GROWING UP HOMELESS
A refugee child, standing tall in borrowed pants. There
are now 100,000 or more refugees and IDPs in Cambodia,
and aid organizations say "this won't end soon".
Defecting Khmer Rouge soldier and citizens fleeing Anlong Veng with nowhere to
go, a group believed to number between 15,000 to 20,000, have inflated the number
of Cambodians uprooted by strife, terror and instability to about 100,000 - about
1% of Cam-bodia's population, aid workers confirmed this week.
As many as 20,000 "defectors" are nestled on a narrow and unstable stretch
of border land northeast of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, according to humanitarian
groups in Phnom Penh who are scrambling to figure out how many people remain displaced
in the area.
One high-ranking military official in the area said 19,347 people are on the move
- 16,425 civilians and 2,922 defecting Khmer Rouge soldiers, 211 of whom are handicapped.
All of them need assistance, according to one well-informed source in the northwest.
"Call them Khmer Rouge defectors or call them internally displaced persons;
these are people whose lives have been disrupted."
He said that entire villages in the area have emptied out on several occasions.
Many of the defecting Khmer Rouge families in a lawless swath of land along the Thai
border are menaced by gun-toting military men, according to the source in the northwest.
Other internally displaced persons from Banteay Meanchey province, whose lives have
been destabilized for months, have faced similar conditions. Military authorities,
it seems, can get away with murder there.
"The whole damn belt from 12 km north of Poipet all the way up to Anlong Veng
smacks of anarchy; looting, robbery, extortion and killing," the source said,
noting that relief organizations are unable to access the area because they're worried
The most current information on displaced people comes from three major humanitarian
organizations, which say there are 11,000 in Battambang, many of whom have been there
for months or years; 11,000 in Preah Voli, near Preah Vihear; 7,000 to 8,000 at O'Bai
Tap in Siem Reap; 6,280 in Banteay Meanchey, some of whom have remained in extremely
precarious conditions for as long as six months; and nearly 1,000 in other provinces
for a total of about 36,000 people on Cambodian soil.
When added to the 63,000 refugees in Thailand, the total number of people displaced
by insecurity and strife adds up to about 100,000 people, UN High Commission for
Refugees head Nellie Chan confirmed on April 20.
Only two days after fighting broke out in Anlong Veng on March 24, the Cambodian
Red Cross (CRC) counted 30,338 "internally displaced people" in six provinces.
Assistance groups remain unclear on who has and who has not been counted, and how
many people might be in isolated areas along the Thai border. They are preparing
to meet on April 26 to get a better grip on the extent of the problem.
Chan and others said that neither the Khmer refugees living in Thailand, nor those
displaced in their own country, are likely to return home anytime soon, as fighting
continues and elections approach.
While Chan said she has yet to receive any reports of Cambodians from Anlong Veng
crossing into Thailand, difficult conditions are reportedly pushing Cambodians across
the border in search of food.
An April 21 Bangkok Post article said Thai soldiers fired shots into the air to drive
500 "hungry Cambodians" back across the border after they attempted to
trade cattle for food on April 19.
People in the Thai village of Saeipai, across from the Khao Khad pass where many
of the displaced people are nestled, reportedly said Cambodians in groups of 500
have been crossing the border to sell cattle before returning home - a situation
Thai army sources call unacceptable.
Further south, the Cambodian Red Cross has raised concerns about the displaced people
at the makeshift camp in O'Bai Tap, about 45 km south of Anlong Veng. The area is
a grim desert-like zone where food for work projects might not even be possible,
said Uy Sam-Ath, deputy head of the CRC, who also warned of a pending water shortage
Peter Guest, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), confirmed that the number of
displaced people in O'Bai Tap continues to increase and that his organization gave
two weeks worth of food to 5,269 people just before Khmer New Year.
While a few of the displaced in O Bai Tap showed up with large logging trucks containing
many possessions, others have almost nothing. "They needed food, that is why
we went there," Guest said.
He said many of the displaced in that area feel pressured to return home soon - something
they are unlikely do if the Khmer Rouge threat continues to fade.
"They said in [O Bai Tap], they fear losing their land. That could be a real
issue," he said. "The situation in Siem Reap is very fluid. They said they
wanted to go back as soon as possible. They want to grow crops... [But] it depends
For the moment, the WFP, CRC and Carere are debating whether the month's supply of
food they donated on April 11 is enough as they continue to give other support, including
clothing and shelter.
In one of the stranger assistance efforts, the CRC's Uy Sam-Ath said he would take
a large shipment of pots and pans to O Bai Tap in the coming days to make up for
the fact that Khmer Rouge ate communally and had no personal kitchenware. Sam-Ath
said that there could be problems as the O Bai Tap area is not suitable for the long-term
settlement programs such as food-for-work that normally begin after a two-week WFP
"We are very concerned that after one month, if the government is not able to
settle the problem so these internally displaced persons can return to their homes,
they will not have food as the World Food Programme [normally] only gives food once."
Meanwhile, in Banteay Mean-chey more than 6,000 people have been displaced in extremely
precarious circumstances for months. Assistance organizations say that poor security
hinders their work and requires that people come to their centers for help. People
are therefore forced to move back and forth between areas the government controls,
where assistance can be given, and homelands they are attempting to protect from
encroachment by anarchic military forces.
Numerous villages, particularly in the area of O Bei Chon, remain empty in the northwest
corner of Banteay Meanchey where civil administration is virtually non-existent and
locals flee every time fighting flares or their villages are terrorized.
"This began in October, but it was basically stewing since the coup. It hit
the fan a few months after that," said one source in the area.
Nearly 2,000 people set down temporary roots 22km west of Sisophon at Wat Nimith
- roots that are aging without becoming sturdier as they have little with which to
The WFP and CRC said they twice distributed food and medicine at the pagoda a few
kilometers south O Bei Chon, and food for work programs are being offered, but conditions
at the camp remain bleak.
"These people in O Bei Chon have nothing. They're just sleeping below their
tarps in the sun," said the WFP's Peter Guest.
Children walk around the camp with what appear to be cases of malnutrition, beri-beri
and other illnesses. People sleep on ground mats in lowland areas that will likely
be flooded in the coming rains.
"These are the kinds of conditions you see a week after a village is bombed,
not four months after people are displaced," one international observer said
of the make-shift camp.
"It isn't up to us to say where they should be put," said Peter Guest.
"The fact is that these people are living on the ground. We should get them
off the ground, [even if] that is very expensive to do. That could be a good issue
to bring up at the [response] meeting."
Suggestions have even been made that local military or civil groups are discouraging
assistance organizations from giving too much help to displaced people. The assertion
is that local people living in "safer" areas could be drawn to the temporary
sites, thereby opening up more turf for resistance groups to contest, and giving
the government less people to use as a buffer.
One international aid worker took offense with this logic, saying there is no sensible
"political reason not to help these people".
"I find that difficult to understand. Why would people want to leave their villages
to become internally displaced people just because we are giving out food,"
one top Phnom Penh-based assistance official said.
For whatever reason, harassment does happen, the official acknowledged. "There
have been times when the World Food Programme wanted to give food, but they could
not. There is a problem meeting humanitarian needs and balancing that with what will
be taken by the military."
Local aid workers explained that while resistance leader Lay Vireak and government
Division 12 commanders have welcomed them in the O Bei Chon area, the organizations
stay away for fear their staff and precious vehicles would be harassed, harmed or
Even in the areas they do get to, such as Wat Nimith, Guest acknowledged, people
are sometimes missed. "We try to do a lot of things, but we cannot be everywhere
at all times. We have been putting in double fish and double protein, but it may
not be getting to everyone."
One source, asked if the 1,500 people were falling through cracks in international
assistance, responded: "Cracks? Fifteen hundred people don't fall through cracks.
It's a valley!"
Valleys are nothing new to these people, nearly all of whom for years were Site II
refugees in the 1980s, and who were resettled by the UN refugee office in a process
that was only completed in recent years as the refugee office prepared to shut down,
its mission "completed", in December of last year.
The mission has been extended to deal with new "refugees" - not, they emphasize
"internally displaced persons" - since the July fighting. The UNHCR now
expects to stay open at least until Dec 1999. The refugee office's commitment to
Site II refugees - people now being terrorized in areas they were resettled into
- is over.
"We were supposed to close the office last year," said the UNHCR's Nellie
Chan. "The idea was always that after a certain period of time they would be
taken over by other organizations and NGOs. We don't do long term projects, we work
with refugees. We were planning to close the office in December of last year. [After
July] we had new refugees. But basically we have no mandate over what we call the
The ongoing saga for Site II refugees at Wat Nimith appears unlikely to be soon resolved.
There are precious little political or military solutions on offer.
Most of the people at the Wat lived in two villages, Snoul Tret and Kla Kaun 23 km
north of the provincial capital. They are now virtually empty - only shallow graves,
bullet casings and the ashes of burned houses explain why they fled their homes.
"After shooting and killing and burning, [the killers] warned: 'We will come
back for three other families,'" one Snoul Tret villager said.
Several people at Wat Nimith said they expect to stay put because they still fear
the return of the military men who executed six people in their villages in February.
"What you are seeing are people who don't intend to go back until things are
solved or who never intend to go back [to their villages]," said WFP deputy
director Noah Davies, who noted that still others do not want to leave, but must
head out to pick up food from assistance organizations.
Another source lamented that the latest round of conflict, since July, is reminiscent
of the 1980s and could so easily have been avoided without leaving the Site II returnees
to blow in the wind.
"Armed conflict meant an exodus to the border where they had historical bases,
and across the border if the CPP followed them. It was all so highly predictable.
And it continues to be predictable. This won't end soon."
Asked if more people were likely to be displaced in the area, the source replied:
"They have already been displaced, numerous times. I don't want to sound cynical,
but they will be again."