Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Running from war, creeping back home

Running from war, creeping back home

Running from war, creeping back home

R ATTANAK MONDOL - Phan Phon cannot remember how many times war has interrupted

his life, forcing him and his family to flee their home and land.

"You

know, in one year I left three or four times. In total, though, I don't know -

maybe 20 or 30 times since I started living there in 1982.

"Before, we

would leave for a month or two, then we could go back. Now it's different - we

stay away for a long time. There is no way for us to be safe there."

Phan

Phon, his wife and seven children are veteran IDPs - Internally Displaced People

in the sterile official term - regularly made homeless by war.

Their home

- when they can live there - is Treng commune, at the heart of one of the main

frontlines of Cambodia's war with the Khmer Rouge.

Treng, about 40km from

Battambang city, has fallen into KR hands three times in the past 15

months.

It lies mid-way on the pot-holed dirt road which is Route 10 -

linking Battambang to the KR stronghold of Pailin - in Rattanak Mondol

district.

Scene of a protracted tug-of-war between the KR and the Royal

Cambodian army which neither side seems capable of winning, Rattanak Mondol has

become the IDP capital of Cambodia.

Tens of thousands of villagers live

like "yo-yos", as one aid worker puts it, alternatively fleeing and returning to

their homes.

In a cruel irony, the land pockmarked with scars from

artillery shells and landmines that they flee is also among the most fertile in

all of Battambang. Rice, peanuts, mung beans and other crops grow

well.

It is that - and the lack of any alternative - which keeps the

villagers returning there.

"Treng is my home," says Phon, one of 26,000

people who fled Rattanak Mondol early this year as fighting

escalated.

"Here is no place for me," he says, pointing around the IDP

camp on Route 10 about 15km from Battambang where he now lives.

"I have

stayed here for four months but I just sleep and eat here. I have no way to get

a job for money, and no land to grow food.

"I have no way to get out of

Treng. I have no relatives anywhere else. I will go back there," says Phon, who

lost a leg to a mine while collecting firewood near Treng five years

ago.

Since fleeing Treng, Phon - like many other men in IDP families -

has several times run the gauntlet to briefly visit the commune to scavenge for

food and wood.

IDPs otherwise rely on food from NGOs.

"It's not

enough," says Chhim Heng, another Treng refugee.

"Everyday we eat boiled

rice and water. My family uses just two or three spoons of rice, the rest is

water. It's like what we ate in the Khmer Rouge times.

"I worry a lot

about my children's health, especially about dengue fever and about their

food.

"There are children here who have got thinner and thinner from day

to day. I don't know what happened to them."

Five Rattanak Mondol

children died of malnutrition or associated illnesses in May, prompting a boost

in NGO food programs.

A survey of nearly 1,000 children aged under 5 last

month found that 17 per cent of them had "moderate" or "severe" acute

malnutrition.

Among those aged 6-29 months old, 21 percent were

malnourished.

"For some families, it's a critical problem that they

haven't got enough food," says nurse Ruth Ashe of the NGO World

Vision.

"They're not in their home environment. They haven't been able to

grow vegetables and get enough types of food.

"The last two years have

been awful, the way these people have been in and out of their villages like

yo-yos.

"The people who go back have no alternative...They say 'Well,

I've got my rice or my peanuts there. What have I got here?

Nothing.'"

Some 2,500 IDP families returned to several Rattanak Mondol

communes last month, but not Treng, while the rest are waiting till it is

safer.

"Some of the men, and the braver families, have gone back," says

Martin Fisher of the World Food Program (WFP).

"They're harvesting

peanuts or trying to get their fields going. Once the seeds are in the ground,

they can leave.

"They're ready to leave, with oxcarts full of stuff, at

any time if anything happens."

The remaining IDPs are scattered along

either side of Route 10 between two to 20km from Battambang.

They live in

makeshift shacks of bamboo, thatch and the NGO-provided blue tarpaulins which

have become the trademark of IDPs.

Vulnerable families - such as those

with ill or elderly members - can get free food from NGOs. The rest are eligible

for the WFP's Food for Work scheme, where they are paid in food for digging

canals, irrigation ditches and the like.

Some NGO staff in Phnom Penh

privately question the willingness of villagers in some parts of the country to

"throw themselves into the arms of NGOs and say 'Feed us'".

But Martin

Fisher is adamant that "we are not encouraging people to become IDPs" and says

it is government policy to "get off this concept of free food".

"If it's

an emergency, we will respond to it but nobody would choose to leave their

homes, even if there was free food.

"If they knew we were doing a rice

distribution on a Friday, maybe they would wait until the Saturday to return

home, but if they have to work for their food, they'll say sod this, I'd rather

get back to my land."

The cycle of war and IDPs is by no means limited to

Rattanak Mondol.

The districts of Banan, Mong Russey and Bavel - hit hard

by scorched-earth attacks by the Khmer Rouge - have between them produced as

many IDPs as Rattanak Mondol.

Further west, KR attacks on the town of

Poipet recently sent 23,000 IDPs to the Banteay Meanchey town of

Sisophon.

In Battambang, some IDPs have been away from their homes for

over a year, losing at least two rice crops.

"I don't know whether it's a

KR policy to totally destabilize food production, but they're doing a good job

of it," says Fisher.

The rice crisis has ensured it is not only IDP areas

affected. Of the 75 communes in Battambang, 45 are on the WFP's target list for

food assistance.

As well as malnutrition, the health dangers - for IDPs

and others - include respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, malaria, dengue fever and

tuberculous.

For those close to the war, mines, shells and bullets can be

added to the list.

Ruth Ashe tells the story of a mother from S'dao

commune, near Treng, whose family was systematically devastated by a combination

of tragedies.

The woman, nine-months pregnant, stepped on a mine and lost

her leg and her baby. Her husband later also trod on a mine. One of her four

children died of malaria.

Last month, the women's husband went to

neighboring Pursat province to collect bamboo to sell. He was killed by a

trip-wired grenade set up to kill pigs.

"His wife is absolutely

despondent and desperate. She has no work skills, no way to make money and three

children to look after."

But Ashe maintains that despite everything, even

Rattanak Mondol has its positive side.

She points to the district's local

hospital staff, who, when the local hospital at S'dao was destroyed by the KR

last May, had medical services up and running again within two days.

The

same staff now run three medical clinics in IDP areas.

"Rattanak

Mondol may be the most disadvantaged district in Battambang, but it has one of

the best district health staff...continuing to work under terrible conditions in

a war zone," says Ashe.

Meanwhile, Phan Phon and Chhim Heng wait in hope

for the day when that war zone may become peaceful.

Heng, asked what his

biggest wish in the world is, gives the simplest of replies: "To do farming."

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