For Cambodia, the years still pass painfully; As Khmer Rouge trial opens, refugees return to reflect on crimes
Publisher: International Herald Tribune
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

With opening statements about to begin in the most important phase of the Khmer Rouge trials, survivors knelt before a huge pyramid of skulls at a killing field here Sunday as monks chanted a prayer for the souls of the dead.

Chickens pecked in the damp grass above the pits where nearly 9,000 people were bludgeoned to death and where teeth and bits of bone still work their way to the surface during monsoon floods. Signs warn tourists, ''Please don't walk through the mass grave.''

At the trial that is scheduled to get under way Monday, three senior members of the Khmer Rouge leadership are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other charges.

They are Nuon Chea, 85, the chief ideologue of the movement; Khieu Samphan, 80, the head of state; and Ieng Sary, 86, the foreign minister. Mr. Ieng Sary has stated that he will not address the court, leaving only two defendants to tell their stories at a trial that many Cambodians hope will help explain the mass killings.

The fourth surviving member of the top leadership, Ieng Thirith, 79, the regime's minister of social affairs, was severed from the case last week when judges in the U.N.-backed tribunal ruled that she was suffering from dementia and was not fit to stand trial.

Prosecutors have challenged the ruling, delaying the possible release of the first Khmer Rouge leader to evade judgment after being arrested.

Others, including the movement's supreme leader, Pol Pot, have died as both perpetrators and victims grow older, three decades after the crimes were committed.

The Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist movement with its roots in the Vietnam War, were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979 in a country of about eight million, from execution, torture, forced labor, disease and starvation.

For survivors, the passing years had become as much a concern as the crimes themselves.

''The victims, especially myself, we suffer for too long,'' said Marie Chea, 60. ''Why wait too long, until now? Why don't they do anything? What is the truth? We want to know the truth.''

Mrs. Chea, of Ashburn, Virginia, is one of three Cambodian-Americans who have traveled here for the opening arguments, from among about 100,000 Cambodian survivors who now live in the United States.

They were brought here as part of a program of healing and reconciliation by the Applied Social Research Institute of Cambodia, a nonprofit group in New York that has registered 41 Cambodian-Americans as civil parties to the trial with the right to demand symbolic reparations.

Like many other refugees in the United States, Mrs. Chea has been pursued by her traumas, and she wept as she knelt at the base of the pyramid of skulls.

''I lost my family, my mom, my dad, my brothers and sisters,'' she said. ''I suffer, suffer, even when I am back home — I say home because I am in the United States more than 30 years.''

But even in the United States, even after the passing decades, she said, her memories haunt her.

''I always dream that someone is chasing me from behind,'' she said. ''I always run away. Sometimes I am scared when I wake up: 'Where am I?' After I wake up I say, 'No, I am in a safe place. I am in the United States.' But I never stop dreaming. I always have nightmares, only nightmares.''

Another of the returning survivors, Sophany Bay, 66, of San Jose, California, is tormented by the memory of her three children, aged 6, 5 and 6 months. The first to die was her baby during the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh immediately after the Khmer Rouge victory.

That evacuation and the abuses that accompanied it are to form the first section of the trial.

''We had to get out of here, just my two kids and my baby that I carried,'' she said. ''They shot into the air. 'Go, go, go!' My baby had no milk to feed her. Six months old. She died.''

Then her son died, then her daughter. ''All my children, they died in my hands, and I took them to their graves,'' she said.

Sarem Neou, 71, of Silver Spring, Maryland, the third of the Cambodian-Americans here, had an unusual perspective on the defendants in the trial: Mrs. Ieng Thirith was her high school English teacher.

''She was a very good teacher,'' she said. ''Very serious.''

She said it seemed to make sense that Mrs. Ieng Thirith had been removed from the case. ''I expect that thing from some Khmer Rouge member in that situation,'' she said. ''They are old, and they are human beings, and they are under a lot of stress. They might go crazy, become forgetful. I'm not surprised.''

Among the participants of the ceremony Sunday morning was Bou Meng, 70, one of the very few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison, whose commandant, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was convicted in July 2010 in the first Khmer Rouge trial and sentenced to 35 years, commuted to 19 years.

As monks chanted and incense rose at the foot of the glassed-in pyramid, Mr. Bou Meng said he believed that one of those thousands of anonymous skulls might be his wife's.

Mr. Bou Meng survived because he was an artist and was assigned by his captors to paint portraits of Pol Pot. He said he was now at work on a drawing of his wife at the edge of one of the execution pits at the moment of her death, with a knife at her throat.

UNHCR urges Japan to draw on past experience for success of pilot program
Publisher: Kyodo News, Japan
Author: by Maya Kaneko
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

TOKYO, Nov. 18 Kyodo – Visiting U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urged Japan on Friday to draw on its own experience of accepting more than 11,000 Indochinese refugees in the past to achieve success in the current pilot resettlement project for Myanmar refugees.

Guterres said he believes the key to success for the three-year program that began in 2010 in Japan to accept a total of 90 Myanmar refugees from a camp in Thailand is ''a good coordination between the central government, local government and NGOs in order to allow for effective integration.''

Under the U.N.-promoted pilot scheme, a total of 45 Myanmar refugees who are members of ethnic Karen families have arrived in Japan. But some of the first group members have complained about poor working conditions and refused to work for a farm after finishing a 180-day government-funded support program that includes Japanese language study and job training.

Despite the difficulties faced by the Myanmar refugees on the resettlement program, Guterres said he is optimistic the project will be successful.

''There are always some difficulties, but let's also not forget that Japan has an experience of resettlement of refugees – tens of thousands of refugees from Indochina in the past,'' he said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo.

The high commissioner said experience ''can be very useful now'' in addressing challenges in the new resettlement program. Between 1978 and 2005, Japan accepted 11,319 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

On the current state of Myanmar, which shifted to nominal civilian rule in March after decades of military control, Guterres said there is ''an important signal of change'' and that some Myanmar refugees have indicated their interest in eventually going back to the country if their safety is guaranteed.

The U.N. refugee agency ''will be supporting all those who are willing to go back'' and discuss with the Myanmar authorities ''in order to make sure that these people will not suffer any kind of prosecution,'' he said.

As for refugees from North Korea, the former Portuguese premier noted a ''challenging situation'' in China, adding that his organization has been in discussion with Beijing on the guarantees of protection for such refugees.

''The truth is that they are sent back to North Korea then they might suffer enormously,'' he said. ''And so we have been very strongly insisting for North Koreans not to be sent back against their will to their country of origin.''

Spotlight on Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: By Karin Brulliard,
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

NOWSHERA, Pakistan — A few hundred men took to the streets in a suburb of this city early this month, furiously chanting for the expulsion of neighbors they described as interlopers.

The objects of their ire were Afghan refugees, millions of whom reside here in Pakistan. They are hardly newcomers — many fled war, Russian occupation or Taliban rule years or even decades ago. Many were born in Pakistan.

But the recent demonstration was a sign of bubbling discontent about Afghans in Pakistan, who comprise the world's largest refugee population. While their presence has long been a source of tension, Pakistani politicians and the media are increasingly exaggerating their numbers and identifying them as a problem that must be solved as the neighboring nations eye the finale of the U.S.-led Afghan war, remote as that seems for now.

On an official visit to Australia last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called on the international community to help repatriate Afghans, who he said were "causing numerous difficulties" and spreading polio. In a recent interview, Interior Minister Rehman Malik accused the refugees of being "involved in criminal activities," and said sending Afghans home was among Pakistan's priorities.

The spotlight on Afghan refugees comes as the ever-wary neighbors trade barbs about cross-border violence and a potential negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan. Afghan officials, like their U.S. counterparts, have blamed Pakistan for fueling the Taliban insurgency, a claim Pakistan denies. But Pakistan wants a key role in reconciliation, and the refugees — who by most accounts Pakistan has hosted fairly graciously — could provide leverage.

At the same time, persistent violence has led to a decrease in refugee returns to Afghanistan, and there is scant sign that those remaining will soon leave. Amid a failing economy and political jockeying ahead of 2013 elections in Pakistan, analysts say Afghans are convenient targets. Indeed, the argument here echoes the U.S. immigration debate, with concerns about foreigners who commit crimes, steal jobs and fail to assimilate.

"We have been treating them as our brothers," said Sher Bahadur, 64, one Nowshera resident who joined the recent demonstration, which took place after a fight between Pakistanis and Afghans. "Now the situation is so bad that we fear they have the might, power and resources to displace us."

The complaints are not new, but the tenor has alarmed Afghan officials. One senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Pakistan is showing "early signs of new pressure" over refugees. The official said it was unclear whether the motivation is a desire to see Afghans leave, win additional refugee aid or blame Afghans for Taliban activity inside Pakistan.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees live in Pakistan; the government says the figure is around 2 million. Another 1 million are believed to be in Pakistan illegally, said Habibullah Khan, secretary of the government's States and Frontiers Regions Division. In the first 10 months of 2011, 43,000 Afghan refugees returned home, a figure that was 59 percent lower than the same period last year, the UNHCR said.

The majority of refugees are ethnic Pashtuns who have blended into Pakistan's Pashtun-dominant belt along the border, which has long been poorly patrolled and traversed by migrant populations, including militants. Afghanistan, in fact, does not recognize the border, nor do many Pashtuns.

Originally housed in camps, most refugees now live in regular neighborhoods, where some have become fixtures in the transportation, clothing and carpet industries. Most are poorly-paid laborers.

There is little doubt the Afghans' presence has affected Pakistan's weak economy, but just how is debatable. Pakistan hosts more refugees for every dollar of per capita income than any other nation, which makes it difficult to absorb and support them, according to the UNHCR. But Afghans also contribute, said Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan's former refugee commissioner.

"Pakistan gets foreign exchange" from Afghan carpet exporters, Mohmand said. "Many have relatives in the West who send remittances. . . . They provide cheap farm labor to the landowners in the frontier."

Yet many Pakistanis depict Afghans as drug- and gun-runners, in part because they are often arrested after militant attacks and violent crimes. The accusations are unfair, human rights advocates say.

Last year, the Pakistani government decided that all Afghan refugees would be "voluntarily" repatriated after the end of 2012. What that means remains unclear. A plan to offer visas will probably apply to only about 150,000 refugees, Khan said. But Tim Irwin, a UNHCR spokesman, said "there's certainly no talk of anyone being forced back."

There is such talk in Nowshera, however, where thousands of Afghans live. The recent fight broke out with a quarrel between Afghan and Pakistani youths, after which adults jumped into the fray, residents said. Pakistanis — who refer to themselves as "locals" — said Afghans attacked with rods, wounding several, then followed them to the hospital with Kalashnikovs.

Last week, dozens of Pakistani men packed into one elder's home and recited grievances: Afghans keep to themselves, and they insulted Pakistan during the brawl. They are rich and buy off police. They are bad drivers.

"We are Pashtun, but we are not Afghan. We are Pakistani," said Mohammed Akbar, 31. A man sitting on a sofa interjected: "The Afghans should go back!"

Yet a visit to Afghan elders — at the grand home of a clothing importer — revealed how indelibly the immigrants have become part of the landscape. Several had lived in Pakistan for 40 years and held dual citizenship. The fight, they shrugged, was a mere scuffle being exploited by Pakistani community leaders for political gain.

"We are mixing. But whenever such an incident happens, they label us Kabulis," or Kabul natives, said refugee Jamil Khan, 23, who participated in the fight.

Both sides said the issue would be settled by elders, according to local tradition. But the Pakistanis said tensions would remain rife.

"Nobody believes that they will go," said Liaqat Gilani, a former district mayor.

A short drive away at a former Afghan refugee camp that is now a squalid slum, truck owner Watan Khan, 39, said he has no plan to return to the home town he left in 1978, in Afghanistan's Taliban-riddled Logar province. Therefore, he said, he has no right to complain about Pakistani treatment.

"Even if our lives are not as good as locals, we have no choice," Khan said. "We are living in someone else's land."

Displaced Sri Lankans return home
Publisher: Al Jazeera
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

Some of hundreds of thousands displaced by country's 25-year conflict are returning to rebuild their lives.

Almost 4,000 Sri Lankans are returning to their country after years in refugee camps in southern India.
Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during the conflict between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers during the country's 25-year civil war.

Now, through a voluntary repatriation programme run by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, some of the previously displaced are returning to Sri Lanka in the hope of a better life.

A report commissioned by the government to investigate possible human rights abuses committed during the war will also be handed to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday.

Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez reports from Mannar.

Copy/paste this link to view her report:

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