Battambang: Returning home after 14 years in a border camp is hard but for many of
the returnees coming back to face their relations with empty hands is apparently
the hardest part.
When returnees were asked where they most wanted to settle, by far the largest single
choice was Battambang.
Some wanted to make new lives far from their next of kin while, for others, the West
held the lure of a land of opportunity where the poor can strike it rich.
The draw of its extremely fertile soil was such that tens of thousands risked their
lives to settle the heavily-mined south-west of the province, says Andrew Pendleton
UNHCR's Battambang field officer.
At first, he says, much effort was made to dissuade people from moving there but
he acknowledges there was little choice when it came to allotting land for resettlement.
Prime sites were often already occupied or others too isolated. The remainder were
strewn with land mines.
The particular lure of Rattnak Mondol, in the heart of the south-west, lies in its
name which means "center of gems".
Here there have been surprisingly few mine accidents for a population of 26,000,
although in the first three months, Pendleton recalled, 144 draft animals died after
stepping on land mines.
Some of the returnees are clearly making the most of their new life out west. Orn
Hourm settled in Dang Kot village, Sdau district, after taking the UNHCR cash option.
He made a little money at first working for a construction company and built a small
thatch house. He then set up a small shop and began to grow vegetables.
Today he manages to support his parents and help other family members living in the
same house who are not having so much luck.
A scheme launched by World Food Program (WFP) called "food for work" is
attracting the fitter men and women to repair roads in exchange for six kilos of
rice daily but others are finding it difficult to eke out a living.
Widows and single parents appear to be having the most difficulty. UNHCR had hoped
to organize a crèche scheme where working mothers could leave their children
during the day but, according to Pendleton, it never took off because it "smacked
of Pol Pot's socialism."
Some widows at Beoung Ampil village have managed to form together and make mats at
home which allows them to take care of the children.
Although the venture is not profitable, it lessens their dependence on NGOs and gives
them a chance to build back their self-respect.
NGOs Holt and Help Age International are helping widows with children and the elderly
respectively but cases abound of those who are living on the edge.
WFP free food supplies are being scaled down and those who have dropped through the
"safety net" are hoping for an abundant harvest to bring down the price
UNHCR is handing over rebuilding and development projects to UNDP/CARERE which have
already prepared 5,000 hectares of land with seven clinics.
But there are nowhere nearly enough hospitals nor drugs to treat the mentally ill,
handicapped and chronically sick who were well provided for in the camps.
The moral dilemma in bringing these vulnerable people back does not appear to have
been fully thought through as one, albeit isolated, case highlights.
"Ung" was treated regularly with sedatives in the border camps for bouts
of extreme and uncontrolled violence.
But two months after his last medication ran out, and when all attempts to have him
admitted to a hospital failed, he was found bound and beaten at the bottom of the
Stoeng River .