The Perilous Road Home

They're terrified of going home. "I'm afraid some villagers will hate us, even harm us, " said Serei Thi, 35. She was washing clothes last week in a stifling, dusty transit center set up for the first group of Cambodians to be bused back from refugee camps in Thailand since the 1970s. " I think I'll stay home and not look for a job until the United Nations holds elections, " said Sokim San, 28, adding: "I'm afraid of Cambodian politics. " Ghien Ien, 33, said his friends and relatives among the roughly 375,000 Cambodians waiting in camps across the border made him promise to write them once he reaches his home village. "[They're] waiting for me to tell them if Cambodia is safe to return to, if the war is over. "

After two decades of bloodshed, it's no wonder Cambodians are wary. The prospect of a U.N.-monitored election in 1993 has galvanized the murderous Khmer Rouge. Worried about being edged out of power politically, the group, already responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians, is grabbing for territory in the country's strategic north a center. And even as the refugees began to head home last week, there was uncertainty whether the current cease-fire--the third this year-would hold. In a welcoming ceremony last week, Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk told the returnees, " I hope you won't be afraid. "

If Cambodians had any confidence at all, it was only because U.N. forces were finally visible. The first full military detachments of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), commanded by Yasushi Akashi, a 61-year-old career U.N. official, arrived last month. By the end of May, nearly all of UNTAC's 22,000-strong administrative and military force will be in place. The peacekeepers can then begin trying to demobilize and disarm the half-million armed fighters of Cambodia's four factions. What the United Nations has empowered Akashi to do--virtually run the country until a nationwide vote in April of next year-goes well beyond anything the world body has ever attempted. The same goes for the repatriation effort, perhaps the most complex and expensive in history. "Texas would have great difficulty absorbing 375,000 refugees, " says a U.N. official, " so imagine the extent of the problem in poor, war-torn Cambodia. "

The $116 million effort won't fail for lack of planning. Six reception centers have been built to house as many as 10,700 returnees at a time for a few days of processing before they are trucked to their new homes. Each returnee family will receive one to two hectares of farmland to till and a survival kit including a simple house frame, tools, mosquito nets and a water container. The World Food Program has begun stockpiling up to 100,000 tons of rice, mainly around Buddhist pagodas, so returnees can eat until they harvest their first rice crop perhaps 18 months from now. A battalion of Thai engineers came last month to level a nearly impassable highway from the Thai border to the towns of Sisophon and Battambang, sites of three refugee centers (map). Malaysian rangers began to patrol the repatriation route and to provide perimeter security at the reception centers.

Even before the first returnees crossed the border, however, the plan fell apart. Satellite surveys had indicated that there was plenty of suitable agricultural land to go around in Cambodia's four northwestern provinces, where most refugees have asked to settle. But ground surveys found that only about half the land is free of mines, and much of that has been reclaimed or is so mosquito infested that it's unusable. Officials put the brakes on a plan to resettle 10,000 refugees weekly. But at the scaled-back rate-10,000 refugees a month-it would take three years to bring everybody home, well beyond the target date for elections. They hoped to increase the pace later this year.

The land the refugees return to, even at peace, is a hard one. Bandits and mines, poverty, disease and flooding all exact a toll. The new settlers may not be prepared for the rigors. Nearly half the refugees are under 15 years old and have never seen a Cambodian farm. In the camps, refugees joke that their children think rice grows in U.N. trucks. "International generosity may have gone too far in terms of the care and maintenance, even the spoon-feeding, of Cambodians in exile in the Thai border camps, " says Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the repatriation program. "So we wonder if the refugees are now capable of reacquiring initiative and independence and of accepting a lowered standard of living and health care. "

The returnees quickly will learn that rampant disease makes the Cambodian countryside deadly. At one rural hospital near the northwestern town of Mongkol Borai, the 40 pediatric beds are always filled with patients ravaged by chronic diarrhea or malnutrition. The impending rainy season will bring more malaria--much of it drug resistant and fatal-and dengue fever, which can be fatal to young children. And illness is far from the only threat to those intent on returning to the land. Ownership fights may well erupt between the returnees and some of the 170,000 Cambodians who fled to government refugee camps instead of to Thailand. U.N. officials had hoped these internally displaced refugees could return to their home villages before the border refugees began coming home, but few have.

For that, the internal refugees can hardly be blamed. In many cases their contested villages and their farmland have been so heavily mined by the country's four warring factions that it's too dangerous for them to go home. Land mines may be the biggest single problem in the once heavily contested northwest. Thousands, if not millions, have been planted, and most experts say that the most heavily mined areas will have to be left as they are. Halo Trust, one humanitarian group that concentrates on mine-clearing, is nearly broke. At their present pace it will take the group until the end of the year to sweep a single road to a village earmarked for resettlement.

Given the multitude of horrors, UNTAC officials fear that many returnees will head for the capital, leaving a family member or two behind to look after the land. Economic liberalization is beginning to revitalize Phnom Penh, but thousands of its residents live in squalid shantytowns or in the filthy streets. Unemployment already is estimated at 25 percent; a refugee influx would push crime and unemployment way up. But the problem may be unavoidable. "Eighty percent of the returnees may say they want to farm, but they are kidding themselves, " says a Western diplomat in Phnom Penh. "After tasting the difficulties of rural life, most will take off for the city. "

Bleak as this catalog of problems may be, it assumes the best: that peace will hold. And that is far from a sure thing. The Khmer Rouge seems intent on pushing for control of the central province of Kompong Thom, where serious fighting has raged this year. Last week one company of about 200 soldiers from the United Nations' Indonesian battalion moved into the province in an effort to keep the peace, the first major UNTAC deployment into a hot spot. The Khmer Rouge agreed to a cease-fire and for the first time assigned two officers to provide liaison with UNTAC. All four factions later agreed to sign an international covenant guaranteeing that refugees won't be persecuted for having fled Cambodia and that they will be free to choose where to settle.

The agreement appeared to be real progress in UNTAC's attempt to create a neutral political climate for elections, but the balance remains fragile. Many Cambodians fear that the struggle in Kompong Thom could break out again and spread into Cambodia's four northwestern provinces, where more than two thirds of the refugees have chosen to resettle. This would make a mockery of all the painstaking efforts to bring refugees home. That, says Akashi, "would be more tragic than the tragedy Cambodia has suffered through over the past 20 years. " The U.N. peacekeepers are Cambodia's best hope for future peace and stability. But can they bring more than hope? ..CN.-Fragile Balance

Fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh's forces in central Cambodia could spill into the border region, ruining resettlement efforts.