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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Final rations doled out to Thai camp returnees

Final rations doled out to Thai camp returnees

T HAI border camp returnees have received their last free rations from the World

Food Program, with the NGO claiming the scheme as a big success.

The

returnees were promised rice fish and oil to last for 400 days after their

arrival from the camps as an incentive to return home.

Beneath the

brightly-painted flying garuda and angels of Battambang city's Wat Kan Doeung,

WFP trucks were prepared to cater for 600 former refugees. But, under the glare

of the invited media, only a few turned up to claim their rations.

"This

shows that most of the returnees in this area no longer need handouts," said

Michel Lepechoux, WFP's Battambang coordinator, adding that WFP was now

concentrating on programs which provide needy families with food or cash in

return for civic work.

At the height of the feeding program 116,000

people were being catered for in Battambang province. Some 370,000 people in

total were returned by United Nations High Commission for Refugees from

Thailand, and all received a first-year food commitment from the UN.

Each blue and white ticket in the returnee's WFP coupon book entitled

one person to forty days' rations: 20 kg of rice, 1 kg of oil, 1.2 kg of tinned

fish or prahoc, and .4 kg of sea salt.

Rice merchants and moto drivers

hovered around the wat offering to either buy or transport the rice from the 30

returnee families who turned up.

Lepechoux nodded at one rice buyer and

said: "She threatened to kill me once because I removed her from the

distribution site." The woman laughed when he mentioned it to her.

For

several of the merchants commerce was brisk as recipients

bought and sold

stocks among themselves, then haggled for the best price with

outsiders.

"Sometimes I sell the tinned fish so I can buy fresh fish,

pork or clothes," said Dol Pali, who had pedaled six km from Phnom Andong Preng.

She said one 140 gram tin of fish would bring $13.

The returnees'

decision to sell food was sometimes a matter of taste. Even though the cans had

"Word Food Program - Not for Sale" printed on the side, "The Japanese tuna was

very popular and sold well to Untac," Lepe-choux said.

The tinned herring

distributed on the last day, however, did not please every

palate.

"They've had it in the camps, they've had it here, that's why

they sell it. They're sick and tired of the stuff. Fifteen years of herring..."

said one onlooker shaking his head.

Not all returnees were ready to part

with their food. "I take everything home because I don't have anything to eat,"

said Som Sitha, who took cash rather than the promise of land from the

authorities on his return from Thailand.

With three people in his family,

Sitha netted $125 in settlement funds when he was repatriated in February 1993.

He was unsure how he would support his family now that the feeding program was

ending.

"I have no land to grow rice, I don't know what to do. I haven't

really thought about it," he admitted.

Many of the returnees who were

unsure of their future had taken cash upon repatriation, rather than

land.

"We have relatives but they don't provide any help, sometimes they

even ask us for food," added one woman squatting under a tree as she waited for

her name to be called. "We'll have to work on other people's

fields."

"I'm very worried about the future," said Sophan, a Site 8

returnee who bought an 8x10 meter plot of land in Phum Som Poh, 12 km from

Battambang, with part of her family's repatriation funds. She had used the

remainder of the $275 the three adults and four children in her family had

received to build a house.

"I used to break gravel to make money but now

the police won't let us because they say security is bad. I don't know what I

will do," she added.

WFP will announce future spot distribution dates in

order to fulfill their commitment to returnees still holding unused coupons for

any reason.

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