ROVIENG, VEAL VENG BORDER: For twenty years, they have been isolated from the rest
of Cambodia, both geographically and by ideology. They have been turned out of their
homes, and even their country, by various incarnations of the KR. Now, the people
of the little-known district of Veal Veng are returning home - for good, they hope.
Kung Ol repairs a friend's engine - his only form of income since his return from Thailand.
Veal Veng, which lies in south western Pursat province, is a densely forested and
sparsely populated district, with immensely poor communication and access, and even
poorer villagers. Yet, as former District Governor Kim Rin is at pains to point out,
it is also an enticeing and mysterious part of Cambodia, rich in wildlife and natural
"This is a beautiful area, full of mountains and huge trees," said a misty-eyed
But for thousands of villagers, the natural beauty of their homeland is now second
to the more basic issue of how to survive. In 1997, after the coup, KR commander
Iem Phan and his forces moved down through the Veal Veng area, forcing villagers
to flee to the Thai border, where they lived in makeshift camps. Only a handful remained.
Now, with the onset of reintegration, the villagers are returning to a land which
holds new hope, but also new dangers. Two years of warfare has left mines strewn
across the major roads (of which there are only a few), and has left farmland unusable
until the mines are cleared. In the rainy season, access into the province is almost
imposible from Pursat town, and is over a day's journey from Battambang.
Here in Rovieng, on the border of Veal Veng and Kravanh districts, some of the luckier
returnees are starting to make new lives for themselves.
"We spent one year in the Thai camps", said a woman who only identified
herself as Socheath, a mother of six, including month-old twins. She used to live
in Kror Peu Pi village in Veal Veng.
"I missed Kror Peu Pi, but the communications were always so bad. I could never
get any medecine for my children." The area is rife with malaria.
Socheath's husband was a policeman in Veal Veng, but had to resort to forest-clearing
to suplement his almost non-existent salary.
The couple now live in a newly-built hut right at the border of Veal Veng where,
they say, the living standard is better for them.
Villagers return home - hopefully for good.
Hang Im spent two years in the Thai cmaps, returning only in March this year. Her
original home was in Samlot, but she says she doesn't want to go back there.
"I saw my house destroyed by the war," she said. "There is nothing
for me to go back to. Now I can live with my son here in Rovieng."
Newly appointed Provincial Governor Ung Samy said the main problems facing the returnees
were communication, and access to cultivatable land.
"The people of Veal Veng live far away from the provinvial centre. . . some
communes are as much as 60 kilometers apart, and in the rainy season are cut off."
He said that the villagers had been given forty days worth of food in December by
UNHCR, but that since then they had had to rely on small handouts from the provincial
But he added, he believed the people knew how to survive.
"The people of Veal Veng seem cleverer than those in Pursat town," he said,
smiling, "becuase they have had to endure hardships and struggle. Even the thirteen-year-olds
are tough and can work hard. The townspeople in Pursat just go to bars."
But tough as they may be, the people of Veal Veng will need more than just self-reliance
to help them through some of the problem they face in the district, which is why
a group of NGOs and agencies including UNHCR and Carere are this week coordinating
a huge needs assesment across the district. The six-day trip will attempt to visit
some of the most remote areas, to document the most important needs of the people.
One government agency, SEILA, has already visited the area several times for "observation".
Chhun Song, the Director of SEILA, said that they had observed the people's situation,
and that they seemed "malnourished and pale - they were eating only cassava
roots and what they could get from the forest".
"Human resources will be a big problem in the years to come," he said.
"There are no nurses, doctors, hospitals or schools - basically the community
will have to start all over again."
"What they know how to do is carry guns and hunt wildlife."
For Kim Rin, the hunting of wildlife and the illegal logging activities in Veal Veng
are two of the biggest scourges.
"I've seen the illegal loggers," he says. "They've built strong roads
so they can get their trucks in and out."
He added that he was afriad of confronting the illegal traders, so he gave his information
to a local agency to use.
"I've seen tigers too, but only dead ones. A pair of tigers stepped on a mine
and were killed."
Rin is not the only one to have witnessed the illegal logging. One worker from a
local organisation who asked to remain anonymous, said that although the governor
had pledged to end logging in the area, it was still being carried out - and that
the culprits were not just former KR, but also high-ranking officals from Pursat
and Koh Kong.
As the district struggles with the possibilities that it's new status as part of
the 'reintegrated Cambodia' bring, Kim Rin mentions one more hope he has for the
"This could become a great tourist place," he says. "Pol Pot and Nuon
Chea lived here from 1979 to 1984. Pol Pot had a beautiful house in the mountains
close to the Thai border, where there are waterfalls and amazing scenery. I imagine
a Veal Veng where tourists will bring money to the area to see Pol Pot's old house,
and the great wildlife and landscape of the district.