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  NEW LEASE ON LIFE 2007-11-01 

Mine clearing allows villagers to return home

Stories and photos by ANUCHA CHAROENPO

The opportunity to return to their farms, once sown with landmines but now cleared, has delighted farmers in the two Thai-Cambodian border villages of Ban Thung Ruang Thong and Ban Eian in Aranyaprathet district.

"We're happy to have an opportunity to grow corn and tapioca on our land again after our farms were left unattended for many years as a result of the civil war in Cambodia," says Thung Ruang Thong village chief Aree Ploymalee.

Mr Aree went back to his farm in May. Since then he has grown corn on his three-rai farm, which he has sold for 40,000 baht.

Mr Aree, 54, is himself a war victim. He lost his right leg 32 years ago after stepping on a landmine in his village. He earned a living from rice farming to feed his family but that was not enough, and he ended up in debt.

Farms in his village were cleared by the General Chatichai Choonhavan Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organisation, joined by the Thailand Mine Action Centre, with support from the Japanese and United States governments. As a result of their efforts, he and about 10 other farmers in the two villages now lead better lives.

The 10-million-baht mine-clearing operation started in March last year and ended in May. About 200 landmines were found and destroyed.

Lying adjacent to Banteay Meancheay province of Cambodia, the villages were once infested with mines, left over from the war between Khmer Rouge soldiers and Vietnamese-backed Cambodian soldiers between 1975-1978, and a civil war.

While the Khmer Rouge were in control of neighbouring Cambodia, hundreds of villagers living in this border area moved to a safer spot about 10 kilometres from their homes to escape the war. They stayed there until their recent return.

"Now my life is back to normal. I can go back to growing tapioca on my own land," says Somsri Nimitsuk, 53, a farmer at Ban Thung Ruang Thong.

"Villagers are also catching fish in an irrigational canal once surrounded by landmines," she says.

Ms Somsri said villagers had left to seek jobs in Bangkok and nearby provinces, leaving their children to live with their ageing parents. These young labourers returned when the rice harvest season approached.

Foundation director Sutthikiat Sopinit said he was delighted that people could now return to make use of their own land.

The foundation backs a plan to build a border market at Ban Thung Ruang Thong to boost border trade and villagers' income. But it needs approval from the army and provincial authorities.

"This market might be built and developed as the Rong Kluae Thai-Cambodian market for second-hand products, and opened as another tourist attraction in the province," he said.

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