Emerging from the Ruins

1979.  Vietnamese troops took the Cambodian capital in January.  On April 12, four years to the day of my hasty retreat by helicopter from “the Khmer Republic,”   I crossed the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. Highway One from Bavet to Phnom Penh was a road of human misery.  

The road was clogged with people trying to go home.  In the days after April 17th, 1975 millions of Cambodians were forced out of Phnom Penh and other towns and forced into rural commune life.  A social revolution created over night at a terrible cost of human life.  Now the survivors were engaged in a frantic effort to find loved ones and see what was left of homes they left four years before.   I wrote of this remarkable visit to Cambodia - three and a half months after Vietnamese troops expelled the radical Khmer Rouge - for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Los Angeles Times. The story is also told in my book THE LAST HELICOPTER Chapter 20.


Far Eastern Economic Review Reference: Vol. 104, No. 21,      25 May 1979, 24

KAMPUCHEA: Emerging from the ruins: A visit to Phnom  Penh reveals a semblance of normalcy, but the threat of  famine looms large

 By James Laurie 

Kampucheans in and around Phnom Penh express relief that the Pol Pot era has ended, but that relief is mixed with apprehension about the Vietnamese presence and fear of famine. They also wonder how long it will be before the international community recognizes their plight and comes to their assistance.

Those are among impressions gathered from a five-day visit to Kampuchea in mid-April. The visit was limited to the Phnom Penh area and the towns along Highway One, which connects the Kampuchean capital with Vietnam. In Phnom Penh, officials offered little information on conditions in the country as a whole, and an assessment of the security situation in the west proved impossible. But in the east and near Phnom Penh, a solid administrative structure appeared to be functioning, and security seemed assured. The 10-hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was completed in a Ford-built "Ho Chi Minh City Tourist Office" van without the benefit of any security escort.

Traveling to the capital before last month's Cambodian New Year holiday, there was much evidence of the chaos caused by the unruly movements of people described by earlier travelers to Kampuchea (REVIEW, Apr. 13). People carrying their few possessions trudging along on foot and others more fortunate, with families in bullock carts, clogged the highway. Apparently people, encouraged by government radio broadcasts, were still moving about in search of families and seeking homes in the towns and villages they were forced to leave when the Pol Pot regime came to power four years ago.

On the return trip, however, after the New Year celebrations, the movement had ceased. Mass meetings  were being held in the villages, and people could be seen repairing houses along the road -- signs that the population was beginning to settle down.

Around the capital, President Heng Samrin's government has organized a ring of temporary settlements for former residents of Phnom Penh wishing to re-enter the city. Three of the half-dozen-or-so settlements said to exist were visited. Each camp has as few as 6,000 people or as many as 60,000. According to residents, the settlements have become screening centers for the government effort to rebuild some sort of administration. Gradually people from the settlements are selected and admitted to Phnom Penh.

The selection appears to be carried out along highly practical lines. Doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators are sought. If, during interviews, they can establish their skills and former residency in Phnom Perth, they are assigned jobs in the capital. This correspondent met former bankers who had been appointed to the newly-established Ministry of Health and Welfare, and former Phnom Penh University students who had been assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some 60 of these selected people now reside in the old Calmette Hospital, a few blocks from the old French Embassy.

Before being given assignments in the city, those selected are required to attend a two to three-week re-education course in Phnom Penh. The course contains lectures on the l1-point programme of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS) and general orientation on the goals of socialism. The programme pledges among other things to build "genuine socialism" and abolish the "compulsory work and eat together system" of the Pol Pot regime, to establish banks and issue currency, and to "welcome soldiers and public servants of previous regimes into a government of national reconciliation."

In a bid for support, the Phnom Penh government has encouraged the return of basic Khmer values. The Buddhist religion, once central to Kampuchean life, appears to be making a strong comeback. Most pagodas were said to have been desecrated during the Pol Pot regime. Last month's visitors attended Buddhist services in a makeshift temple built in an old schoolyard.

What was quite striking was the reappearance of colorful clothing and sarongs. The basic Khmer Rouge black was being quietly replaced. Music and dance has also returned to Phnom Penh. During the New Year's holiday both traditional Kampuchean ballet and popular dances were re-introduced. But the Phnom Penh government has found it difficult to find people qualified to stage these revivals.

The radical policies of the Pol Pot regime have left few bonzes to carry on religion and few artists to revive the country's cultural heritage. In attempting to organize national ballet performances, the government found only a handful from the old Khmer Royal Ballet. One showed a 1975 photo of herself in complete costume. The photograph, she said, had been hidden for four years while she was hoping to dance again one day. But the 28-year-old woman, who looked more like 40, obviously suffering from malnutrition, said she was now too ill to dance.

The suburban settlement at Chang Chamras, or Kilometer Seven, northwest of Phnom Penh on Route Five, is the largest of the processing centers for former city residents. The people there spoke bitterly of their experiences under the Pol Pot regime. Their stories were similar to those told to journalists who visit refugee camps in Thailand; tales of executions, purges, terror and backbreaking work on rural communes. Doctors, teachers and technicians who spoke either French or English said they were alive because they had concealed their identities. They said few of their friends or colleagues were still alive.

There was also frustration in their conversation. People were becoming impatient with the government's lack of speed in processing people. They worried about the Vietnamese presence. "The Vietnamese say they are here to help us and will eventually leave," said one man recently appointed to a government position, "but with so few Khmers alive with the education to take control of government, we know they will not leave for a long time."

But if building an administration was a problem, another, more serious, was of more immediate concern. Kampuchean officials and their Vietnamese advisers seemed well aware that, if a serious food crisis is to be averted, a substantial rice crop must be planted as the monsoon rains begin later this month. Yet, at least along Highway One, there was no sign that the fields would be ready  for planting. The Vietnamese said they were sending thousands of tons of rice seed to Kampuchea, but international aid experts in Hanoi expressed doubt that, given its own food crisis, Vietnam has much seed to spare. These experts were pessimistic about Kampuchea's chances of avoiding a major famine.

The Vietnamese admit rice stocks are low. At the settlements near Phnom Penh the food situation is already serious. Several residents said the Vietnamese were distributing flour, while one woman said she had taken to begging from Vietnamese soldiers. People in the camps appeared to subsist largely on fish, eels, manioc and sweet potatoes.

Several residents at Kilometer Seven who had worked four years ago in food distribution for American relief agencies, suggested the only answer was international assistance. They asked when all the international organizations which were present in Kampuchea four years ago were going to return.

The need for international assistance was also voiced by Vietnamese advisers and officials of the Kampuchean Government. 

In an interview, Kampuchean Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Keo Prasat made an impassioned plea for foreign aid: "We cannot rebuild our country with only our own hands. We need the help of socialist nations and peace loving peoples all over the world. So far the Soviet Union, Hungary, East Germany and Laos have offered assistance. In order to rebuild, however, we need the assistance of all the people and organizations of the world."

In Hanoi, the visitors were told, the International Red Cross was negotiating to re-enter Phnom Penh to assess medical needs. But most diplomats there agreed that until the Phnom Penh government gains substantial international recognition and a seat in the United Nations, Kampuchea will  remain largely Vietnam's burden and the Kampuchean people will go on suffering.

James Laurie is the Hong Kong bureau chief of ABC News, the American broadcasting company.

(C) 1979 Review Publishing Company Limited. All Rights Reserved.