Cambodia: 'This Is My Home'

Living in Tippadei can be deadly. The village sits at the base of a mountain that Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the Cambodian Army fought over for years and left strewn with land mines. Last month a 7-year-old girl stepped on one and died; a recent brush fire set off 20 more. Malaria, dengue fever and armed robbery are rampant. Yet 1,246 people have returned to Tippadei, swelling its population by half, since the United Nations began helping refugees leave camps across the nearby Thai border last March. "We preach at them, plead with them not to go back to these dangerous areas," says a U.N. official. "But we can't stop them from going where they damn well please." After years of dislocation, the only place many refugees want to go is back where they came from. "I know it's not safe here, but this is my home, and I'll stay until I die," says Doueng Noi, 50, who returned to help his elderly father and work a small rice farm.

Once headed for failure, the world's most ambitious refugee-resettlement program has proved to be one of the most effective ever. While continued fighting threatens the political process set out in the 1991 Cambodian peace accords, the repatriation process goes forward as if driven by the force of nature. Bus convoys and rickety trains transport up to 40,000 Cambodians a month from Thai camps to the six refugee reception centers inside Cambodia. So far, 280,000 of the 370,000 Cambodians have come home. And the last refugee is expected back by mid-April, right on schedule. Says Court Robinson of the U.S. Committee for Refugees: "It's been an astonishing success."

At first, U.N. planners attempted not only to bring the refugees back but to guarantee their livelihood. They promised returning families five acres of arable, mine-free riceland each. But the refugees balked, and U.N. officials quickly saw that they had oversold the program: there wasn't enough fallow farmland to go around. So Cooperation: they started to let the refugees plan for themselves. Now each family is given the option of taking $50 per adult, $25 per child, some household gear, a guarantee of 400 days of rations and a lift to wherever they want to go-usually a relative's village. "Our mistake was being too paternalistic," says Sergio Vieira De Mello, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' representative. "We simply had to abandon the imbecilic notion of giving away land and telling people where to go."

The repatriation effort marks a rare instance of cooperation between the UNHCR and the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas are at odds with United Nations peacekeeping forces, having refused to allow voter registration, to disarm or even to allow military or civilian U.N. personnel to enter their zones; they say they'll boycott elections in May. But the Khmer Rouge is bidding for constituents in showplace villages like Yea Aut, 17 miles from the Thai border, where former refugees are putting up scores of wood, bamboo and thatch huts. "I'm happy to be back," shouts Su Aye, 47, from the rafters of the house he is building. "There's good land, water and wood." The new residents are free to come and go. "People are rushing to join us," says Long Norin, the local Khmer Rouge chief.

In fact, most refugees have voted with their feet, settling in areas controlled by the Phnom Pelah government. There land is scarce, but the returnees still fear Khmer Rouge purges. Otherwise these peasants seem oblivious to larger political issues; survival is the paramount concern. Samoun Mon, 58, went home to northwestern Cambodia three months ago, built a thatch hut and bought a pig and a few chickens.

But now his money is gone. We can't even afford to move," he says. Some refugees haven't even been able to get to their old villages. In a town called Sdau, 50 returnee families have dug bunkers to protect themselves from occasional shelling and put up huts on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. They survive by combing the mined countryside for wood and turtles, frogs and fish--anything they can sell or eat. Worst off of all are the newest refugees, 4,000 people driven out of their villages by a government offensive last month.

An outbreak of full-scale civil war could quickly wreck the repatriation effort. So could simple hunger, once U.N. rations run out. After more than a decade of free food and medical care in U.N. border camps, many refugees have lost the knack of fending for themselves. But so far there's been no movement back into Thailand, and U.N. officials are planning new roads, bridges and irrigation systems in a push to keep Cambodians home. "I'm determined to make a go of it here," says Tem Man, 42, who has settled with his family at Taley village, just over the Thai border. Wisely, the experts have recognized this urge as the most powerful ally they have.