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Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Cambodia: The 'Killing Fields' Revisited

Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Cambodia: The 'Killing Fields' Revisited
Refugees (112, II - 1998)

1 June 1998
A sense of déjà vu in Cambodia.

Cambodia makes a fresh attempt to put itself back together again

By Fernando del Mundo

For Giuseppe de Vincentis the sense of déjà vu is unmistakable. He had helped hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees repatriate from Thailand in the early 1990s and now he is back on the same border doing the same job. "We are using the same reception centre, the same trucks, the same crossing points," says de Vincentis, on temporary assignment from Viet Nam. "It is depressing that five years later we are having to deal again with the problem of Cambodia. We thought we had solved it before, in 1992 and 1993."

The October, 1991 Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia had promised so much. The agreement ended 12 years of civil war in the south-east Asian nation and in a 13-month period starting in March, 1992, UNHCR repatriated an estimated 370,000 Cambodian refugees in time to vote in UN-led elections. "There was a very upbeat mood in the camps," recalls Udo Janz, then head of UNHCR operations in Cambodia's north-west province of Battambang. "It was the best chance the refugees had to return home for as long as they could think back in their refugee lives. There was not a single refugee killed in the course of the repatration."

Prince Norodom Ranariddh won what were widely regarded as the first free and fair elections in Cambodia for more than two decades, but after that everything began to go wrong. The Prince was forced into a power-sharing agreement with the incumbent leader, Hun Sen, and was subsequently ousted on the eve of scheduled elections a year ago. Hun Sen followed that move with a crackdown against Ranariddh's Funcinpec Party, accusing it of trying to overthrow his government in cooperation with the Khmer Rouge, who had turned Cambodia into the infamous 'killing fields' between 1975 and 1979, emptying the cities, slaughtering at least one million people and plunging the country back to Year Zero.

As unrest spread during 1997, as many as 45,000 Cambodians fled across the malaria-infested mountains into Thailand, a quarter of them arriving this spring. But with a new round of elections this summer, Cambodia's government urged these refugees to return home. UNHCR began a voluntary repatriation programme even as new refugees were still arriving in Thailand, and by June more than 5,000 persons had returned to Cambodia. Many others went back spontaneously, without official help.

The majority of the latest refugees who are mainly women and children, are either supporters of the Khmer Rouge, who boycotted the 1993 balloting, or the Funcinpec party, and they feared their lives would be in danger if they returned home. For some, this was their second time in a Thai border camp. Many told a recent visitor why they were reluctant to return home today after their dreams had turned to nightmares when they had first gone back.

There was a familiar thread to the refugees' stories and their personal histories underlined just how differently the Cambodian exiles fared compared with 1.7 million Mozambicans who returned home in another major operation earlier this decade (see cover story).

Fighting started almost as soon as the Cambodians went back, when government forces assaulted Khmer Rouge strongholds in the north-west jungles. The devastated countryside was laced with between four and six million mines and many returnees recalled that at the time, they wandered from commune to commune, searching for lost relatives and a secure place to restart their lives. Some found work in the more prosperous frontier areas or in Thailand and when the conflict flared yet again last year, they scampered into that neighbouring state. For them, life had come full circle.

It was a particularly harsh time for farmers in the early 1990s. There was little land available for returnees and flooding and drought hit the north-west, preventing even the lucky ones with some property, from planting their first vital harvest. Former landlords tried to reclaim properties, backed by gangs of armed thugs and the land issue remains an explosive problem today. In sharp contrast, the Mozambicans were able to avoid renewed civil and political strife, there were no disputes over land and even nature smiled kindly on the returning African farmers with bountiful rainfalls.

In Cambodia, UNHCR built wells, schools, roads and bridges in a series of so-called Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) as part of an overall $9.4 million programme designed to help refugees reintegrate successfully into local communities and to assist the communities themselves. Since the 1993 vote, however, much of the infrastructure the U.N. put into place has deteriorated sharply. A 45-minute trip in 1992-93 between the frontier town of Poipet and the railhead of Sisophon, for instance, now takes two hours and a trip from there to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh can take two days instead of 24 hours.


Of course, even as many Cambodians continue to struggle or became refugees for a second time, others readjusted well in uncertain times. Mam Saverth spent 12 years in Site 2 in Thailand before returning home where he is now a farmer near the capital. "In the camp we did not need to worry about anything. There was always food but we were surrounded by barbed wire," he recalls. Life in today's Cambodia may be more difficult but at least "we are free to go wherever we want, to do whatever we want."

Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service which helps widows, orphans and other vulnerable people in Cambodia, agrees that life in the camps "was like a dead end" whereas in Cambodia "there is a sense of the future, a sense that you are not locked up."

Could the 1992-93 operation have been handled differently? Critics say UNHCR should have stayed longer to help the refugees before handing over its reintegration projects to development agencies. Others contend this was never a viable option in Cambodia where disasters, man-made and natural, began almost as soon as the refugees returned. After decades of war and natural calamities, one of the world's poorest nations was never going to be rehabilitated overnight.

UNHCR has prepared another, more modest reintegration programme, to help today's Cambodian refugees. It is financing construction of a key road bridge just outside Siem Reap in the north-west to speed their return home and helping relief workers care for the aged, widows and unaccompanied children.

In Thailand, the agency provides everyday necessities such as water, sheeting and shelter materials in four border camps. The World Food Programme distributes rice and other foodstuffs and Khmer Rouge leaders agreed to allow a primary school for 7 to 14 year old children in the newly opened Phu Noi camp using the Cambodian curriculum and UNICEF supplied books. That is a major breakthrough, according to UNHCR field officer Ajit Fernando, who said that until recently in Khmer areas, text books dealt almost exclusively "with how to make booby traps and explosive devices from fertilizers." Part of his job is to warn camp leaders that if the site is used as a "rest and recuperation centre" for Khmer Rouge fighters, international assistance will be cut off. UNHCR has brought to the attention of Thai authorities reports of children being used as porters and couriers in Cambodia and women being dragged into prostitution.


In another camp, a 29-year-old former soldier expresses the weariness which appears to engulf all factions today over a war which never seems to end. He was seized by the Khmer Rouge at age 12 to become a fighter. After losing a leg when he stepped on a landmine, he was sent to a remote special area for amputees where he made booby traps for other fighters, caught catfish and cultivated rice to feed himself. "Life was suffocating," he said. He wants to send his two children back to Cambodia and laments, on the verge of tears, "Look at me. I don't want them to become like me."

The death in April of Pol Pot, architect of the genocide, signalled the demise of the Khmer Rouge. In the camps, Khmer Rouge leaders are talking about giving up the armed struggle and joining the political arena. Khmer Rouge defectors are offering land in areas under their control to returnees and displaced persons - so-called reconciliation zones - in exchange for development aid and funding to clear mines. But in the capital, people talk about bringing those responsible for the genocide to justice to remove a climate of impunity. International human rights monitors also are pushing for an investigation of recent political killings. "We need this," says one office worker. "Cambodians have seen so much blood they think they can get away with murder."

There are some hopeful signs in Cambodia. Despite occasional violence, there is open political debate countrywide, an active opposition and a free press. Many areas, however, remain inaccessible, drought is again stalking the landscape, food shortages are feared and it will be a mammoth task to rebuild villages destroyed in the latest fighting.

Ending the war is the key to the country's future, according to John Phay, director of the relief agency, Cambodia Family Development Services. "Fighting has to stop," he said. If and when that happens, Cambodia can begin to plan its future effectively.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)