UN Homecoming Plans Leave Many Dejected

Resettlement effort meets formidable obstacles in reconciling high hopes of returnees and difficult prospects in new villages

SEATED beneath a few solitary tamarind trees, Mean Oun detaches his artificial leg and bitterly surveys his new home.

Just moments before, United Nations trucks jounced down a rutted dirt track and posited the man and 102 other returning Cambodian refugees in the dry, desolate hamlet five miles from the main road and a long walk from water.

Mean Oun, who lost a leg when he stepped on a mine while looking for firewood, is angry. After 13 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, he says a UN clerical error has kept him from returning to his original village - Ang Long Vul, almost 20 miles away - to rejoin relatives.

Now he and his wife are alone, resettled in another part of western Battambang Province without their son-in-law and daughter, who was ill and forced to stay behind in the camps.

"This place seems very difficult, and I am handicapped. I don't want to stay here and build a house," he says. "I don't know if I can get back [to Ang Long Vul]. Maybe someone will take me."

In an emotional, often painful trek home, more than 360,000 Cambodians are trickling back to a country shattered by decades of civil war. Overseeing the Cambodian repatriation, the UN is grappling with one of the largest mass movements of people in recent time. The problems are daunting.

More than half of the available land in western Battambang Province - where refugees want to resettle because of its fertility and proximity to Thailand - is mined. Water and housing materials are short. Lawlessness among unemployed soldiers is rife.

Despite a cease-fire, major battles continue between the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh regime, two of the four factions who signed a UN-sponsored peace accord last October.

The UN lacks enough money, and officials are in a race against time to relocate the exiled Cambodians before elections scheduled for mid-1993 and before international funding dries up.

"We're under tremendous pressure to get people back because of the deadline next year," says Iain Guest, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But the treaty deadline is exacting a human toll, UN officials and aid workers say. For years, the refugees were sheltered in sprawling bamboo and thatch enclaves overseen by the UN inside Thailand, provided with an array of services unheard of by most peasants in Cambodia.

At Dac Sra Sa, five miles southwest of Battambang city, one man, a widower with three children, carried two filled water buckets on a pole across his shoulders. At the Thai camp of Site 2, where the family used to live, water was delivered by truck.

The refugee, who declines to give his name, says some of the 36 families resettled four weeks earlier in Dac Sra Sa had begun to build houses, although many still live in lean-tos made of UN-supplied wood and tarpaulins. Lacking the clean water they were used to in the camp, many children became sick.

"I am an experiment of the United Nations," he says bitterly.

Still, the task of helping returnees but avoiding envy among Cambodians who remained at home is tricky, UN officials say. At Ang Long Run, Mak Thaoun and other villagers watched the returnees unload their belongings in bright blue UN bags.

Mak Thaoun, a crusty farmer who spent four years in a Thai border camp but returned on his own three months ago, predicts a difficult adjustment for the newcomers.

"The camp is much easier and nicer than here. There are many poor people in this area," he says, explaining that the 60 families in Ang Long Run often have to dig pits to find water.

"A few weeks ago, robbers killed four people here," he adds. "And there are many Khmer Rouge nearby. When the dark comes, I feel frightened." (The Khmer Rouge, militarily the strongest of the resistance factions, has continued battling for new territory and its control over Cambodia's rural population.)

UNHCR's controversial plan to resettle refugees on farms also has created uneasiness for what has become a largely urban population of exiles unused to rural life, international aid workers and UN critics say.

More than 50 percent of the refugees are between the ages of 15 and 30 and many have never seen Cambodia. "My children think a cow is a pig and a pig is a cow," says Sen Sonk Tean, who is waiting with her parents, husband, and three children at a center in Battambang to be taken to their land.

That realization, along with pressures to speed up the repatriation, is causing the UN agency to rethink what many diplomats and aid workers contend has been a misconceived and badly executed policy.

Responding to fears of a large secondary exodus to the cities and even back to Thailand, UNHCR is studying new options such as providing houses without attached land or opening food distribution points in towns.

Chhaum Sanbo, who worked as a nurse in the refugee camp, is disconsolate about being settled at Ang Long Run. Showing a letter of credential from a Western aid organization in Thailand, he complains, "This is very far from Battambang [city]. How will I be able to work?"

Still, some refugees say coming home is a time of new opportunities. Out Thani walked back from Thailand through mined rice fields with her two children a year ago.

Today, she has a thriving business in rattan furniture outside Battambang and is starting to employ other returnees. "If I still stayed on the Thai border, I wouldn't make much money," she explains. "Now I'm making a lot of furniture for all the foreigners. I make only a small profit on Khmers but big profits on foreigners."

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