THE last Cambodian refugees - mainly former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families
from Anlong Veng - have left Thai-land's Phu Noi camp. While camp leaders reportedly
pressured returnees to go back to Anlong Veng, many resisted and now are setting
about new lives free of the Khmer Rouge.
"I will not go back to Anlong Veng again, because Anlong Veng is the fighting
place ... and there is not enough food and they are very tricky. We cannot have a
business, and there is no freedom of walking and speaking," said Dok Sitha,
28, who arrived in Phnom Penh in the first repatriation on Jan 16.
She was shaking with hunger as she held her baby waiting for her dinner rations,
but was determined to finish the rest of her long trip back to her birthplace of
Mondulkiri. "I will not go back to Anlong Veng even if I have no rice to eat.
I will struggle to live there [Mondulkiri] and I will find yams or manioc tubers
instead of rice," she said.
Another returnee was relieved not to find himself abandoned by the UN office of the
High Commissioner for Refugees, which coordinated the return.
"Before I left the camp, [camp leaders] said that [UNHCR] would throw us out
in Poipet and not take us to Mondulkiri, but when I arrive here I am so happy and
I hope that I will be taken to Mondulkiri," said Thom Sophath, 32.
He claimed that a UNHCR worker countered the KR line by telling him in his own Lao
language: "If you are going back home, you will live, and if you stay in Anlong
Veng you will die."
He said the camp divided into two groups, those who planned to return to Anlong Veng
and those who were going to strike out on their own for their birthplaces, which
many had not seen since the KR retreat in 1979. The leaders treated those coming
to Anlong Veng better than the rest, he said.
Total returnees to Anlong Veng are now up to about 14,000, according to Cambodian
Red Cross official Dr Uy Sam Ath. According to a UNHCR press release, about 4000
have signed statements that they returned voluntarily.
The Phu Noi repatriation effort began Jan 12 and finished Feb 2, with a total of
seven movements totaling 4096 people, according to the UNHCR. Refugees were transported
to Anlong Veng or the destination of their choice by the Cambodian Red Cross.
Many, asking to return to Rattanakiri or Mondulkiri, were surprised to find they
had a Phnom Penh stopover.
Prak Yon, an ethnic Phnong and former Khmer Rouge soldier, said that he used to come
to Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime with the governor of Mondulkiri province.
"I saw a big difference from when I came the first time," he said.
Phon Ngorn, 38, said: "I heard a lot of people say that Phnom Penh is a nice,
beautiful and happy place, but I had no ideas about it because that night I could
not see anything well as I was traveling in a covered truck."
He said he asked to return to his native village in Mondulkiri because he missed
his village and relatives very much. Last year, while he was in Anlong Veng, he received
information from his relatives saying that his mother wanted to see him and wanted
him to return back, but he said he was afraid to return because his leader told him
that he would have his throat cut if he dared to return "because there are many
Yuon [Vietnamese] in Phnom Penh and in Mondulkiri".
He added that his living in Phu Noi camp was better than in Anlong Veng as he was
given enough rice to eat.
But Medecins Sans Frontiers medical assistant Toun Theavy said that many returnees
suffered from malnutrition, requiring care at Sisophon's refugee reception center
before they could embark on the daylong truck journey to Phnom Penh.
The returnees will receive a housing kit and 40 days' worth of food when they reach
their destination. Most plan to take up farming upon their return.
Phon Ngorn said he was not worried about getting farmland, because his relatives
told him that if he returned, they would have some spare land for him. He said he
would like to ask the UN to help him with cows or water buffaloes so that he will
be able to do farming.