Around the World in Eight Days
A Journey through Time and Space
by Mike Farrell
As the 1980 spokesperson for CONCERN/America, a nondenominational, international refugee aid organization, I was asked to attend a conference on refugees in Cork, Ireland at the end of May. After agreeing to attend, I was then asked if I would first stop off to visit some of the refugee camps on the Thai/Cambodian border and then continue on to the conference in Ireland, coming home from there.
Around the world in a week? Well, why not?
Days one and two
Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport in plenty of time for my 11 AM departure on Sunday, May 25, I’m pleasantly surprised to be met by Jeanne Favreau and her friend Frank Sorvillo, two CONCERN volunteers who are active here in the States. In a typically thoughtful manner they wanted to see me off and express their gratitude for my having agreed to the trip. Also, they wanted me to take a package along to one of the volunteers in the field, Dr. Davida Coady. Carry a package a third of the way around the world, I think, through all the customs and security checks, to a doctor in the refugee camp? I have visions of vitally important medicines. It is, as it turns out, a vitally important package of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Once in the air I have a sense of being enclosed in a time capsule. It is somehow clear that I am traveling at great height and speed, but there is more than that. I am in fairly familiar surroundings (for one in my business) and yet heading for something that I can barely imagine. The stories of the holocaust in Cambodia, while horrifying, are further disturbing because they are said to be happening now, in my world. That's one kind of consideration when hearing it on the radio while driving down Ventura Blvd., and a whole other thing when you are on your way there. Further, I will admit to a growing feeling of discomfort every time a friend, on hearing of my trip, said "Good luck!"
Sleeping on airplanes is an art that yet eludes me. I grope my way back to consciousness through the impression of filtered air and a woolen tongue to hear the air-hostess announcing our arrival in Tokyo. Local time, she says as I peer at my watch, is six-something o'clock on May 27th. My watch still says May 26th, so I stare at it stupidly as she explains that we have crossed the International Date Line and should now adjust to local time.
A sudden disorientation, coupled with some rapid calculations convince me that if I leave my watch on Los Angeles time for the whole trip, I will end up a week later back at home with a whole day having somehow disappeared from my life. I decide to leave my watch alone and see how things develop.
Aground in Tokyo for an hour, a leg-stretching walk through the terminal confirms my suspicions that I am, in fact, not in Tokyo at all. I'm in some sort of nether world way station called "Airport" which could as well be Hawaii or Houston. "Airport" is a country full of luggage, tired-looking people and cigarette butts. It has that same filtered air odor, soft drink cans in assorted sizes and colors, and restrooms in various languages.
Once again in the air in a semi-sleep trance, I’m urged up by the pilot's voice for a "magnificent view of the coast of mainland China at Sunset." (Sunset, which day being a matter of contention.) "Mainland China" from 35,000 feet is pretty much the same as anything else from 35,000 feet... a fact that further solidifies my time capsule conviction.
Then the descent down through the ever-increasing darkness toward what I'm told is Hong Kong. Down between the rocky islands, lower over the water we settle, until suddenly the lights of the city appear on the hills on both sides. And still we slip lower, lower, only at the last possible moment the land rushes out to meet our wheels and we are down.
Disembarking in exotic Hong Kong to make connections to Bangkok, I am disappointed to find myself once again in "Airport." It is now clearly the middle of the night and my watch says it is morning. I've given up worrying about what day it is. The chocolate chip cookies and I pass muster through a security check and I find a place (I'm sure I've seen this place before, somehow...) to sit, stare, roam around and try to sleep until at last the Bangkok flight is announced.
Same craft, different markings. A German crew and a much more generous number of Asian passengers among the polyglot population of our capsule. While certainly not the only westerner on the flight, I suspect I'm the only American and I'm certainly the only one wearing a cowboy hat. (My protection against the tropical sun). Again the fogginess creeps in, dulling the senses and bringing a vague awareness of a more exotic mixture of sights, sounds and smells around me as we whirl through the elements.
The now familiar sound effects and sensations precede the multi-lingual announcement of our imminent arrival in Bangkok, Thailand, South East Asia. Can it be?
Once again the litany of landing, the fleeting terror-filled thoughts of what if. Then it's up and out. Grab your bags and head for the door. Down the corridors and into the passport control area. An immediate sense of sticky wet heat is the only indicator of change so far. As I hand over my passport to the pleasant face in the cubicle, he nods, smiling, and says, "Cowboy?" As I smile in return he looks at his partner, exchanges a few quick words and a short, embarrassed laugh, then he turns to me and hands the passport back with an apologetic grin, saying, "Cow Man."
Once through the cursory customs check, signs point me toward a waiting group. A smile and wave from a large man who looks to be a slightly out-of-place football coach, let's me know that I am, in fact, one third of the way around the world and in friendly hands. He is Aengus Finucane, director of the CONCERN field operation in Thailand and, in spite of his casual dress, rugged appearance and earthy manner, a Catholic priest. His assistant is an equally earthy, also casually dressed woman with a warm Irish smile and a name to match: Ciunas Bunworth. They introduce me to their Thai driver, Sampong, and finally, to Dr. Davida Coady, the American pediatrician who has been such an invaluable addition to the CONCERN team here.
First things first. I discharge my sacred duty and turn over the chocolate chippers.
The heat of the night, while not extreme, seems to be excuse enough for Sampong to turn on the air conditioner for the twenty-minute drive through the city to Gus' apartment. I'm to spend the night, or what's left of it, with Gus before heading for the border camps at first light...six hours from now. En route Ciunas, Gus and Davida fill me in on as much of the program as they can, and ask in turn about American interest in the situation here which I have to report has been pushed out of the news by developments in the southern U.S., vis-a-vis Cuban refugees.
The four of us continue the discussion at Gus' apartment, a louvered-window and open-air affair reminiscent of movies I've seen about tropical Central America. Davida is full of considerations. Did I have my diphtheria and tetanus shots? Yes. Did I have a gamma globulin shot? Yes, but why did I? She informs me that hepatitis is rife in the camps. Am I taking chloroquin to ward off the possibility of malaria from the ever-present mosquitoes? Again, yes. Fine. Don't drink the water unless it's been boiled or it's from a bottle. Don't even use it to brush my teeth. And don't use ice in drinks unless it was made from boiled water. Amoebic dysentery has been a problem for westerners. Watch out for rabid dogs and snakes... "My God, Davida," Aengus breaks in. "Lay off! You'll have the man on the next plane back to the States," he laughs.
After many apologies for keeping me up, Davida and Ciunas leave, saying they'll see us in five hours. Gus leads me up to my bed, a large one by Thai standards, with a thin mattress on top of a board. My room, I discover with relief, has an air cooler that makes my now damp clothes feel cold. (It’s only later that I discover that mine is the only room in the house with an air cooler and was in fact Gus' room.)
The phone above my head jerks me awake what seems to be ten minutes after I put my head down. My first full day in Thailand looms. And again I ask myself if I can really be here. A shower off my room has a hose running out of a tap and through a gas heater on the wall that you simply turn on when you want the water warm. A primitive set-up, but, as I was to soon learn, all too luxurious in this land.
After breakfast of bread and cheese, Gus and I go out into the gathering heat to await the driver who was to be bringing Davida. It seems that Thailand has exceedingly strict laws of liability and stringent insurance regulations that militate against westerners driving themselves. Gus' frustration is evident as he explains that if we don't get on the road early the traffic build-up will add an hour or two to our trip to the border.
As Gus goes back into the apartment to call, I watch Bangkok life unfold on the early morning street before me. Clapboard houses with no apparent covering for door and window openings give out an unending stream of people who wait only moments on the street before being picked up by open-backed trucks which seem to serve as buses. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks, or bonzes, mostly very young with shaven heads, walk the streets carrying a sort of pot in which they collect donations of food. This is all they will eat for the day, and that only until noon.
Gus returns with the news that the driver has not shown up at all, so we grab one of the many cabs and race, without apparent consideration for life or limb, through the city. Driving in Thailand, as in Italy, is primarily a game of "Me first!" and "Look out!" Speed limits, if there are any, and dividing lines are studiously ignored.
Waking the truant driver, a man named Suchart, and collecting Davida, we set out for the frontier. East of Bangkok is a long, flat, fertile plain. This is the richest rice producing area in the country. It's owned and cultivated, for the most part, by large agri-businesses and one sees very little of the lone peasant farmer under a reed hat, walking with his plow behind his ox, a sight so evident in the less fertile areas.
The two-lane road is in fair condition and the driver pushes along at a good pace broken periodically by Gus' urging to slow down, sudden badly constructed dyke-like bridges, a dash across the road by one of the thousands of wild dogs in the area, the casual stroll of an elderly peasant as he ventures into the path of the car, or a near head-on collision with a like-minded driver who is going the other way.
Through all this and over the now familiar roar of the air conditioner, I am quizzed about the American political scene and informed of the niceties of local politics. Things are tense at the border, I am told, and they will "try" to get me the necessary passes to get through the Thai Army's many checkpoints. It would, I point out, be a hell of a note to get all this way and not be able to get into the camps. But some of the camps, I am quickly assured, are no problem at all. The passes are for those areas on the border that are sometimes under contention from opposing forces in the multi-part battles between Khmer Rouge (the Pol Pot regime's communist forces), Khmer Serai (the Free Khmer or right wing forces), Vietnamese troops supporting the Hang Semrin regime and/or the Thai military. There have been many incidents, they continue, and one refugee camp, Mak Mun was shelled until it had to be evacuated. Oh boy...
After a stop for gas (500 Bhat, approximately $25.00 for ten gallons), during which I step out of the car into a blast of breath-catching near mid-day tropical heat, we press on. We stop at the CONCERN house in Aran Ya Prethet to leave our luggage before going any further. Davida points out that extra clothing is considered contraband because it is capable of being sold on the black market in the camps, so if we take our luggage (or too much film or more than one camera) through the checkpoint, it may be confiscated.
The CONCERN house where we have stopped is called the "Country House" because it is one-half mile from the other, "City House," and consequently away from the heart of the city and its constant noise. It's an airy wooden structure built in the Thai tradition, high off the ground on poles to avoid flooding and snakes. An electric fan stirs the hot, moist air, and a towel around the neck to mop the ever-present perspiration is a regular article of apparel. After dropping our bags we set off, past the beautifully ornate Wat, or Buddhist temple, and into Aran to the "City House" so Davida can leave her things there. The city is hot and dusty and teeming with life. Shops and stores of every description open onto its few streets which are alive with cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians all going every direction at once, all of them, save the pedestrians, honking their horns constantly. Times Square in a small Asian city. And everywhere motorcycles. Like wasps buzzing, they whip in and out of traffic, across roads and around blocks, with one, two, three and four people at a time clinging to them.
Aran has grown all out of proportion to its size, with shacks and board structures, huts and tents everywhere filled with people intending to take advantage of the vast marketplace provided by the flood of refugees to the nearby camps.
Signs of western influence are everywhere. Besides the motorcycles, there are as many people in jeans and western style shirts as there are those wearing more traditional eastern robes and thongs. Radios, stereos and cassette players abound, all on, all seemingly set at the highest possible volume. The resultant din provides a strangely appropriate background to the scene.
We leave Aran in a caravan of vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws bearing peddlers with their wares to sell to the refugees. A stop at Task Force 80 HQ produces my passes, and with a warning to keep both passes and passport in a safe place, we set off for the frontier.
Thai military are regularly visible now. The show of force inherent in their combat-ready appearance and casually slung automatic weapons further impresses upon me the reality of this other-worldly situation.
Passing through the green countryside I’m struck by the contradictions. The modern air-conditioned auto is again a time capsule which I share with two people of peace who have chosen to extend their hands to others in need. Outside, modern conveniences of another kind. The weapons of war; equipment designed to kill. And beyond that, the new/old. The westernized easterners. Wearing jeans and robes, on motorcycles, in buses and trucks or pushing carts, the peddler/peasants off to earn some money by trading with those even less fortunate. And finally, seemingly oblivious to it all, the farmer. Knee deep in mud he slogs along behind his primitive wooden plow turning the mud, planting his seed, depending for his very life on the tireless ox just as he has done through all the seasons, all the wars, all the centuries.
The first checkpoint looks like a camp itself. People are squatting under trees or temporary shelters out of the sun waiting for their turn in the long line that shuffles slowly ahead. As we are passed through, rather easily today I'm told, I see a fire where soldiers are burning the "contraband." Anything over a certain amount of goods, any unacceptable items, anything which by dint of its possession raises the life-style of the refugee above that of the common Thai peasant is destroyed. "Even food?" Even food. "But why not just distribute confiscated food and goods to those who need it?" The authorities seem to feel that destroying it is better than the possibility of contributing to the black market system. "But that doesn't make sense!" What does, here?
Next stop, Khao I Dang, the largest refugee camp in Thailand. The sign reads, "Khao I Dang Holding Centre for Kampuchean Nationals." It appears to be about one-half mile long by one-half mile wide and is divided into numbered sections. Sections Three and Seven are maintained by CONCERN volunteers, so after a brief stop to say hello to the UN representative in control, we head for Section Seven. Security of the camp is the responsibility of the Thai military, so the gate is another checkpoint, giving the decided air of a concentration camp (which in fact it is). Khao I Dang has a population of 135,000 Khmers (the people of Cambodia, or Kampuchea as they call it), and at that figure, according to Gus Finucane, it is the largest single concentration of Khmers in existence, including Phnom Penh, the capital of their country.
Aside from large tents or huts serving as hospitals, schoolrooms, storage and feeding facilities, the camp is mostly made up of row upon row of bamboo and reed huts approximately 10' by 10' and about 5' high. With a bamboo floor raised off the ground close to a foot to ward off flooding during the torrential monsoon rains, the inside of the hut doesn't allow for a grown person to stand up straight. Inside each of these huts lives a family of Khmers in a space smaller than that of the average American child's playhouse. The military uniformity of the rows seems singularly rigid and prison-like, causing me to ask why they had been so unimaginatively laid out. The Irish engineer who designed them, also a CONCERN volunteer, told me that it was done this way at the specific request of the Khmers themselves. He had intended to construct the huts in a series of open-ended courtyard configurations feeling that at least would be more pleasing to the eye and more conductive to social contact. He found, however, that the refugees suffer from such over-crowding and such a high degree of public exposure that this system of row upon row, back-to-front design was created to provide for some small degree of privacy.
Arriving at Section Seven and stepping from the car, I am again assaulted by the intense, wet heat. After meeting the staff, which at first glance is almost totally young, female and Irish (mostly, it seems, named Mary) we tour the various CONCERN enterprises. A large open hut serves as a Maternal and Child Care Center. There, nurses teach, through Khmer assistants who are becoming trained paramedics, the basic elements of sanitation, nutrition and medicine as it applies to pregnant women, mothers and children. They have arrived at a middle ground, demonstrating the techniques and effectiveness of western medicine while interfering as little as possible with folk medicine practices as long as those practices are not harmful. They look the other way, for example, with regard to "coining," the application of hot coins to the skin for the purpose of letting out negative spirits. The same seems to be the case with a very popular practice involving heated bottles which, when applied to the skin and allowed to cool, create a vacuum and consequent sucking effect on the surface of the skin, again toward the end of releasing spirits. The tell-tale marks of both the above practices are everywhere evident. The CONCERN nurses are not as sanguine, however, with regard to the more serious burning, usually on the chest and stomach of young children (sometimes with cigarettes) which has regularly been practiced in cases of more extreme pain, indicating, it is supposed, more extremely evil spirits. That practice has been seriously attacked and is rarely seen now, though its scars are everywhere.
One of the chief thrusts of the clinic has been to encourage the mother's natural inclination toward breast feeding and much is made of the harm done by the Nestle Company and a few others that have been pushing the use of infant formula and bottle feeding on a people who know nothing of sanitation, the danger of diluting the formula, or what to do when the mother's milk dries up through lack of nursing and there is no more formula.
Charts are kept of the physical progress of the children. While the results of the program are dramatically evident, there are a great many children whose growth has been seriously, if not permanently, stunted as a result of malnutrition.
Our next stop is the Supplementary Feeding Unit. Here sick, malnourished, pregnant women, and children under five (though my observation that many of the children here are clearly over five is met with a wink), are given an extra meal every day to supplement the one provided by the UN budget which is both barely able to sustain life and boringly repetitious. Here, again, the Khmers themselves are the intermediary force. They are trained as cooks and bakers and shown how to build and maintain earthen stoves. (An American company offered CONCERN a supply of modern stoves, but they were refused on the basis that the knowledge and experience gained by using them would be valueless to people who wouldn't have them to use when they were repatriated.)
Back at the office for a late lunch with some of the staff, my impression is reinforced. The youth and seeming fragility of these volunteers is evident, and is just as evidently a gross underestimation. Two of the brand new arrivals (both named Mary O'Connell, so they quickly adapt to the use of their middle names, Kate and Christine), when questioned about the feeling of being in this kind of primitive situation and having months (or in their case, years, each having volunteered for a two year stint) of it to look forward to, shrug off the consideration of their personal well-being and turn the conversation back to the plight of the people here and the job at hand. The attitude seems to be the same as it is about the extraordinarily intense heat. It's here. These are the facts. There's nothing to be gained by fighting it, so let's get to it. Further conversation brings out the fact that many of these same people have worked in the field with CONCERN before, some in Bangladesh and some in Biafra.
Next stop is the classrooms where Khmer teaches Khmer the rudiments of reading and writing in their own language using illustrative signs with pictures and symbols that have all been created in the artists' workshop – yet another CONCERN project.
Across the way are the workshops themselves, where men put in time learning crafts that can then be sold at the CONCERN stores in Ireland and America to provide a small amount of cash and a large sense of accomplishment for the craftspeople. Every project I see is designed with the idea in mind of teaching self-sufficiency and maintaining a sense of dignity and purpose among the clients, as they are called. Whether or not this attitude on the part of the CONCERN volunteers is to be credited, I am incredibly impressed with the evident high spirits of the Khmers. They are positive, bright and willing. There is none of the expected feeling of resentment and negativity that so often accompanies a welfare-oriented relationship. No evident feeling at all, as a matter of fact, except for appreciation and cooperation.
Leaving the group at Section Seven, we get back in the car for a ride over to the B Unit Hospital. The ever-present air conditioning is now an icy blast in comparison to what we have almost gotten used to and I ask the driver to turn it off or at least down. He either does not understand the request or chooses to ignore it, causing me to give some thought to just how quickly one can become enamored of the sometimes double-edged benefits of western technology.
The B Unit Hospital is run by a holistic health group from northern California and includes a psychologist, an internist, a pharmacist, and two nurse-midwives as well as some others I did not meet. As we enter, Davida is immediately brought up to date on some comings and goings, including a report of a volunteer who arrived one day, was overcome with the enormity of the job to be done, and left the next. The psychologist explains his position to me and answers my questions about the language problem causing him trouble with an explanation of his use of interpreters and his belief that the fact of having someone who cares enough to listen has done as much for most of these people as any medicine could ever do. He too is high in his praise of his Khmer assistants, their understanding of the benefits of his work and the speed with which they grasp his techniques, implying that some of them should be able to continue on their own when he leaves.
A young boy attaches himself to us and is clearly a favorite with the staff. He had been living alone in the wild, the psychologist tells me, and was barely more than a snarling beast when he was brought in here a few months ago. That is hard for me to square with the smiling, playful, nine-or-ten year old who clowns with the group and wants his picture taken with the visitors. Davida introduces me to a young woman who does not respond at all to either of us, simply stares into space. She goes in and out, Davida explains, and is sometimes quite lucid. So many of these people have been severely damaged psychologically, Davida goes on, but except in the severe cases, those are considerations that have to wait in the face of the extreme medical and nutritional needs.
A unit of "unaccompanied minors" is our next stop. The one hundred or so youngsters in this unit have twenty house-mothers assigned to them so that there is a sort of foster-parent relationship with one adult to every five children. This is superior to the old method of massing all the children in one area, Davida explains as we walk into a chorus of "Hello, OK, Bye-Bye!" the chant with which all Khmer children seem to greet westerners. The situation of the unaccompanied minor is one of the most difficult in this tragic place. At first when a child came into a refugee situation, without an adult and with a story of murder, starvation and terror, the assumption was made that the child was an orphan and he or she was adopted out, sometimes to a country far away, as soon as possible. Soon, though, it became clear that while many of these families had been torn apart and separated by long distances, many had in fact survived and were capable of being reunited. Consequently these centers, where children are held for a long time while an exhaustive search is done to determine whether or not they in fact have any living relatives before a final decision is made as to their future. It's a long frustrating process for everyone involved and, as Davida points out, has as many negatives as positives in that the children, while here, are temporarily more comfortable but are developing a relationship with the foster mother which will again be severed once a final resolution of their status is reached. In short, it stinks.
Davida introduces me to a boy named Heann with whom she has developed a special relationship. He is about ten years old, is blind and has been diagnosed as psychotic. He screamed of slaughter, wept for his little brother, and wouldn't let anyone near him for some time after his arrival. He refused to bathe or to allow anyone to wash him because he was sure he was being covered with blood. After months of patient reassurance, he is much improved, though still has psychotic lapses, and wants to be held by Davida, the house mother and me by turns or all at the same time and keeps asking for something which is either "ball" or "balloon."
We elect to walk to Section Three, the icy insulated coolness of the car only emphasizing the sense of separation from these people and their lives. Passing a large, rectangular construction that appears to be made up of a number of plastic barrels wrapped in canvas, Davida explains that the camp's water supply is trucked in daily by the UN and that each person has a certain allotted amount to use for cooking, bathing, and other personal necessities. Children, as they would anywhere, climb atop the structure laughing, splashing, and playing.
Section Three is a more permanent copy of Section Seven, being older. The CONCERN office here has a woven reed mat on the ground instead of a dirt floor as in Section Seven. The structures have a slightly more permanent look as well, with the floors raised and drainage ditches encircling them all. After meeting the staff, which seems to include more men (one in particular, named Dave, is an American nutritionist who graduated from UCLA on a Friday in March and left for Thailand the following Monday), we take a look around the compound. Again the health care unit, the supplemental feeding unit, the classrooms, the workshops and the art center. The chief cook was an airline pilot working out of Phnom Penh. The unit's overall assistant supervisor was a professor at a university there who taught French and English and speaks a number of languages. Here they are a homeless, stateless group with an uncertain future. The professor, a pleasant, young-appearing man tells of having seen his four brothers, three sisters and his mother and father murdered. He tells of pretending to be an ignorant peasant and of having to throw away his eyeglasses because possessing them singled him out as being from the educated classes and therefore targeted to die. Asked what he sees for the future, he shrugs, smiles and expresses a desire to go to America. The atrocities of the Pol Pot regime have extinguished any desire to return to his home. "But what," I ask, "about the possibility of Pol Pot being vanquished? If he is defeated by Hang Semrin people, would you go back?" He shakes his head in refusal. "Why?" I persist. "All of these terrible things are being laid at the feet of Pol Pot. If he is defeated, sent away, perhaps even killed, why not go back to your own home country?" He looks at me levelly and responds. "They are all communists." Can it be that simple, I wonder? Am I perhaps being told what they think I, as an American, would want to hear?
We next visit the brand new Section Three library, complete with two librarians, plenty of shelf space and about a dozen books, most of them in French, a few in English. Another of the Pol Pot excesses, evidently, was to destroy all printed material in his zeal to return to a peasant agrarian economic structure. Books that are being laboriously printed by hand in the project areas are the only known Khmer language books in existence. The destruction of a culture. Does that constitute genocide? Does it make sense that a genocidal campaign would be perpetrated by one of their own people? Looking around at the smiling faces in the colorful costumes, the playing children, the high spirits in spite of the dreadfully cramped and impoverished conditions makes me wonder if anything makes any sense.
As the day wears on, the heat wanes only slightly. A stop at the A Unit Hospital affords me a glance in at an actual operating field hospital. In every detail it is a MASH unit, run by a German surgical team. The adjacent hospital has most of their patients, people who have come in wounded either by shell fire or land mines, some caught in the crossfire between contending forces. All of them are young. One begins to realize that most of the older people simply could not make the journey and fell by the wayside.
The ride back to Aran is mostly silent. Gus and Davida seem to understand that I need some time to try to sort this experience out and attempt to make some sense of it. I again lose the silent contest regarding the air-conditioner and content myself to stare out the window, watching the lines of Thais wending their way back toward their homes after a day of trading. The farmers behind the oxen are perpetual motion machines, plodding, tireless, diligent in their knee-deep rice/mud.
Back at the Country House for dinner with the staff, I meet still more young, willing people. I avail myself of the toilet facilities, a rudimentary room with a hole in the floor with places to put your feet on each side, and try what is laughingly called the shower. A large urn full of water provides the source. Into that you dip a bucket which your pour over you head a couple of times, then soap up and scrub for as long as you like. Another bucket or two over your head for a rinse and you're as good as new. The water runs down the sloped floor and into the hole, cleaning up after itself, and out I step, feeling amazingly refreshed and ready to face the heat.
Dinner and more conversation about the situation here is livened up by watching the parade of lizards, called geckos, chase up the walls and around the ceiling of the house. Perfectly harmless, I'm told, if a little difficult to get used to (Mary Kate confides she won't get up to go to the toilet in the night for fear one will fall on her) and very helpful in that they eat the many insects around. The discussion is made more complicated by a rapid dulling of my senses with a combination of jet lag and culture shock. I am shown how to tuck in the mosquito netting around my cot and told to go to bed.
Something is amiss outside is all I know for sure as I am awakened by a pounding on the gate. It is still dark and I can't quite figure out the time because I can't remember if you add or subtract 14 hours or whatever the hell it is from the Los Angeles time still showing on my watch. Soon voices and the sound of feet in the other room draw me and before I can ask what is up, Davida points out the window toward the city saying, "Look." The morning sky is lit up by a huge fire under a towering column of smoke coming from what is apparently the center of the city. Davida and the group at City House had been awakened by unusual noise and looked out to see a wall of flame facing them from the other side of the street. Her first thought, she says, was that the Vietnamese were coming. Whatever it was that caused it, they barely got out as the flames were licking at the front of their house when they ran here.
After a couple of hours of conflicting reports about the extent of the damage, Dave comes in saying that the house was only slightly damaged, is very wet, and that their belongings are intact and safe. We trudge over there in the light of the new day and find business as usual going on in the city until we round the corner of the street and see the totally leveled square block with smoke and some small flames still licking around the remaining embers. There are four UN water trucks in evidence and it turns out that Robin Needham, a CONCERN volunteer seconded to the UN, had run into the highway and diverted the water trucks to the square block area in which it was contained. An eerie sight through the rising smoke is that of several miniature wats (temples), which people place outside their homes in an observance of their religious traditions, left standing untouched in the midst of the inferno.
After collecting assorted wet belongings and leaving Dave behind to ward off potential looters, Davida and I head back to the Country House, sort ourselves out and start off back toward the border. Once past the checkpoint we turn off on a less-used road and shortly come to a stop at a settlement where we leave the CONCERN car and driver and load into a Land Rover that has been following us, carrying three nurses. From there we head off into what is called "No Man's Land," an area which, they tell me, regularly entertains fighting between the different factions. But today it is quiet and peaceful, the thought of war given the lie by the farmer and the bullock in the ever-present rice paddy.
After passing over a deep trench that stretches as far as I can see in both directions and is described as a tank trap to thwart a possible Vietnamese invasion, we pass along a road that may or may not be in Kampuchea and into the entrance of Samet, a new camp that houses 80,000 Kampucheans in a much more haphazard, slap-dash manner than was the case in Khao I Dang. After a quick stop at the headquarters building to check in (where I watch a group of small children in rags waiting patiently, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are crawling with flies), we move on down to one of the section buildings. There Davida and I get out and walk among the crowds, between bicycles and ox carts, and I try to get some sense of this place, which is much more like the town of Aran than it is like the camp of yesterday. There is a motion about the camp; no sense of the organization that was evident in Khao I Dang. Further, there are mini-market places everywhere, all full of contradictions. Ragged men and women sit behind cloths on the ground laid with dried fish brought in from the interior of Kampuchea, soft drinks in bottles purchased from Thai peddlers at the border, live chickens (a sight unknown in Khao I Dang), modern plastic thermo-like containers, all of it for sale, most of it covered with flies. As we move through this confusion, people greet us with smiles, nods, some waves (if I wave first) and the ever-present "Hello, OK, Bye-Bye" from the children.
Davida directs me down the road to the CONCERN supplementary feeding center and we arrive just as the rest of the crew comes up in the Land Rover. The center is exploding with children, probably a hundred of them, and they swarm all around us, obviously delighted to see the women and just as obviously curious about me. Cameras come out and the minute anyone produces one, the children mob in front of it waving and crying out, "Hello, OK, Bye-Bye".
There is such joy in their faces at being photographed that I just keep turning in a circle, pointing the camera and moving my finger up and down, feeling a bit of a fraud because I’m out of film but incapable of disappointing any of these too often disappointed smiles. The group doesn't seem to tire of this game and we go on for quite a while until Robin Needham shows up to take us out for a look at the phenomenon about which I have been hearing so much, the "Land Bridge."
Setting off in his Land Rover (with UN on the side in large clear letters) Robin first shows us the site a short distance up the trail to which this whole camp is to be moved. "Moved?" The explanation they were given he says, is that the Thais feel that this camp is hopelessly laid out and will never be properly organized since the people just came in and set their belongings down wherever they landed. Their remedy for this state of affairs is to clear a piece of land to the north, diagram some straight lines for some sense of order, and herd everyone in that direction. We stop the Rover and walk to the top of a rise where Robin points out a large flat area that had been used as a camp area before. It is pocked with crater-like holes which he describes as wells. He casually says that the land upon which we are standing and over which the entire population of the camp will travel has been mined, a revelation which causes Davida to jump about a foot off the ground. We then (happily) get back in the Land Rover and set off in a southerly direction back through Samet, down the border road toward Nong Chan and the Land Bridge. As we leave Samet, Robin points out an open bamboo structure that stands away by itself and explains that this is for the occasional Vietnamese refugees who arrive and must be segregated from the Khmers for their own safety.
The half-hour ride to Nong Chan is filled with tales of the political intriguing that goes on inside the camps, within the Thai military structure and between those groups and the UNHCR. We pass Mak Mun, the camp that had been shelled and reportedly evacuated, which he uses as an example. The Thais, he says, insist that Mak Mun is empty and that all the refugees once in it have been resettled. What is more, they will not allow any UN or voluntary agency personnel to visit the campsite. The matter of its having been deserted, however, is called somewhat into question by the line of Thai peasants moving down the road with their goods to be sold. It heads straight into Mak Mun.
Though there is an arch over the opening, there is no gate and no sign of Thai military as we enter Nong Chan. What we do see is dozens of trucks unloading sacks of rice and seed on one side of the road and, patiently waiting calmly in orderly rows, dressed in hats, flowing robes and long dresses with bright colored shawls and kerchiefs, thousands of Khmer families standing on the other side. As we drive down the road between them, I am astounded by the organization, the calm, and the almost picnic-like air of the place.
The Land Bridge is a program that deals with those Khmers who choose to remain in their land and not become refugees, but who at the same time are in dire need of assistance that has, up until this time, been unavailable to them. The borders of the country have, for the most part, been closed to offers of international assistance, either because of political pressures, distrust, lack of communication, or a combination of the above. Since famine has been widespread and the population dislocation consonant to the ongoing fighting has disrupted planting and harvesting, the UNHCR came up with the notion of having a dispensing station right on the border to which Khmer nationals could come, pick up rice seed for planting and return to their homes, thereby hopefully reestablishing some sense of rhythm to the lives of those involved. At first, since starvation was acute, they found that people were picking up the rice seed, taking it home and grinding it into meal to be used as food, a process which, while alleviating immediate problems on a temporary basis, does not help in the long run. The result is what we see today: a well organized, two-stage system in which people come in and line up thousands deep to await their turn to pick up a one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred pound sack of rice for every six people (including children). Once they have the sack of rice, they take it back to their tent or ox cart and divide it up among themselves and then get back in line for a bag of rice seed. This process is usually followed for as many days as it takes them to fill the ox cart to overflowing, then they start off toward their homes in the interior. Robin tells me that they have put out as much rice in the past few months as is usually produced in Battambang Province (the fertile Kampuchean province directly east) in a year and that some of these supplies have reportedly turned up as far to the east as Phnom Penh itself. I am again impressed with the sense of conviviality that prevails. Patience and good humor seem to be the order of the day, testifying, it appears to me, that the humanitarian spirit of the international aid program is having a much deeper and more lasting effect than the western news media would have us believe.
After observing the Land Bridge operation for a while we get into the Land Rover and Robin takes us through the camp, which houses about seven to ten thousand people, both Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serai (though they are kept separate) and on out into Kampuchea itself. We see the tents and temporary structures that house the families that are here for their rice and seed. The land here has a tough look about it and it's not difficult to imagine battles being fought right where we stand. The long line of people coming down the rutted dirt road toward us seem pleasant enough as they return our greetings, but they look tired and worn as they alternately drive or lead their ox carts. It is those who walk in without even an ox cart that make me wonder how far they've come and how they intend to get the heavy sacks of rice back with them into the interior. Out here the gayer colors of the Khmer Serai outfits mix without comment (or apparent difficulty) with the black pajama-clad Khmer Rouge. Politics would appear to be forgotten in the face of hunger.
As we turn back and head for another area Robin wants to show us, I see the answer to one of my questions. Lines of people walk toward us, evidently heading toward home, carry smaller, more manageable portions of the rice and seeds we saw distributed earlier. Some carry it on their heads, others in parcels at each end of a long pole slung over a shoulder, the more fortunate atop the centuries-old ox carts, guiding them skillfully around, over and through the ruts, bumps and obstructions in the road.
We pull up at the next stop and Robin guides us on foot through a muddy, stinking stream and up a rise at the top of which I have to stop and shake my head. Before my eyes, in this unclaimed Cambodian/Kampuchean no-man's-land, is a hustling, thriving market. Exploring it we find row upon row of stalls selling anything one can imagine. Food, dry goods, souvenirs, clothing, even what looks to be aluminium cookware, line the shelves of bamboo stands set up in the middle of nowhere. Shoppers stroll the lanes between the stands and conduct themselves and their commerce as though it were the most normal thing in the world - and for them it may be. There is even, and I don't pretend to understand it, a woman in a canvas-covered bamboo stand in the middle of this desolation operating what looks to be a Waring Blender and making some sort of drink with it for a customer. As we walk away from the market I see a man sitting on the ground with what looks to be a pile of seeds or shells in front of him. Robin explains that they are in fact rice husks and under them is a block of ice that the man is selling. Ice? In this heat? Evidently the rice husks have some sort of insulating quality that keeps the ice from melting. The ice itself, Robin suggests, probably started out this morning in Aran Ya Prethet and has, through various channels, found it way here. Enterprise, indeed.
Back in the Rover, out the entryway and past a wallow where small boys are rinsing down water buffalo (reminiscent of small American boys washing cars), we head back for the area where we left Suchart with the CONCERN car. We bid Robin goodbye and thanks and head back for Aran, where we pick up our luggage and Mary Kate, who has been assigned to Kamput, a Khmer Rouge camp to the south, and our next stop.
The country as we head toward to south becomes noticeably more tropical with higher and thicker vegetation. It also becomes noticeably hotter. (Suchart has reluctantly agreed to run the air conditioner at a lower and less frigid rate as a sort of compromise with us.) The long, flowing plains are dramatically interrupted by high, sharp, rocky ridges which jut toward the sky, many of them housing ornate and impressive Wats and/or large, modern, smiling statues of Bhudda. We pass through a sudden torrential downpour which is just as suddenly gone.
Turning onto a road that soon becomes a dirt track, we arrive at Kamput. The Thai military influence is immediately evident here, living testimony to the Thai government's feeling of unease in dealing with Khmer Rouge. The camp is made up of Quonset huts instead of bamboo structures and the insides of the Quonsets are divided into cubicles for the separate families or individuals. Here again, CONCERN runs health care, supplementary feeding programs and a number of workshops, as well as caring for the needs of 460 orphans (unaccompanied minors). I am introduced to a smiling eight year-old who is the CONCERN poster child. A beautiful little girl, she was brought in six months ago after having been found weeping, walking around a pile of dead bodies.
The people in Kamput are just as friendly and responsive as those in the other camps, despite the relative drabness of their uniform-like dress, and Joan O'Hanlon, the CONCERN nurse, points out that in fact she finds them interested in new and more colorful attire when the opportunity to get some has presented itself. She surmises that the tendency to keep dressing in the black pajama uniform speaks more to the lack of an alternative than it does to any political statement inherent in the act.
Our tour of Kamput leaves me with the impression of well-organized efficiency with just a shade of intimidation resulting from the overbearing military presence. A story Joan tells about the requirement of "voluntarily" accepting a birth control shot of Depo-Provera in exchange for a food ration card doesn't sit well. When I ask more about it she says simply that it is the Thai authorities who run the camps and set up the requirements and the CONCERN people can't do much about it except to let outsiders know. I get the picture.
As we leave Kamput we’re driven across the road and shown the new camp that is being built. Kamput now houses 3,200 Khmers. The new camp, when completed, will hold between 20-30,000. The Thai government's plan is to break up the larger camps and have a number of camps set up for the long-term. The idea of the refugees living in this situation on a long-term basis, however, is something that may not go down too well with them.
Arriving at the CONCERN house in Chanthaburi for the evening, I find it to be a pleasant-looking house of modern style and construction in a neighborhood of the same. It is unimaginably hot however, even though the sun has long since gone down. Modern construction does not mean anything to geckos, evidently, as they make their way industriously up and down the walls and across the ceiling. The bathroom here is a more modern-looking tile one and boasts a shower like the one in Gus' apartment the first night (it seems so long ago) except it doesn't even bother with a heating capacity since no one in his right mind would want anything other than cold water on his body here. The bed situation is a bit of a problem here and when offered the opportunity of a hotel room, I grab it.
Bright and early the next morning Davida rousts me out and we're on our way to Mai Rut, the southernmost camp in Thailand. She seems in a hurry to get away from the hotel and later confides to me that she was witness there a few months earlier to a brutal murder committed by the police. It was, as she describes it, a terrifying experience and one not easily forgotten.
At Mai Rut just after breakfast we meet two more CONCERN volunteers, young women who are again veterans of Bangladesh. The determination and strength necessary for this kind of work is difficult for me to comprehend, and is much more so when coupled with such grace and gentleness. Margaret and Cora show us around the compound to the sewing workshop where they teach the people how to make some basic items of wearing apparel. A large company has offered a number of sewing machines for the program but they again were refused as being irrelevant to the experience of these people's lives. And again I’m impressed with the good will of their clients. Seeing this attitude in people who have lived through what they have is enough to make one fairly full with an appreciation of the durability of the human spirit.
After a brief tour of the area and a special look at the condition of the toilets that Davida found to be unsatisfactory on her last visit, we are shown the new camp. The old camp, behind us, houses 4,000 Khmer Rouge. The new camp, before us, has 3,000 Khmer Serai. The two groups are again separated, this time by a distance of about 1/4 mile. Here again I notice the difference in the dress. Also, there seems to have been more effort put into landscaping the new camp. The residents have attempted to grow vegetables in rows between the huts that, while bamboo, are longer than the ones at Khao I Dang and divided into cubicles, more on the order of Kamput. The children's area where we are taken is gaily decorated with paper streamers and artwork, and we’re greeted joyfully by the young people of this particular unit. They’re about to leave for the beach, which is only a short distance away, but before they go they treat us to a round of Khmer songs and dances, an elegant affair with slow graceful hand movements somewhat reminiscent of Hawaiian dancing. The children crowd around when they learn that I am from America. While few of them speak English they attach themselves to me in that open way children have and there’s very little doubt about what their vision of paradise would be.
As we leave the children's area Davida gives some last-minute instructions regarding unnecessary immunizations. She feels that the children are subjected to too much medication for no apparent purpose other than to ease the anxieties of some of the western doctors associated with other organizations. She’s an amazing woman. It's incredible to see her in action and get an impression of the depth of her commitment here, as well as the respect with which she is regarded. Add together her fear of mines, her lack of ease with snakes and crawly things and her willingness to live under these conditions for months on end and her dedication to the ideal of even-handed, caring and abundant medical attention to those in need, and you come up a pretty impressive package.
After a round of "Hello, OK, Bye-Bye" we head back to the car and make for Bangkok where we have to catch a plane for Ireland. As we speed along the highway (my heart in my mouth a few times at the near misses) I try again to assimilate the paradoxes in what I have seen and experienced. A land of wealth and poverty, tumbledown shacks and ornate temples, motorcycles and ox carts, sudden violence and calm acceptance, intense heat and air conditioning. What the hell, I realize, it sounds like America!
A quick shower and meal at Ciunas' apartment and we're off through the hurly-burly traffic of downtown Bangkok to the airport.
Stepping back into the time capsule, this with a French speaking crew, I look around, hoping for room to stretch out and get some rest after the mad dash of the last few days. No luck, the plane is full. The flight, I’m told, is taking us to Paris by way of Dacca, Bangladesh (appropriately enough after all I've been hearing about it) and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. That's what they say. I have my own feelings about whether or not any of this is actually happening.
The trip is a blur of ups and downs, some of them scary. Landing in Bangladesh is the same as landing anywhere except they tell you this is Bangladesh. The people who get on are very Indian looking with their saris and caste marks in evidence. Ongoing passengers are "invited" to stay aboard (read required) and it seems to be only an hour or so before we’re airborne again. Just before we leave there is a brief mention of the force of the wind. Davida says that we are, as was evidenced by the rain in Thailand, at the beginning of the monsoon season. As we take off the meaning of that term becomes vividly clear in a sickening series of sudden lurchings and swayings that impress upon me in no uncertain terms that what I think of as this huge aircraft is hardly an afterthought considering the forces outside. Finally with the full force of every muscle in my body I succeed in pulling the plane above the storm and fall into an uncomfortable stupor.
The seat belt announcement tells us we are heading into Dubai and once we stop moving, Davida and I decide to take the opportunity to look. It is airport again, the only difference being that some of these people are wearing flowing robes and burnooses. A fully robed and veiled woman waiting for her man to awaken from his nap sits in sharp contrast to the slack-clad, westernized woman next to her. The view out of the window, other than airplanes, is of vast black emptiness. Desert. The sight of another man looking every bit as if he just climbed off a camel, yet carrying a brightly polished leather briefcase catches the eye. Words like "oil" and "money" flash through my mind.
The pilot's voice tries to convince us that we’re flying over places like Yugoslavia. Later Davida points out the window at what must be the Alps. We begin the descent and come to a halt in Paris. I want to laugh at this whole idea.
Day six, seven
Airport in Paris. Cigarette butts all over the floor because of a maintenance workers' strike. Change planes and off to London. Airport again. Irish Airlines this time, and off to Cork after a careful check to make sure we aren't carrying any explosives. Up and down and out the door to waiting friendly faces. And the press. To think on my feet is difficult enough at this time, to answer questions isn't possible. How was it? What are my impressions? I really don't think I can make any sense out of it all. The only thing I have any real awareness of is the fact that the air is actually cool on my skin.
The CONCERN Conference on Refugees is held at Cork University and is addressed by medical experts, technicians who have been in the field, Father Aengus Finucane in from Thailand, his brother Father Jack Finucane in from Bangladesh, two people from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and Sean MacBride, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Amnesty International. It is a very high-powered gathering wherein a lot of people put out a lot of information. The refugee situation in today's world is not going to go away. The United Nations and the international voluntary agencies have no magic wand to wave over the situation and clear it up. As a matter of fact the political contest within the UN makes it subject to the whim of the meanest, most small-minded considerations of some of its member countries. The ultimate fact is that the flood of refugees from Kampuchea, Viet Nam, Bangladesh, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and on and on will grow larger in the 1980's. It is a political question. Refugees are refugees as a result of political acts and political decisions and until the civilized world becomes a civilized world there will be more of them all the time.
The answer, if there in fact is one, seems to lie in the willingness of people who care to continue to demonstrate that care by supporting the extension of humanitarian aid to those in need. Some do it by giving dollars and cents. Others do it by sharing information and expertise. Yet others do it by giving their time. And Davida and Gus and Ciunas and Robin and Mary and Mary and Mary and Dave and Margaret and Cora and Joan do it by giving themselves.
The conference over, the message having been sent, Davida and I share another flight to London, this time with Sean MacBride who is on his way to a UNESCO conference in Paris, and with the two UNHCR representatives, Harri Brassimi and Jack Cuneau who are on their way to Geneva. Davida and I are able to do a little personal lobbying regarding the question of the Thai military forcing Khmer Rouge refugees to take birth control shots and Ms. Brassimi promises to take a careful look at the situation.
Sean MacBride's words stay with me. It is not usually the case, he indicates, that governments and government officials take the first courageous steps to correct an injustice. It is the concerned individual citizens of the world who must point the way and, having done that, it is up to the rest of us to build the most powerful force in the world, the force of public opinion, to follow in their path.
The flight from London to Los Angeles is a piece of cake. Local time when we land is announced as 5:55 PM Sunday, June 1, 1980. My watch is right on the button. Life, for some of us at least, goes on.