As Refugees Return to Samlot, Villages Come Back to Life

samlot district, Battambang province – Former residents this weekend set to work restoring villages that were for years Khmer Rouge strongholds.

Men sweated to fix their houses that had stood abandoned and half-destroyed for years. Women never stopped moving their hands while they cooked, as if they couldn’t wait to serve their first meal at home in years. On the roads, pickup trucks rushed into the village to deliver animals, wooden boards and straw for thatched roofs. Around the houses children laughed and played.

Peam Ta village of Samlot district, which has been a ghost town since 1997 when almost all the villagers fled fighting between the Khmer Rouge forces and the Phnom Penh government, is now being revitalized as refugees have started returning home from the Chong Khao Phlu camp in Trat province, Thailand.

On Friday, a group of 195 families with 678 individuals crossed the border by motorcycle, pickup truck or ox cart to resettle in Samlot. That repatriation was the first convoy the UN High Com­missioner for Refugees organized from Chon Khao Phlu, which a week ago sheltered nearly 15,000 refugees, after the peace agreement of Dec 4 between the government and the resistance forces.

Most of the first returnees—including former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their family members—went back to Peam Ta village near the Thai border. Another 197 families with 628 individuals were repatriated to Samlot on Saturday. A third convoy scheduled today is to bring back another 480 people.

“It was a smooth repatriation,” said Johann Siffointe, head of UNHCR Battambang office, at the processing center in O’Ta Teak village in the district where UN agencies and the Cambodian Red Cross distributed emergency assistance packages. “All the refugees registered returned safely. It was a result of good preparation in which both NGOs and the UN agencies have worked together.”

Samlot is now expected to receive more than 10,000 ref­ugees from the Trat camp over several weeks.

Returnees in Peam Ta said they were pleased to return home.

“I have lived in the camp for two years. I’m very happy that I can finally come home,” said Doug Phana with a smile. The mother of two sat in a truck next to fellow refugees also on their way home, surrounded by household items.

However, rebuilding their lives will not be easy for the returnees. They need to start everything from scratch and face the constant  risk of land-mine accidents.

“Wars burned down our country. We lost everything to war,” said Im Bun, 45, who had been a soldier of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. “My old farming land was heavily mined and abandoned. I have no land to farm… I think the new life here will be very hard to survive without help from the government and NGOs.”

Land issues are crucial to rehabilitate the war-torn area, aid officials said. The Cambodian Mine Action Center has been demining the areas to allow the returnees to build houses and grow rice and other crops. However, demining projects are slower than the rapid repatriation. The majority of the area is still heavily mined.

The UN agencies and NGOs plan reintegration assistance programs to help restore the villages. Among the projects are clearing land for homes and agriculture, rebuilding schools and health clinics and installing infrastructure, such as ponds, wells and roads.

The UN World Food Program is to provide $41 million worth of food assistance over the next two years. The aid programs include food-for-work rehabilitation and recovery activities which will provide approximately 5,000 tons of rice and other food items to 52,000  people.

Aid agencies and local authorities are currently assessing the needs of the villages, officials said.

“The situation in Samlot is volatile,” Siffointe said. “It is crucial to stabilize the area and make the returnees self-sustainable.”

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