AFTER years of brutal oppression and civil war, a small, hard-to-detect enemy pervades Cambodia. Land mines seeded in roads, jungles, and rice paddies exact a mounting toll of hundreds of Cambodians a month. Among the country's 8 million people, a disproportionately large population of maimed and handicapped will test a postwar Cambodia, international aid workers and officials say.
"There's a saying on the border that you will know the future Cambodian because he will have only one leg," says Susan Walker, an official with Handicap International, an aid organization that works to rehabilitate war-injured Cambodians.
Amid continued fighting over the control of sections of the country by various factions, Western aid officials roughly estimate the number of amputees and other disabled at 20,000.
In the refugee camps near this Thai border town, hospitals overflow with mine victims and war-disabled. Handicap International says there are about 8,000 disabled people in the six internationally aided border camps, including 5,000 amputees. Thousands of others live in secret military camps inside the country, with no access to Western aid, Ms. Walker says.
Following a trip to Cambodia, a delegation from the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children said that about 600 Cambodians, mostly men between the ages of 17 and 35, are losing limbs in mine explosions every month.
Ironically, the accident rate is expected to accelerate if a peace settlement is reached and more than 400,000 refugees on the Thai border and inside Cambodia begin to return home, observers say.
"If peace ever returns to this country, you will still have thousands of casualties," says Jean-Jacques Fresard of the International Committee of the Red Cross, formerly in Bangkok and now in Phnom Penh. "They have been spread all over. You cannot clean a country like this of mines."