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Children on the border

CHILDREN make up a large portion of the refugees who live in camps along the Thailand-Kampuchea border. Many more of the 230,000 refugee-residents are under 16. At least a quarter of the border people are under five years old, relief workers say.

But there is one age group with fewer representatives: ``There are nowhere near as many children between about six and nine as you would expect,'' said an official of the UN Border Relief Operation. ``It seems as if many of the children born between 1975 and '79 died -- or perhaps were never born at all.''

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Between mid-1975 and the end of 1979, when the communist Khmer Rouge was in power, hundreds of thousands of Kampucheans died of malnutrition or disease, and hundreds of thousands more were executed. In 1979, Vietnamese troops invaded and pushed the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle.

But life became no more settled under the Vietnamese occupation of Kam-puchea. Vietnamese troops are still there, doing battle with Kampuchean resistance fighters -- guerrillas of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's two noncommunist factions as well as those of the Khmer Rouge. Many refugees have moved several times since 1979 -- usually under fire.

The battle for control of Kampuchea will probably continue for some time. Meanwhile, the people in the camps wait. Life on the move, with a small bundle of belongings or -- if they are very fortunate -- a cart or bicycle, is all that most border children have known in the past six years.

They and the remnants of their families come from all over Kampuchea. For one reason or another -- often because of the Khmer Rouge's murderous policies while in power -- many of them are orphans.

Refugees who chose to flee to a Khmer Rouge site are stuck there. Khmer Rouge administrators will not allow them to transfer to a camp administered by one of the other two anti-Vietnam factions. And because they are not classified as refugees by the Khmer Rouge camps' administrators, they are not eligible for resettlement abroad. But even in a UN-administered holding camp, thousands of the inhabitants have been rejected for resettlement in the US, most because of their suspected connections with the Khm er Rouge.

While they wait for a resolution of the war, the children do what most Asian children do: They look after their younger siblings, help with agricultural chores, or collect firewood. Part of the day they go to a rudimentary school. And when they reach 15 or so, most of the boys and some of the girls will be expected to join the guerrillas.

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