and drew closer, and the family dragged mattresses to a back room away from the street. They plopped the boys down in the bathtub for extra safety. Otis, terrified, stayed in the tub around the clock.

A Cambodian colleague showed up at their apartment Sunday evening, after talking his way past soldiers to come to the American family’s aid.

Sam Borin said: ``You’ve got to go, now. It’s going to get worse. We have to get you out of here _ you’re in the front line.″

``He was our savior,″ Suzanna said.

With their neighbors, the Banwells jammed into a Toyota sedan and fled the fighting, only to find all main roads blocked.

Soldiers turned them back from one checkpoint, telling them it was unsafe to proceed. Their route took them through a muddy, crowded market, where rocket-propelled grenades exploded in the distance.

``I felt heartbreak for the people there,″ said Suzanna. ``There was terror on everybody’s face.″

Suddenly, the Cambodiana hotel came into view. Otis, who had huddled down in terror and buried his face in his teddy bear for the 15-minute ride, let out a cry: ``Oh Mama, it’s beautiful!″

On Wednesday, the Banwells remained in the Cambodiana, although 220 other Americans fled Cambodia the same day to Thailand. The U.S. military moved three warships and 2,200 Marines toward Cambodia in case they were needed to help Americans to safety.

Suzanna found she was reluctant to leave their new country, despite its troubles.

``We told our children that there are two teams who hated each other,″ Suzanna said. ``We said there are two men, both think they want to run the country, and the way to get power is to shoot and fight.″

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