Emotional fall-out of Thailand-Cambodia clashes

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Thai villagers gather in Sisaket, Thailand
Image caption,
More than 16,000 people on the Thai side of the border have been moved to temporary shelters

A long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia has flared into deadly clashes, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. The BBC's Rachel Harvey looks at the human cost of the conflict.

As the early morning sun rose above the rooftops of the local government buildings, orderly queues were forming in the car park down below.

Villagers, evacuated from their homes when Thailand and Cambodia renewed their long-simmering border dispute with a new and deadly vengeance, lining up for a free hot meal.

Most had spent the last two nights sleeping on mats on the ground.

More than 16,000 people on the Thai side of the border have been moved to temporary shelters.

Pranee Wanchalerm's home is about 13km (8 miles) from the border - that was too close for comfort.

On Saturday night she sheltered in a bunker listening to the terrifying sound of shells falling around her.

"I saw the flashes in the sky and I was really afraid something was going to land on my house," she said.

Those fears were justified as a school a little closer to the disputed area took a direct hit - or more accurately several hits.

The main building now has a gaping hole in the roof. Three classrooms behind it have been completely wrecked. Desks and chairs lie covered in roofing tiles and other debris.

By some mercy the children were not in the classrooms. There was a special sports event that day, so they were outside.

The extent of the structural damage vividly demonstrates the power of the ordnance used. One can only imagine the potential human cost if the bombardment had been at any other time or on any other school day.

Determined to stay

A village a short distance away bears its own scars from the recent battles. In the dusty earth between the wooden and concrete buildings there is a crater more than 6m wide. Across the road, a house has been gutted by fire. Another has part of a wall missing.

Image caption,
Thailand and Cambodia continue to blame one another for the hostilities

Most people in the village have now moved to the evacuation camps. But not Mon Sida - he doesn't want to leave his property or his chickens.

Mon has lived in this particular village for more than 30 years and in the district all his life.

"I've never seen anything like this before. It's never been this heavy before," he told me.

"It wasn't just one," he adds, and then graphically imitates the sound of an incoming mortar followed by several explosive booms, just to make sure I'd understood.

A few other villagers arrived to collect some belongings and to take stock, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting. They loaded items on the back of a pick-up truck then headed back towards the main town.

Mon is clearly very frightened. He saw his neighbour killed during the shelling but he is determined to stay on his land.

As the truck drove off he was contemplating another night in his own private refuge - a drainage pipe running under the main road.

'Virtual observer'

Occasionally we were passed on the road by an army jeep or truck, but there was no sign of more artillery on the move. Presumably the weapons are now all in position and well dug in.

There is certainly no sign of either side backing down.

Thailand and Cambodia continue to blame one another for the initial hostilities and for each new outbreak since.

Cambodia has called on the United Nations Security Council to get involved. Thailand says there is no need for third-party intervention - bilateral channels are best to resolve the border tension.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, has visited both countries in the past two days offering to be what he called a "virtual observer", willing to listen to the complaints of both sides, though he was careful to avoid the word mediator.

Asked whether there was any sign of progress, Mr Natalegawa replied: "Well I'm less pessimistic than I was two days ago."

One day of calm doesn't amount to a formal ceasefire, let alone a sustainable peace.

There are still two armies, backed by an awful lot of military hardware, facing each other across a disputed and volatile border. But it's a welcome respite after the past few days.

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