THE WORLD FROM...Site 2, Thailand

Proxy wars are winding down for the developed world, but the legacy lingers for Cambodian refugees

PRAK ROM was bleary-eyed after a restless night, the last of more than 1,000 nights in Cambodian refugee camps.

"I have a lot of worries," says the soft-spoken woman who was poised to see Cambodia for the first time since fleeing three years ago. "I couldn't sleep the whole night."

For the United States and other world powers, the cold war and proxy confrontations like Cambodia's 13-year civil war are winding down.

But for the country's exiled masses, the coming days are uncertain at best. Despite political confusion inside Cambodia, some refugees see promising new opportunities ahead. Others, though, worry that repatriation will only bring new ordeals.

This week, the first of 375,000 refugees in Thailand began trickling home under the protection of the United Nations. But hopes for an end to Cambodia's agony are muted by a continuing military rampage.

Just a day before the first departure of refugees homeward on March 30, new fighting over a highway exploded between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and soldiers of the Phnom Penh regime in central Cambodia. On March 31, Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh negotiators seemed near yet another UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement.

Still, among the returnees huddled against the sun under an awning is this sprawling thatch city of more than 200,000 Khmers, there was a jaunty air of risk.

The first crack at scarce farming land, good water sources, and negotiable roads, the refugees say, is worth the danger of political upheaval and an expected cool welcome from those who had remained at home.

"I'm happy to go back because I will get good land. I've been separated from my parents for a long time," says So Koemson, who was slated to relocate his family near Mongkol Borei, not far from the Thai-based refugee camp where he has lived for five years. "If I fail at farming, I can always trade."

His wife, Hum Ny, is not so sure. "I'm worried about many things, especially the Khmer Rouge, because they haven't really won their war. They may take it out on us," says the woman whose parents, first husband, and two children died of starvation under the radical Marxists' rule in the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge are blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians through execution, starvation, and overwork on collective farms.

Hum Ny, who nurses a small baby, also is worried that Phnom Penh would arrest her husband who fled to Thailand to avoid the draft in 1987. When her husband shrugged off the possibility, Hum Ny snapped, "What do you mean? That has been our main worry in going back."

Years of political propaganda also have taken a toll. Nhem Sun fled his native Svay Rieng Province in southeastern Cambodia, which borders Vietnam, six years ago and lived in a camp in Thailand controlled by the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese Army ousted the Khmer Rouge in an invasion in late 1978.

"The Vietnamese soldiers took my property and harassed me. I don't want to go back to Svay Rieng," the farmer says. He and his family will be relocating in western Cambodia.

Like many refugees, Nhem Sun opted to return under the protection of the UN and not the Khmer Rouge, despite the guerrillas' offers of land in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas.

After years in the sprawling thatched refugee centers, Nhem Sun is relieved to be getting out. "In Cambodia, it's better than in the camp. The Thai soldiers control the camp," he said. Adding an afterthought, he says, "I think in Cambodia we may be free."

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