Cambodian Refugees Wait--and Hope

AMID revived hopes for a settlement of Cambodia's civil war, 500,000 refugees wait for peace in camps inside the country and in neighboring Thailand.Next week, the regime in Phnom Penh and the three resistance allies meet in Beijing as the diplomatic search for an end to Cambodia's 12-year civil war quickens. Recently, the warring Cambodians agreed on a cease-fire and took steps toward establishing an interim council to preside over a United Nations-administered transition to peace. International aid workers say the Cambodian refugees are watching developments with some hope and a lot of skepticism. "This is the most promising sign in months," says the head of an international agency working in the camps in Thailand. "But they have been disappointed so many times, and they wonder if peace is really on the horizon." This year, the tide of displaced Cambodians has continued to swell. Thousands of new refugees have fled to this dusty makeshift city of row after row of thatched huts, dogged by drought, famine, outbursts of new fighting, and forced conscription by the Cambodian government and the three allied resistance factions. Every need is met by the United Nations and an array of international aid agencies working in the six UN-administered border camps. But violence has become an everyday occurrence. A UN plan to temporarily administer Cambodia, monitor a cease-fire and elections, and disarm the factions has made headway recently as in-fighting has subsided. The Chinese-backed Marxist rebels ruled Cambodia in a brutal regime from 1975 until Vietnam invaded in late 1978 and installed the present government. Years of war have soured refugees toward their leaders and convinced many that peace pivots on the two regional powers, China and Vietnam. "The people in the camps feel they are hostages of their leaders," says an official of a large Western relief agency. "We have some keys ready in our hands, but we have to see if we can get the others keys, which are Vietnam and China," says Tou Thon, administrator of 80,000 refugees in Rithisen, the largest sector of the Site 2 camp. Site 2 is besieged with banditry, arson, and extortion by gangs of young refugees. A grenade attack in March killed almost 30 people. Flare-ups in which refugees attack each other with grenades and axes are frequent and worrying, aid officials say. "Here, people get angry, go out and get a grenade, and throw it at their neighbors," says a UN official. The camps, where 40 percent of the refugees have been born, have also bred a generation cut off from its roots. "A person less than 20 years old doesn't know much about Khmer [Cambodian] culture," says Sak Man, an art teacher at a Cambodian cultural center in Khao-I-Dang, another camp near Site 2. Food has also become more difficult. The UN has cut weekly rations as camp populations have swollen and major food donors, such as Japan, spread assistance between refugees at the border and almost 200,000 displaced persons inside Cambodia. Cambodia is suffering a 1 million ton shortfall of rice because of late monsoon rains, fertilizer shortages, and fighting that displaced entire villages from rice-growing areas. Rebels said suspension of United States assistance to the noncommunist resistance earlier this year aggravated shortfalls. Driving the peace negotiations is fear among Cambodians and Westerners that the Khmer Rouge will return to power. Still, the Marxist rebels have scored gains in changing their image. Sam Reth, 25 years old, left his village as the government was forcing young men to join the army. Other resistance soldiers demanded money to allow him to reach the border and refused him food. But the Khmer Rouge were different. "When I met the Khmer Rouge, I told them my story. They let me continue the trip and gave me rice," said the shopkeeper, who now lives in Site 2 with his wife. "The Khmer Rouge are very kind."

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