Refugees fear rerun of history: Violence is sweeping Cambodia as those who fled Pol Pot return home

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The Independent Online
OUN SOU was in the first wave of Cambodian refugees to arrive on the Thai border in 1979, with tales of starvation, torture and death under Pol Pot. Yesterday she was getting ready to return to Cambodia as the refugee camp she has called home for 14 years was closed. But she was scared.

'I heard there is some fighting in Cambodia, it makes me worried. Maybe I cannot run away again.'

Yesterday was meant to be a triumphal day for the United Nations, as the closure of Site 2 camp on the Thai-Cambodian border marked the return of more than 300,000 Cambodian refugees to their homeland under the UN peace plan for Cambodia. But the security situation in Cambodia has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks, and Oun Sou and other refugees wonder whether they are going back to a brutal rerun of history.

There have been a string of massacres of ethnic Vietnamese, mostly attributed to Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the killing last weekend of a UN peace- keeper, apparently also by the Khmer Rouge, and a spate of grenade bombings of cafes and restaurants in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Monday.

The UN is planning to stage elections in Cambodia in May, as the final part of its pounds 1bn, 20,000-strong operation to restore peace. But the Khmer Rouge has withdrawn from the peace plan, and seems set on fanning anti-Vietnamese feeling in Cambodia to discredit its principal adversary, the Phnom Penh government, originally installed by Vietnamese troops in 1979. And with violence throughout the country on the increase, Cambodia veers ever closer to anarchy that no UN plan can heal.

In Site 2 yesterday these concerns were addressed by Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who flew to Thailand to attend the closure ceremony. 'The international community, and most of all the Cambodian people and their leaders, must not allow their nation to be dragged once again into the horrors of war and devastation,' she said.

Ms Ogata said the ceasefire must not be allowed to break down, and political violence must not be allowed to undermine the postive achievements of the UN: 'We must be vigilant or all our efforts will have been in vain.'

Even if peace prevailed, the returnees from Site 2 and the other camps face a tough future. There is little spare land for them, many have forgotten how to farm rice after 14 years of living on UN-supplied food, and they are easy prey for bandits roaming the countryside. 'I don't know how to make a living when I get back,' said Yeth Houng, 32. 'The only land is in far-off places where there may be landmines. You get dollars 50 from the UN and then you are on your own.'

The mounting level of violence only adds to their worries. Close to 100 ethnic Vietnamese, many of them born in Cambodia, have fallen victim to Khmer Rouge attacks in the past year. In the most recent, eight Vietnamese civilians were killed, one of them hacked to death with an axe.

Most of the massacres have taken place in small villages around the Tonle Sap lake, where many Vietnamese fishermen have settled. But on Monday the violence spread to the capital as grenades were thrown into restaurants - one just yards from UN headquarters - a brothel and a theatre patronised by Vietnamese. Two were killed and more than a dozen injured in the blasts. A civilian UN worker was apparently shot dead later when he failed to stop at a city centre checkpoint manned by government forces.

Not even the UN peace-keepers are being spared in the latest violence. At the weekend, two UN posts in the north and south-west of the country were attacked, leaving Private Say Mohammed Yusuf of Bangladesh dead. He was the first UN peace-keeper to be killed in a gun battle in Cambodia.