Looking glum and anxious, 527 Cambodian refugees boarded buses in Thailand on Monday and returned to their homeland at the start of a huge U.N. program to repatriate more than 300,000 refugees in time for elections planned next year.
The convoy of chartered Thai buses left from the Site 2 refugee camp 35 miles north of the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, crossed the border and drove to a U.N. reception center freshly built from bamboo and reeds in this provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia.
They were greeted by flag-waving schoolchildren and a brass band, rock and roll music and the steady chanting of Buddhist monks who sent a delegation to welcome them. Overhead, there was a steady roar of U.N. and Cambodian government helicopters ferrying dignitaries to the ceremonies.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, chairman of the Cambodian transitional body called the Supreme National Council, flew in to personally welcome home the refugees, many of whom have been living along the Thai border for the entire 13 years of civil war in Cambodia.
Sihanouk, who himself returned from exile last November, told the refugees that while they face many difficulties in their homeland, "the place for patriots is in Cambodia." He said that reconciliation and national unity are essential.
Underscoring the difficulties ahead, Sihanouk told a later news conference that "there is still a small war" being fought in central and northern Cambodia between the Phnom Penh government and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and he appealed to the United Nations to help halt the fighting.
One of the first refugees to arrive in Sisophon was Mutt Van, a 53-year-old woman with three children who had been living at Site B, a refugee camp near Surin in Thailand.
"I am happy and worried at the same time," she said after her arrival. "I have nothing to eat and no house. I can't sleep at night because I worry about mosquito bites."
A number of relief workers have expressed concern that the returning refugees will suffer because of the prevalence of malaria and water-borne diseases in addition to the security concerns raised by the current fighting and the presence of hundreds of thousands of land mines.
"I'm not very happy; we don't have money to live," said So Koeum, who was carrying her 20-day-old baby. She said she was forced to leave her 4-year-old son behind with relatives because he had chicken pox.
"The main thing I'm worried about is the Khmer Rouge," said her husband, Hum Ny, a 30-year-old farmer. "They haven't settled down yet. I'm afraid they will punish us. I hope the U.N. will protect us."
At the reception center, the refugees will have four or five days to readjust to their country and will be given tools and seed for planting. According to U.N. officials, the refugees will be given about five acres of land for each family, but they concede there is not enough land available now to meet even a small percentage of the demand.
Once settled in Cambodia, the refugees will be given supplementary food rations for 18 months.
But the contrasts with the life in the refugee camps is still vast. The refugees had round-the-clock medical care, treated water, even veterinary care for their pet dogs and such distractions as Japanese language lessons and lending libraries. Many of the refugees are returning to a land ruined by war and face severe hardships.
"The Cambodia to which you return today has been ravaged by more than two decades of war, destruction and neglect," said Sasushi Akashi, who heads the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia. "All Cambodians must now join in a common effort to rebuild their lives and their native land."
The repatriation was a key part of the peace agreement signed in Paris last October by the four factions in the Cambodian civil war. The stated goal is to repatriate all of the refugees in seven camps along the Thai border by the end of the year, in time for elections scheduled to be held next April.
U.N. officials said that the repatriation program, expected to cost $900 million, is the largest return of refugees since the civil war in the Congo in the 1960s.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, special envoy of the U.N. commissioner for refugees who is running the repatriation program, said he expects about 10,000 refugees to return home during April, which he called "a test month" for the repatriation program.
"We're starting prudently and taking maximum precautions until the system has been tested and U.N. forces have been fully deployed in Cambodia," De Mello said.
There are only about 2,000 of an expected 16,000 U.N. troops in Cambodia at present, with U.N. officials predicting that deployment can be completed by June, when the four civil war factions are due to start demobilizing 70% of their forces and putting the rest in U.N.-controlled camps.
U.N. officials said that despite widespread anxiety in the refugee camps, only two families failed to appear for the first day's scheduled departure. Another 20 people dropped out for medical reasons.
All of the refugees have indicated where they want to resettle in Cambodia, with more than 70% opting for the western provinces of Battambang and Banteay Meanchay.