BANTEAY MEANCHEY (AP) - Almost daily at dawn, U.N. trucks carrying tons of rice and
fish speed across the Thai border. They are bound for hungry Cambodians still desperate
a year after U.N. forces arrived to guide their country out of civil war.
The convoys' destination-U.N. warehouses in Sisophon town-is in a region flourishing
from booming trade and infusions of foreign aid. Traders headed for Thailand on motorbikes
balance precarious bundles of bamboo baskets, oranges and various other goods.
Yet even in the midst of such a recovery are fetid camps full of thousands of refugees
from Cambodia's devastating, 12-year civil war.
Villagers trying to farm fall prey to landmines. Some villages have food, others
Cambodia produced 150,000 metric tons of food less than it needed last year, and
the World Food Program says this year could be worse.
The U.N. agency says many families will run short of food between July and December.
Last year, Cambodia suffered widespread malnutrition on top of a health crisis, including
the world's highest rate of war injuries and tuberculosis, said Scott Leiper, WFP
director in Cambodia.
Its technology low and its economy destroyed by war, Cambodia's ability to feed itself
remains at the whim of nature.
Even in Battambang, the country's western rice bowl, two districts suffered because
of bad rains, Leiper said.
In north-central Kompong Thom province, farmers had a good crop but lost it when
they had to flee from occupying soldiers, he said.
Clashes continue because both the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the Vietnamese-installed
government are violating the treaty they signed in 1991 to end their civil war.
In food-short areas, Leiper said, many people must sell their land and borrow money
or food, beginning a never-ending cycle of debt and poverty.
"There's so many people in Cambodia who are on the edge," he said. "Just
a little push and they are on the downslide. One member of the family gets sick and
they need to borrow money."
Despite domestic shortages, merchants last year sold 35,000 tons of rice to Thailand
for foreign currency. The Cambodian currency is dropping in value against the U.S.
dollar, so even more rice may be exported this year.
During the past decade, the U.N. program fed refugee camps in Thailand. The last
of the 360,000 refugees are to return home this month. Deliveries are being expanded
Refugees are fed for 400 days while they return to farming or find jobs. At one village,
many families recently squatted in queues on a dirt field, waiting for food under
a blazing sun.
One woman said she has no income and doesn't know what to do when the rations end.
Next to her, a man sadly showed the crude wooden stump that replaced his leg blown
off by a landmine-the price for gathering wood on a nearby mountain.
There are another 165,000 people displaced within the country by fighting and insecurity,
cut off from their land or other means of livelihood. This number is likely to grow
this year, Leiper said.
Even more worrisome, he said, is the shortage of international support for particularly
vulnerable groups-the handicapped, orphans and widows with families. Their plight
is worsening as food prices spiral upwards.
A survey last year by the World Food Program of 180 villages in 10 provinces found
a fifth of the people fell into those vulnerable categories.
Unlike in other countries, the U.N. program is directly involved in running its food
distribution program because Cambodia's four main factions have tended to use food
as a weapon.
As peace returns to Cambodia, the U.N. agency is shifting from giving away food to
trying to develop villages.
In the western province of Banteay Meanchey, the U.N. agency Carere is paying 7,000
villagers each U.S. $1 a day - generous in local terms - to build roads with their
hands and simple tools.
The roads are crucial because most communes are cut off from the outside economy
due to rains much of the year. As soon as the roads are finished, people start building
houses alongside them.
The Carere jobs are funneling thousands of dollars into poor villages.
"There is enough rice. The problem is that some people don't have the money
to buy it," said Toni Stadler, a Carere official from Switzerland.
At nearby Sala Kraw refugee camp, Sin Parin, her bony face showing all her 73 years,
lives by the grace of neighbors who give her food. She is sick, like many others
here. As she speaks, a neighbor's boy crippled by polio gropes into her small bamboo
and thatch hut.
Sin Parin has no idea when she can return to her home village. Did you consult a
fortune teller, she was asked.
"There's no reliable ones around," she replied, laughing the way Cambodians
laugh to ease the burden of their tragedy.