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Elections far from the minds of homesick returnees

Elections far from the minds of homesick returnees

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GOING HOME

Returnees who fled fighting in Samlot unload their belongings in Sisophon after living nearly a year in a Thai refugee camp.

SISOPHON, Banteay Meanchey - To Funcinpec, she is one more potential new vote. To the UN, she is one less refugee to shelter. But 70-year-old Som Tay doesn't really care what she represents - she is just happy to be coming home.

"I am old, so the truck ride was uncomfortable for me," she said. "But even though it's difficult, I wanted to come back and see my son and daughter in Preah Vihear."

Som Tay was one of 121 tired but relieved people clambering off trucks in Sisophon on May 28 after an eight-hour trip from a refugee camp in Trat, Thailand. They were the second wave of returnees who had fled from Samlot area after fighting flared there last year in the wake of July's coup. The first batch of 196 arrived May 14.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has returned 19 convoys altogether from camps in Trat and Surin, but UNHCR officials say the 4,331 returnees are a mere "drop in the bucket" compared to the estimated 60,000 people still in those camps.

Opposition parties, including Funcinpec, are eager to see those people return to Cambodia in time to vote, reckoning that the majority of the returnees will be party supporters.

However, it is unlikely that most refugees will be repatriated in time to participate in the elections, according to UNHCR officials.

As for those who are returning now, voting seemed to be the last thing on their minds - most seemed to be taken up with the more immediate issues of resuming their lives again.

Nget Voeun, 38, showed little interest in questions about the upcoming election. She said she just wanted to go home and find her husband again - and to introduce him to his two-month-old daughter, born in the camp.

"When there was fighting, my husband had gone to Battambang to buy something," she said. "I had to escape to Thailand and we got separated."

Som Tay was similarly uninterested in recent events such as widespread Khmer Rouge defections - even though her son is a Khmer Rouge soldier.

"I don't know about that, because I have been away," she said. She did say she was concerned about her son, who helped her get to the camp but slipped away again as soon as his mother was safe.

"I don't know where he is right now... he went back to the troops," she said. "I was worried about him, I asked him to stay with me, but when he left he didn't tell me."

She was visiting her son in Samlot when fighting began last year; she escaped with her son, her daughter Pin Vee and two granddaughters.

Pin Vee found the trip to Thailand particularly terrifying, as she is blind. "I was crying on the way. It was very far, we had to climb up mountains and I slipped," she said. "It was difficult."

But their ordeal is nearly over. After two days in Sisophon, the returnees will head for their respective homes.

"I want to thank the organizations that brought us back," said Pin Vee, as Som Tay led her toward their shelter. "I am happy to be here."

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