ITH fighting having eased in Battambang and Banteay Meancheay in the last two
weeks, agencies helping waves of refugees in the northwestern provinces have
begun to take stock and are feeling more optimistic.
According to latest
figures, more than 50,000 people have fled their homes, and nearly three-fifths
are children. The worst affected are people from Rattanak Mondol district in
Battambang where nearly the entire population fled, and the 11,000 displaced in
Relief agencies which earlier thought many displaced persons
would have to be assisted even after the fighting stopped during the rainy
season are now revising their estimates.
"We were a lot gloomier earlier,
but things are now much better," says Scott Leiper, country director for World
Food Programme (WFP) which is co-ordinating the relief effort. Kathy Hopper,
Social Services Officer with UNHCR added: "Barring any drastic change in the
military situation, most of them could be back in a month."
town of Poipet, which was deserted a few weeks before, is now coming back to
life. Aid workers say about 20 per cent of its market is open, though the border
is still officially closed. Traffic between Sisophon and Poipet has also
Leiper says people have begun to return to their homes along
Route 10 after frontlines moved west during the fighting last fortnight. WFP is
working in the region with UNHCR, the Cambodian Red Cross and several other
Displaced people have very different needs: some need food but are
staying with friends and relatives, others have neither food nor shelter. About
1000 families each in both provinces have had their homes destroyed during he
fighting and will need aid even after they return.
In some areas,
soldiers have taken away what was not destroyed. One aid worker who went to Chay
Meancheay in Battambang's Banan district, for example, found that soldiers had
moved in, and had eaten most of the food, including the chickens and pigs in the
Another said there were reports that in Rattanak Mondol, wood
and tin from the walls and roofs of houses were missing. They had obviously been
stripped off-not destroyed by shelling-and were found on sale in nearby markets.
Many of these people have been displaced so many times in the past that
carrying whatever they can in a bundle has become a way of life. Says Leiper:
"It's tragic that some of them are so used to this that they had already
constructed temporary shelter by the time we got to them."
villages in Battambang's Bavel district, for example, villagers who saw the
fighting worsening carried out all their paddy stock as soon as it was harvested
to safer areas. They can now feed themselves.
Provincial authorities are
also better prepared. In Battambang, a Provincial IDP (Internally Displaced
Persons) committee co-ordinates relief efforts with district, commune and
village leaders and NGOs. Its work is described by an official with a large
relief agency as "excellent", though, he says, the same cannot be said of
provincial efforts in Sisophon.
Displaced people have so far received
more than 350 tonnes of food aid (about 11 kg of rice, fish and salt per person
per month). Those without shelter have been given plastic sheets to build
temporary shelters. Water is being trucked in daily in some areas, while NGOs
and provincial health authorities have set up temporary health clinics.
There have been complaints from people who say they have been overlooked
during registration for monthly aid. Agencies say that while some are legitimate
complaints, some people were left out because they did not qualify for aid:
either because they had paddy or were being looked after by friends or
"It's extremely difficult to classify people like this,
especially if different categories of people are living in the same place," says
Leiper. "The impulse is to help everyone, but we have to draw a line."
There have been some cases of poor people from Battambang town moving
out temporarily just for the food aid, or husbands and wives queuing up
separately to try to get double rations for the family. Agencies say the aid is
given after verification by the village chiefs to avoid this.
10,000 people from Snoeng commune in Battam-bang's Banan district have begun to
return. Leiper points out that this is crucial, because it is now the planting
season for the next crop, and if time is lost people could be short of food next
In most cases, older men have begun to return to plough the land,
while families follow later.