Home > Local News > My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia

My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia

I was aware when I headed to the Cambodian border to cover the
conflict which had just flared up that there was an outside chance I
might get shot at but it had never occurred to me that I would almost
be arrested on suspicion of being a Cambodian spy.
I was sitting at home in front of my laptop in Bangkok when Thailand
and Cambodia first started lobbing shells at each other. Being a bored
freelance journalist whose most recent assignment had been on the
slightly uninspiring subject of corporate social responsibility I felt
the opportunity to actually go out and do some real reporting was too
good to turn down.
It was 3pm on a Friday afternoon, the fighting had only just begun
and there was a plane to Ubon Ratchatani leaving that evening so I
swiftly packed my bag and took a taxi bound for the airport.
My girfriend was convinced I was going to get killed and burst into
tears and begged me not to go, which I thought added quite a poetic
touch to proceedings and made me feel a little bit like a proper war
reporter. Of course in return for risking their necks proper war
reporters generally get quite a competitive salary whereas I was
basically funding the trip out of my own pocket on the off chance I
could sell a story but it still beat another 10 hour shift in front of
the laptop.
I had quickly consulted a map and knew
that I needed to head to Kantharalak, a place which google assured me
had at least a couple of hotels. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to
get there so I was delighted when a taxi agreed to take me straight
from Ubon airport to Kantharalak for a price which seemed extremely
competitive at the time but was probably double the going rate.
Floor space was at a premium at the refugee camp in Kantharalak
©James Goyder
My hotel was just a couple of hundred metres up the road from the
place where all the refugees who had fled from the fighting were camped
out. They were packed in to two buildings and floor space was at an
absolute premium. Volunteers were on hand to serve up food but this was
clearly not a satisfactory long term arrangement.
It quickly became apparent that there was very little prospect of
finding anyone in the area who spoke any English. My Thai is very much
rudimentary, good enough to ask questions but not necessarily good
enough to understand the answers and I still have a 20 minute interview
with a refugee on my dictaphone. One day I intend to find out what she
actually said.
I woke up at the crack of dawn the following morning, rented a
scooter and set off for the border. In the absence of a detailed map of
the area my strategy was to head in the opposite direction from which
the refugees had come. This decision was vindicated when I started
seeing signs telling me I was heading towards Preah Vihear, the
disputed temple which ultimately all the fuss was actually about.
There was no missing the house which had suffered the direct hit,
even if there hadn’t been a TV van parked opposite. It had been
absolutely obliterated and the cinders were still smoking. I hopped off
my bike and took some shots. My biggest fear was that all of the
relevant areas would be restricted but here I was standing in the
remnants of a building which had been hit by a shell less than 24 hours
ago.
On the other side of the road there was some evidence of fire damage
but I wasn’t sure exactly what had caused it. Fortunately I bumped into
a touring party of locals who had either elected not to join the
evacuation or had simply headed back into the danger zone in order to
sate their curiosity and they took me on a guided tour of shell holes.
One of them contained a jagged lump of flesh lying in a pool of blood
which had once belonged to a 50 year old man, the only civilian to have
been killed on the Thai side of the border. He must have been heading
back from the fields when the shells struck.
There was no discernible reason why the Cambodian army should have
targeted this particular area, which consisted  of a handful of houses
on either side of the road. Given that more than ten shells had all
landed within close proximity of each other they must have felt that
something there was worth hitting although the longer I spent looking
at these craters the less I believed that the Cambodians had any idea
what, if anything, they were actually aiming for.
Just up the road was a school which had also taken a direct hit and
had a gaping hole in the roof. Some classrooms behind the main building
had been destroyed and I would become increasingly familiar with these
images as the media gradually began to arrive on the scene and relay
them around the world.
I set out to explore a bit further afield and eventually discovered
a tiny track leading into some woods which seemed to have a
surprisingly steady flow of military traffic heading in and out of it.
A large people carrier pulled out and the soldiers made gestures to
indicate that taking this particular turning was not a good idea.
I nodded to show my understanding, waved back and then waited until
they were well out of sight to take the turning. I didn’t get very far
because there were two more vehicles full of extremely apprehensive
looking soldiers who also gestured for me to go away, an experience I
would become increasingly accustomed to over the course of the next few
days.
Given that the soldiers looked distinctly nervous I wasn’t
particularly inclined to ignore their advice and decided to beat a
dignified retreat. When I got back  to Kantharalak I did something
which in four years as a freelance journalist I am happy to say I had
never done before, I followed an ambulance. This decision actually paid
dividends because the ambulance was only travelling a few hundred
metres and was carrying the body of a young man who had lost his life
just that morning, one of only two Thai soldiers to be killed in the
conflict.
The body of a 20 year old Thai soldier is brought in from the battlefield ©James Goyder
I sympathised for the soldiers carrying the body, it was clearly not
an easy job and dropping a corpse in front of a large crowd of military
top brass is not a move likely to enhance your chances of promotion. I
felt even sorrier for the dead soldier, particularly when they
presented his picture. He looked painfully young, only 20 as it turned
out.
The atmosphere at the temple was very convivial, the photographers
were making no effort to switch off their phones and the high ranking
officers and dignitaries were greeting each other like long lost
friends. I imagined it would be a very different scene back in his
hometown when the parents received the unwelcome news that their 20
year old son wasn’t coming home.
He had been hit by shrapnel at Por Makhua in the early hours of
Saturday morning and by the time his body was being laid out in the
temple that afternoon a ceasefire had already been announced. Everyone
went to bed that night under the impression that the fighting was over
but I still wanted to have another look at the place in the woods I had
been turned away from which I would later discover was the track to Por
Makhua.
It was another perfect day and it was very
difficult to conjure up any sort of a sense of danger as I drove
through the woods, even when I went through a couple of abandoned army
checkpoints.
The border between Thailand and Cambodia is
actually one of the more beautiful areas of the world when the two
sides aren’t exchanging ordnance. A ceasefire was already in place and
in the unlikely event that I inadvertently ended up between the lines I
couldn’t see anybody mistaking a sunburnt white man on a scooter for an
invading army.
My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia, the foreign deskA local admires a shell hole in Ban Phum Saron ©James Goyder
There was plenty of evidence of military activity but no actual
military and it was a little eerie, I managed to drive for about 15
minutes without seeing a soul. Then I saw something which got my
attention, a column of smoke not too far ahead. I continued driving but
I was now extremely alert and aware that this was almost certainly not
somewhere that I was supposed to be.
I did finally encounter some signs of life, a manned checkpoint
adjacent to a base with several vehicles. The soldier on duty confirmed
that the smoke had been caused by a Cambodian shell and suggested, very
politely, that I might like to go away.
Back in my hotel room I made plans to do just that and booked a
flight back to Bangkok. Later that evening I decided to grab a bite to
eat from a roadside stall and couldn’t help noticing that the
previously quiet road now resembled a motorway at rush hour.
‘What’s going on, are all the refugees returning home because the
fighting has stopped?’ I asked but no-one understood me. It took
several similar conversations for me to work out that far from heading
home these people were in fact fleeing. The Cambodians had attacked!
With the adrenaline coursing through my veins I hopped on my bike
and headed at break neck speed towards the border, or this is what I
would have done if I hadn’t got hopelessly lost. I had never attempted
to leave Kantharalak after dark and ended up doing several
frustratingly unnecessary laps of the town, totally losing my bearings
before finally ending up on the road to Preah Vihear.
I drove until I came to a scrum of media who had gathered by a cross
roads. A glance skywards confirmed what the fuss was all about. The
Cambodians might have attacked but the Thais were retaliating with what
looked like everything that they had got. Shell after shell sailed over
our heads, some from closer to Kantharalak and others from the general
direction of the destroyed buildings in Ban Phum Saron, which could go
some way towards explaining why the Cambodians had targetted that
particular area in the first place.
My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia, the foreign desk

A shed near a temple in Ban Phum Saron suffers a direct hit from a Cambodian shell ©James Goyder
It was an awe inspiring sight although having seen first hand what
happened when these things landed I couldn’t help but wonder what sort
of devastation was being wrought on the other side of the border. Every
now and again a vehicle full of civilians fleeing from the fighting
would head towards us and be mobbed by the Thai media. After a while a
truck with a prone soldier lying on his back passed through at high
speed, then another.

The barrage ended and a convoy of at least 10 ambulances came
through, heading towards the border. It was an ominous sight which
seemed to suggest there had been multiple casualties and the reporters
all moved a couple of kilometres further up the road in order to wait
with the medics. The stricken soldiers never seemed to arrive and
gradually the press began to lose interest and drift away. It was later
reported that 14 members of the Thai military had been wounded and one
of them would die in hospital a couple of days later.

Catching a flight back to Bangkok the following day was out of the
question and instead I went on a tour of shell holes. It appeared that
the eucalyptus trees had born the brunt of the Cambodian attack and I
only found one building which had actually been hit. It was a shed on
the outskirts of a temple in Ban Phum Saron

I decided that, unless there was more fighting, I would head back
the day after next. I had done a couple of live interviews for the BBC
World Service but with all eyes on Egypt global interest in events
anywhere else was almost non existent.
The only thing remaining for me to try and do was get some photos of
Por Makhua where the most intense fighting was reported to have taken
place. I knew roughly where it was although my inability to pronounce
the name of the place was proving an impediment. There were pockets of
people hanging around the evacuated areas and I stopped to ask one such
group to point me in the right direction.
My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia, the foreign desk

A red flag marks the spot where a shell landed outside a classroom in Ban Phum Saron ©James Goyder
Someone immediately got on the phone to his friend who was a soldier
and told me to wait. Ten minutes later two soldiers turned up on a
motorbike. I told them that I was a journalist and wanted to reach Por
Makhua and one of them got on the phone and made one phone call, and
then another phone call, and then another. I couldn’t make out much
except the word ‘nak khao’ (journalist) but I was becoming increasingly
concerned about the number of official sounding conversations which
were taking place on my account.
Another two trucks arrived, one containing slightly higher ranking
soldiers and the other police. Everyone was being extremely friendly
but there was now a crowd of about 15 people and the questions
intensified. One of the men who I assume was a policeman looked inside
my motorbike, checked the photos on my camera, phoned the woman I had
rented the bike from and inspected my journalist’s card which was a
little bit on the out of date side.
Eventually I was told to hand over the keys to my scooter and
bundled unceremoniously into the back of a truck. I still had no idea
where we were going but it soon emerged that we were on our way to
Kantharalak police station which was not a development I felt
particularly enthusiasic about.
At the police station the memory card from my camera was confiscated
and a police officer proceeded to copy every single file from it
including pictures of me and my girlfriend in Bangkok as well as the
actual photos I had taken in the last couple of days.
I was then cross examined although once again the language barrier
made this a laborious process. Eventually one of the soldiers, who had
been friendly throughout, put his hand on my shoulder and told me it
was OK and I had nothing  to worry about, or words to that effect.
I had not been particularly worried in the first place although his
demeanour made me think that perhaps I should have been. During a
discussion with some Thai reporters later that night it emerged that I
had in fact been suspected of being a Cambodian spy and someone from Al
Jazeera also told me that the army had been looking for a journalist
who was suspected of passing information to the Cambodian army.
In hindsight I could suddenly see how my activities could clearly
have been construed as consistent with espionage. I had been driving
round some extremely remote areas taking photos of the places where the
shells had actually landed and the military targets where presumably
they were supposed to have landed.
Courts tend to take quite a dim view of acts of acts of espionage
and even though I had been investigated and exonerated I didn’t want to
push my luck any further and decided to head back to Bangkok at the
earliest available opportunity. There was still the small matter of
retrieving the scooter, I had absolutely no idea where it was but
fortunately I had a photo of the policeman who I had handed the keys to.
Before I was whisked away to Kantharalak police station everyone,
including the soldiers, had insisted that I pose for photos with them.
Whether this was in the interests of national security or their own
scrap books I don’t know but I had also got them to take a photo with
my camera. Enquiries as to the exact whereabouts of the bike at Ban
Phum Saron police station at first proved fruitless, there was no sign
of it, but once I was able to show people the photo they realized
straightaway that it was at Ban Don Ao police station.
My Week In A Warzone: Covering The Conflict Between Thailand and Cambodia, the foreign desk

Me with some soldiers and policemen shortly before being taken to the police station ©James Goyder
Despite the fact that I had now been issued with an official press
pass the police at Ban Don Ao were still extremely suspicious of me and
were highly reluctant to return the scooter. They finally handed over
the keys but not before photographing and photocopying every
imagineable item of evidence.
By this stage my appetite for further investigation was rapidly
diminishing and I returned the bike and got the first bus back to Ubon.
I enjoyed my first foray into war reporting and was happy to have
had the opportunity to work with the BBC but the whole trip had very
nearly gone horribly wrong. I had envisaged I might encounter some
problems as a foreign journalist covering a conflict but being accused
of espionage was certainly not one of them.
The Independent
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Categories: Local News
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