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Next Step : The U.N. is mounting its largest operation ever to virtually run Cambodia until elections next year. For the Asian nation and its refugees, it offers hope after a generation of civil war, brutal dictatorship and invasion. For Japan, hoping to spearhead reconstruction, Cambodia is a diplomatic crucible. The challenge: : Putting Cambodia Together Again : *The refugees are eager to go home. But they may face bandits, land mines and suspicions about loyalty.

March 03, 1992|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SITE 2, Thailand — San Doun is a 29-year-old Cambodian peasant who cannot recall her native land. For the last 12 years, she has lived in a refugee camp along the Thai border. But now she wants to go home.

"We left a long time ago, and I don't remember anything about Cambodia," she said in an interview outside her bamboo hut here in the Site 2 refugee camp. "We really want to go back, but we are very worried about the security. We want the United Nations to protect us."

For the roughly 360,000 Cambodian refugees who live in U.N. camps along the Thai side of the border, these are momentous, anguished times. The refugees have been eagerly preparing to return since last October, when a comprehensive, international peace agreement signed in Paris brought an official end to a generation of warfare in their country. Nevertheless, few have any clear idea what fate awaits them.

There are concerns, for example, about the armed bandits who have been increasingly terrorizing Cambodia since last year's cease-fire ended most of the fighting between the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh and three anti-government guerrilla groups. Others worry about the millions of land mines left behind by all the years of fighting--mines that have given Cambodia, with 35,000 legless people, the dubious distinction of being the country with the world's highest per capita population of disabled.

Many are also uncertain what kind of reception they may receive from fellow Cambodians who stayed home during the years of conflict and who presume that the refugees are loyal to one or another of the guerrilla factions.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has taken the lead in the repatriation process, has tried to allay some of the refugees' fears by promising them that they will be protected by thousands of U.N. peacekeeping troops expected to be deployed in Cambodia to implement the Paris peace agreement. The United Nations is to administer the country until general elections can be held in 1993, and it is anxious to repatriate the refugees before then.

But "we're worried that the repatriation will be too hasty," said Pierre Josseron, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross office in nearby Aranyaprathet. "We hope the UNHCR will resist all the pressures to move before everything is ready."

Each of the half-dozen largest refugee camps, while funded by the U.N. Border Relief Organization, is administered by a different guerrilla faction and policed by the Thai military and a special border police unit. While the United Nations or the Thai police might take control at any given time, the nature of the camps is such that the guerrillas have virtually a free hand over the refugees because of a potent combination of group loyalty and fear.

Three of the camps are controlled by the hard-line Khmer Rouge, ostensibly reformed from the movement that, in the late 1970s, ruled Cambodia under a reign of genocidal terror that left an estimated 1 million dead of starvation, torture and execution. That government, under dictator Pol Pot, fell to invading Vietnamese forces in early 1979--the year most of the refugees crossed the border into Thailand.

Two other camps are run by the conservative Khmer People's National Liberation Front, and one is administered by followers of a former monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who has presided over Cambodia's transitional authority since he returned to Phnom Penh late last year.

The U.N. refugee agency and Thai refugee officials are hoping to begin the repatriation process later this month or early in April, moving 10,000 people a week back to their homeland with the goal of finishing the process by the end of the year.

Work has been completed on four "staging areas" in Thailand, where the refugees will board buses chartered by the U.N. agency for the drive across the border to six reception centers in Cambodia. The Thai army is now clearing mines from a 30-mile stretch of road from the border to the city of Sisophon in western Cambodia for the refugee convoys.

One part of the repatriation plan has already generated much bewilderment and controversy. The United Nations promised every refugee family a plot of two hectares, or roughly five acres, of farmland in the province of their choice.

But nearly 75% of the refugees indicated during registration that they want to be resettled in just two border provinces, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey, and it is now apparent that there won't be enough land available in those regions for the United Nations to make good its promise.

As a result, the refugee agency has been forced to offer refugees two alternatives: to accept a small hut in the village of their choice until land can be found, or assistance--yet to be defined--to enable people to set up "income-generating" businesses such as bicycle repair shops.

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