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Refugees in northwest trickle home

Refugees in northwest trickle home

W

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

Sisophon.

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."

The border

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

increased.

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

NGOs.

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

village.

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."

In some

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

relatives.

"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.

About

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

year.

In most cases, older men have begun to return to plough the land,

while families follow later.

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