o bai tap, Siem Reap province -Thol Ny sat under a blue tarp Wednesday morning with her six children and pondered her family’s future.
“If Ta Mok comes back to Anlong Veng, I’ll come here again,” she said, nursing her three-day-old son, Bai Tap. She named the infant after the spot in a forest here where about 4,500 refugees from Anlong Veng wait to return to their homes.
Thol Ny’s husband left Tuesday as part of the first wave of internally displaced Khmer Rouge defectors to return this week. Now she waits for a large aid agency truck to take the rest of the family back.
Thol Ny, like other defector families, faces an uncertain future. Several refugees echoed her fears. Ta Mok, the hard-line Khmer Rouge leader they broke away from, is still in the jungle. And they don’t know where.
Defectors have criticized the harsh policies of the rebel chief of staff, who reportedly did not allow soldiers to see their families and forced others to farm instead of setting up businesses.
Peter Guest, of the World Food Program, said after returning from Anlong Veng on Wednesday that the refugees are slowly making their way back despite the security concerns. The Cambodian Red Cross, the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are undertaking a joint effort to move the defectors and their families back to Anlong Veng and out of the forest.
Seventy-five families, totaling 251 people, left Tuesday in a convoy of five Red Cross trucks, but the 65-km road was rough, Guest said, and the convoy became stuck in the mud several times. The trip to Anlong Veng took eight and a half hours.
“People were quite pleased to get to their homes and see that they’re intact,” Guest said.
It’s difficult to tell how long the return process will take and how many of the estimated 5,000 refugees counted Saturday remain. Some families have left on their own by ox-cart, tractors or military trucks, Guest said.
Due to some minor repairs needed on the five trucks, there may not be another trip until Friday. Among those ready to return are 18-year-old Kheng Thorn.
“I miss my village very much because it’s where my home is,” he said as he listened to Khmer pop songs on a battered tape deck powered by a motorcycle battery. “I’m only afraid of land mines and traps.”
Kheng Thorn said he was forced from the age of 10 to spend days making punji traps containing hidden bamboo spikes.
“It’s hard work and they injure people. I never want to make them again,” he said, adding that he knew several people who later stepped on the traps. “I hope there’s some school. I’ll be happy to learn some Khmer language.”
He admitted he could only read a little. Of his 18 years, only four or five months have been spent in classrooms. As he waits for the trucks to take him home, he passes the day listening to Khmer music for the first time. He said the only tunes he heard in Anlong Veng were songs “scolding the government.”
Prum Roeurn, 53, hopes her 10 grandchildren can attend school as well. “In Anlong Veng, the teachers had no salary, so they just taught every once in a while. If they had work to do in the fields, they didn’t teach,” she said. “I hope the new regime will help them to have an education.”
She, too, fears the return of Ta Mok. “If Ta Mok returns, I will die,” she said, adding that she was also afraid her grandchildren would step on mines.
Sum Pheach, 35, who lost both his legs to a land mine while fighting in 1989, won’t be getting on the trucks this week, as he plans on making his way to Kompong Cham province to see his parents for the first time in 14 years.
“I’ll stay there for awhile,” he said, “and when it’s safe, I’ll go back.”