More than 500 impoverished Cambodian refugees rode buses to the border of their homeland today as the Thai government and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began a voluntary repatriation program.
More than 400 Cambodians left from this huge camp, which houses about 130,000 refugees. They were taken to Nong Chan, a sprawling border settlement where 6,000 other refugees are subsisting on food handouts from international agencies.
Nearly 100 Cambodians were taken from the Sarok Kok camp to another border crossing.
"I want to die in the place I was born," said an 83-year-old woman as she hobbled off the bus.
Many refugees said they were worried about returning to the border, but were anxious to search for missing relatives inside Cambodia.
The U.N coordinator for the repatriation, Zia Rizvi, said he was "satisfied" with the repatriation program so far, but said Thai and U.N. officials cannot guarantee safety for those returning to Cambodia. He said the UNHCR office could only ensure that each refugee was returning voluntarily.
Before returning, refugees were interviewed by U.N. and Thai officials and affixed their thumbprints to documents stating they were returning to Cambodia of their own free will.
In recent days, the Cambodian government and its Vietnamese ally have denounced the repatriation, calling it an attempt to intervene in Cambodia's affairs. They have warned the Thais that there will be retaliation if the refugees return.
Some 200,000 Vietnamese troops have remained in Cambodia since driving the Pol Pot regime from Phnom Penh in January 1979. Since then the Khmer Rouge forces loyal to Pol Pot, have waged a guerrilla war against the government.
On Wednesay, the repatriation program begins at the Sakeo Camp, which has been under strong Khmer Rouge influence the last several months. Relief officials fear cadres loyal to Pol Pot will intimidate many of the camp's 25,000 refugees to return to Cambodia to join the rebel's rainy-season offensive against the government in Phnom Penh.
The UNHCR will be "much more intensive" in questioning Sakeo refugees to ensure none or being coerced into returning, Rizvi said.