ARANYAPRATHET, THAILAND — 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."
Observers say the mining of Cambodia has intensified since the pullout of Vietnamese troops in the fall of 1989. Vietnam invaded its smaller neighbor in 1978 to oust the Marxist Khmer Rouge, which had ruled the country brutally for four years.
Since the Vietnamese withdrawal, the three resistance factions, once held to the Thai border, have pushed further inside the country. The militarily dominant Khmer Rouge, backed by China, have made significant advances against the city strongholds of the Vietnam-backed regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. In heavy fighting before the onset of May monsoon rains, however, government troops made some key gains, including driving Khmer Rouge fighters out of the lucrative gem-mining center of Pail i
As armies have been on the move, so have the camp populations, which often are forced back into Cambodia to populate resistance-liberated areas. There, many refugees have encountered mines left by the Vietnamese and the small, inconspicuous mines scattered by the resistance forces to fortify their territory.
Mines also have taken their toll on Cambodian and Thai fortune-seekers who have flooded rich gem-mining areas still controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
Seventeen-year-old Him Cheant lost his leg in a land mine explosion near the western Cambodian city of Battambang. "I am a carpenter and needed to get wood from the forest," he recalls at a Thai border camp hospital. "In the forest was the mine."
Western aid workers say the handicapped are particularly tragic pawns among an exiled population long manipulated and used by Cambodia's warring factions.
Among the populations in controlled areas of Cambodia, medical care at the border is often used as a reward by the Khmer Rouge and two other rebel groups. Aid workers say the Khmer Rouge has been known to abandon the disabled in forced evacuations of Cambodian civilians.
Some Cambodians warn that this neglect and mounting frustration is a bad omen for the handicapped in postwar Cambodia.
"This is a heavy burden on our country, especially when reconstruction starts," says Son Song Hak, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who lost a leg in a land mine accident.
"We have to help ourselves as much as possible," said Mr. Hak, who has set up a Khmer Handicapped Association in Site 8, a Khmer Rouge-controlled border camp south of Aranyaprathet. "But if no government cares about us in the future, I'm afraid that when we go back, there will be trouble in our country."
Indeed, the problems of repatriating large numbers of disabled is a daunting prospect to United Nations officials who will oversee the return of refugees. "It's a logistics nightmare," says an official.
Last year, when Site 2, a vast bamboo border village that has 14,000 handicapped and elderly refugees, was shelled, UN officials ran into widespread problems when they tried to evacuate those handicapped who had only one family member.
"It showed us that the handicapped and elderly must stay with their families," says one official involved in the effort. "You do not move handicapped people alone."
However, some Cambodians worry that the disabled will be neglected and even exploited in the mad scramble to survive in devastated, desperately poor postwar Cambodia. Hak of the handicapped organization says that Cambodian disabled should be placed in special training centers in Cambodia before being returned to their towns and villages.
"Before they are integrated, they need to be trained, educated, and given skills so that they can live by themselves," he says. "If left to their relatives and families, they could be forced into begging by their families and encounter a lot of trouble."