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Alone in a daily struggle for survival

T a Poung village: returned refugees cut weeds for a living, under the eyes of less

than friendly neighbors and, not so far away, the Khmer Rouge. Christine Chaumeau
reports.

PON Thong, 15, is just coming back from work, wading through knee-deep water.

She pulls a long rope, dragging her day's harvest of freshly-cut trakuon (bindweed).

Getting to dry land, she cuts the string tied around her legs to stop leeches from

getting inside. "She's got 57 bunches of 10. That makes 570 riels," concludes

her waiting mother.

Cutting trakuon, which is sold at the market to feed pigs, is the sole income of

Thong, her mother, five brothers and sisters and much of the rest of the population

of Ta Poung village in Battambang province.

The people of Ta Poung, about 40km north of Battambang town, have little going for

them. The village is a target for Khmer Rouge attacks - and villagers who want some

decent land to farm have to pay taxes to enter Khmer Rouge terrority to do so.

Ta Poung is virtually two towns. There is the original one of several hundred families

and, down the road, a newer settlement of returned refugees. The two sides do not

always get on.

A total of 365 families from the Thai border refugee camps were settled here in 1992-93.

Now, little by little, those with any money have moved on to safer and more productive

areas. Today, only the poorest remain: 99 families struggling to survive.

"We eat bobor [rice porridge] very often," explains Seng Saret, who came

here in 1992.

"In one day, if I cut enough trakuon, I can earn 2,000 or 3,000 riels. I have

to pay for the moto-dop to sell it at the market, which costs about 1,300 riels.

A kilo of rice is 1,000 riels, so it is not always enough."

After one of her sons became ill, Saret had to sell her small house to pay for his

hospital treatment. Now she lives in a hut with her five children, the youngest still

breast-feeding. "My husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge three months after

the birth," she says quietly.

Pon Thong sits under a tree, resting after her day's work. "The level of water

has risen over the past few days. We have to swim to go cut the trakuon.

"I started to work when I was 12-years-old and in the rainy season I go every

day."

Says an international aid worker who used to work at Ta Poung: "This is the

worst place. Those people have nothing except insecurity and famine."

All around Ta Poung there are plenty of rice fields. Most are owned by the original

inhabitants of the village. The returnees have very little land.

"When I arrived, I was a bit disappointed," says Kan Nhep, chief of the

'new' village the returnees set up just down the road from the original one.

"The land we were expected to farm was very far away. Around five kilometers

away, and we have no tractors to get there."

In fact, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there

is ample land: some 2,500 hectares within 2.5 kilometers of the refugees' village.

The returnees, according to UNHCR, did get land but later lost it because of fighting

and insecurity.

Some of the land is under Khmer Rouge control. No-one dares to work there without

paying taxes. "For a tractor [to pass] we must give 500 Baht, and six bags of

rice for each hectare," says Yiv Khang, chief of the old village. "Maybe

50 per cent of the villagers go there."

None of the returnees can afford to pay, so they look for other incomes. In the rainy

season, they collect trakuon, fish, or frogs. In the dry season, they vie to work

as laborers in the fields owned or rented by others.

"This place is on the frontline between the Khmer Rouge and the Royal army,"

says the district chief Pich Nhek, who helped to choose the area for returnees.

He says he didn't have any land available for them anywhere else and "the only

free farming land was in the Khmer Rouge area."

UNHCR officials, however, say they were never told of this.

Andy Pendleton, a UNHCR field officer, says the village has ended up being the worst

settlement site of the refugee repatriation operation.

He maintains the situation was made worse because the security of the area deteriorated

after the 1993 UN elections.

"The government said this is a good place where people can live with two hectares

of land each. But now it is the front line, which it was not during the UNTAC era

which brought a facade of peace and security here."

Others suggest district officials may have seen the returnees as a way of expanding

government terrority at the expense of the Khmer Rouge, who are said to have had

long-term dealings with the original villagers.

Pich Nhek confirms there were historical links between villagers and the Khmer Rouge,

who did not greet the new refugee arrivals warmly.

Since then village has been attacked several times and villagers speak of other intimidation

or extortion from both the rebels and the original villagers.

"When we arrived, the old villagers were very angry. Sometimes we had problems

with the militia," says one woman.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) used to have a community develop-ment

program here. A small medical clinic was built, and a training scheme started, before

security problems caused the project to be down-scaled to a rice bank and a pig-raising

program.

"The repatriated people feel alone They have no communication with the old villagers,"

explains An Kim Hiang from ICMC. "They live separately and sometimes the militia

threaten the refugees."

Today, the atmosphere remains tense and there is always the memory of the death of

a man called Song. He lived near one of several large ponds, and worked with ICMC,

until one night someone called him out of his house and shot him. The local militia

claimed his daughter was connected with the Khmer Rouge. The sixty families who lived

near the pond left the next day.

"Some people here have a very bad spirit. They try to prevent any kind of community

devlopment," says Lina, an ICMC staff member who gave credit lessons in Ta Poung.

The ICMC building also suffered from thieves and destruction. Throughout 1994, the

area was considered unsafe and was three times attacked by Khmer Rouge. Last December,

guerrillas again raided the village and burnt burnt 48 houses.

"We decided to withdraw," says Chhim Vandeth, deputy program director of

ICMC in Battambang. "It was much too unsafe."

For a year now, no NGOs have come to see the village. Most weekends, though, Catholic

priest Father Bernard Dupraz visits to stay for a few hours and help those he can.

The sickest he takes to Battambang hospital.

"Most of them suffer from malnutrition and the children get beri-beri,"

says Father Dupraz.

"In July, [National Assembly vice-president] Son Soubert came. He entered all

the houses and lifted the lids of the cooking pots," says Khan Nhep."He

saw we were all eating bobor and nearly cried. He promised to help. We are still

waiting."

Pon Thong, meanwhile, is finishing tying all her bunches of trakuon together. Tomorrow

morning, her mother will take them to sell at Thmor Kaul market 9km away.

"The work is not so difficult," says Thong. "The difficult thing is

to have almost nothing to eat."

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