Young Refugee Begins a More Independent Life


TWO months ago, Cheat Sokha left the bamboo hospital platform where she had lain for six years and moved to her own house. Now, every day, the 19-year-old partially paralyzed Cambodian eases herself into a wheelchair made of wood, bamboo, and old tires and pushes herself to the rehabilitation center to crochet pillow covers and coasters for sale.

For Sokha, Cambodia is remote. Six years ago in her village located near the city of Battambang, she was caught outside in shelling by Vietnamese occupation forces and the Cambodian resistance.

"I was injured by a rocket. I was sitting in a hammock with my baby brother," Sokha recalls. "We had made a cover of wood and ground, and I was running ahead to that when I fell."

Since then, she's lived in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border where her father brought her for treatment. She says she hasn't seen her mother and seven brothers and sisters and is out of touch with her village.

Today, she and her father, Moklon, share a small house in Khao I Dang camp, one of the sprawling bamboo ghettos that straddle the volatile Thai-Cambodian frontier.

For months, Cambodians have waited as the United States and other Western and Asian powers try to force the Phnom Penh regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the three-faction resistance dominated by the Khmer Rouge to accept a United Nations peace plan. (See story above.)

Sokha knows little more than life in the camps. Many children whose parents once worked Cambodia's rice paddies have never seen crops grow.

Sokha says the tedium of camp life is her worst enemy.

"My thoughts are like the wind. It's up to the way the wind blows," she says. "Nothing makes me think anymore: I just open my eyes every day."

"Along the border, there are signs of Khmer society breaking down," notes Susan Walker, regional director of Handicap International, which runs the rehabilitation facility at Khao I Dang. "People get good services here. But we can't provide them with hope for the future and for their children. And we can't provide them the experience of rice and water buffaloes."

Aid workers at the camp say Sokha has moved toward rebuilding her life. The girl, who attended school in Cambodia for only three years, has learned some English. And despite her reluctance to leave the hospital, aid workers say she is better off learning independence at home.

Yet Sokha has found independent living a tough adjustment. Her three-room bamboo hut, 10 minutes by wheelchair from the rehabilitation center, has been specially designed for handicap use. Sokha can cook, but she says she still relies on her father, who works as a security guard in the camp, to prepare meals and clean.

ONE recent, hot afternoon in the small house, Sokha and her father explain their fear and uncertainty in going home. In the past year, thousands of Cambodians have returned, some voluntarily but most forced by the rebels who have regained territory from the Phnom Penh regime.

"It is very difficult in the village. You can't find a job and sometimes you can't travel far without permission," Sokha says, translating for her father.

"The village is sometimes under Hun Sen, sometimes under the Khmer Rouge," she continues. "When Hun Sen is out, the Khmer Rouge are in. When Hun Sen is in, the Khmer Rouge are out."

Although she was very young, Sokha says she can't forget the hardship and terror of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

In 1975, when Sokha was three years old, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in an uprising fueled by resentment against the corrupt Lon Nol regime, which had allowed massive US bombing during the Vietnam War.

For four years, the Khmer Rouge imposed a brutal agrarian reconstruction program on Cambodia, emptying cities and towns and forcing millions of Cambodians to labor in the countryside. An estimated 1 million people are believed to have died, many by starvation.

Sokha remembers the hunger and hard work. "We could eat only porridge and rice, but it was not enough. We cooked leaves, banana roots, and papaya stalks together with the porridge to get more," she says.

In 1978, after widespread skirmishes, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, ousted the Khmer Rouge, and drove the Marxists to the Thai border. "After the Pol Pot regime, it was better than during the Pol Pot regime," says Sokha. "But then ... I got this injury."

Sokha is bewildered by Cambodia's political standoff. One of her brothers fights for the Phnom Penh Army.

Sokha and her father stay in contact with the Cambodian resistance and are trying to locate another brother and sister in a different refugee camp. Western aid workers say efforts to trace them have been unsuccessful, although Sokha has received word that they are at the Thai border.

Like many Cambodian refugees, Sokha is frustrated with Cambodia's political leaders and the continuing war. She says she gets angry listening to news on the radio.

"It's always the same, same. It's never better," she says heatedly. "It makes me cry to listen to it."

To survive, Sokha says she's forced to wait and hope. "We are waiting for the peace," she says. "I want to go back. I have only one hope."

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