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With the Cambodia resistance. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge are known for their brutality, secretiveness, and suspicion of outsiders. Journalist Robert Karniol's rare contact with the communist guerrilla movement held some surprises.

By Robert KarniolSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 1986



Somewhere in Battambang Province, Cambodia

At an anti-Vietnamese resistance base camp deep in Cambodia's province of Battambang, 25-year-old Khmer People's National Liberation Front commando officer Soun Sammang recently shared a bench with this correspondent. Our conversation centered on the sorry history of Cambodia and its people, the Khmers. During the course of the talk I mentioned the film ``The Killing Fields'' - a British production of a couple of years back that focused on the relationship between two journalists in war-torn Cambodia set against a backdrop of horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge.

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Under the leadership of a shadowy figure named Saloth Sar (better known by his nom de guerre of Pol Pot), the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their ruthless blend of communism and nationalism resulted in the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of people. Some estimates put the figure at 2 million.

Samnang was a 15-year-old student when the Khmer Rouge took power. He survived four years of slave labor before escaping to Thailand. To my surprise, he had seen the ``The Killing Fields.''

``The reality was worse,'' he said in self-taught English. ``It was much worse.''

That comment, together with Samnang's explanation and what I already knew, were not reassuring. It had become clear during the trip that our safety, and perhaps our lives, depended on the Khmer Rouge.

I had come into Cambodia with an Australian colleague about two weeks earlier to report on the guerrilla war, now nearing the end of its eighth year.

A company of 107 soldiers of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) acted as host and escort. The KPNLF, one of three factions in Cambodia's anti-Vietnamese resistance, hoped thereby to focus international attention on Cambodia and show its effectiveness as a guerrilla force deep in the country.

The Cambodian conflict pits the occupying Vietnamese Army and the Phnom Penh troops under its tutelage against a loose partnership of the communist Khmer Rouge, the KPNLF, and the noncommunist faction led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. That partnership, known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, is recognized by the UN as Cambodia's legitimate government.

On the third day of our trip, Australian journalist David Nason was wounded during a KPNLF engagement with Vietnamese troops. One KPNLF soldier was killed, three wounded, and one captured.

Worried about Mr. Nason, the KPNLF scrapped its planned operation and prepared to evacuate us to Thailand. But the Vietnamese learned of the Western reporters' presence from the captive and mounted a search-and-destroy action.

According to intelligence reports, the Vietnamese increased troop strength along Highway 5, which cut across our escape route, from 500 to 1,500. In addition, they mobilized local militia forces, laid ambushes north of the highway along the approach to Thailand, and sent scouting units south. Villagers were offered a reward of 5,000 rials (about $40, or a year's salary for the average Khmer villager) for information about us.