On May 20, 1979, more than 30,000 Cambodians, armed Khmer Rouge soldiers with their wives and children and assorted civilians, crossed into Thailand near Aranyapathet, shown on the map here, in flight from attacking Vietnamese troops. At the time, as the head of USAID’s Asia Bureau, I was on my way to Pakistan on a mission visit. But not for long.
The refugee crisis had caught world attention. Henry Kamm, a New York Times reporter who specialized in Indochina refugee problems wrote two op-ed pieces criticizing the Carter White House for not taking immediate relief efforts. The President promised to send his wife, Rosalynn, to the scene but first ordered that I abort my trip and fly immediately to Thailand to make an assessment of the most pressing needs and offer assistance. With another USAID official, Dennis Chandler, we flew to Bangkok and by car drove 250 kilometers to the camp.
My first impression upon reaching the scene was of a sea of small plastic tents, closely packed on a huge sandy field, shown above. Most tents held a Khmer Rouge solder and his family. It was traditional for Cambodians in a military force to bring their wives and children with them as they maneuvered. As I knew from my 1970 mission in Cambodia, this custom had proved disasterous to the Royal Khmer army as it earlier had fought the Viet Minh. Now it had afflicted the Khmer Rouge.
Although personally antagonistic toward the Khmer Rouge for murdering so many of my contacts in Cambodia, one could only be deeply touched by the camp scenes going on all around us. Many of the children, as well as adults, had arrived in Thailand malnourished and severely sick or wounded. The death toll in the camp was registered at some ninety per day.
Shown above is an American missionary doctor who is tending to a sick child. Other doctors had set up a makeshift operating tent and were engaged in surgery on those wounded in the fighting. As shown here, other volunteers were feeding children. U.S. Embassy personnel, including U.S. Ambassador Mort Abramowitz and his wife, were on the scene bathing babies and providing clothing.
As shown below, food was being trucked into the camp daily by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) whose representatives were in nominal charge of the camp. When the shipments arrived hundreds of refugees surrounded the trucks, looking for their daily allotment of food. Even though many were hungry they were remarkably disciplined in waiting their turn, likely kept in line by the Khmer Rouge hierarchy many of whom had managed to lose or hide their military ranks but were well known to the refugees.
I photographed members of our team as we discussed how best USAID could provide assistance to the camp. At left is Dennis Chandler, next a Thai USAID employee, and Jack Williamson, an American in the Thai USAID who was highly valuable because of his experience in Indochina and his fluency in Thai. Jack had briefed our group on the long road from Bangkok, a group that included Bill Garrett, managing editor of National Geographic. Here we are talking to the UNHCR deputy camp director, an American named Schweitzer.
The most pressing need, Schweitzer told us, was for water. Humans can live for a time without food but access to potable water is essential, especially important in the heat of the Thai day. At that time water was being trucked in by the tank load, barely enough to meet camp needs. Even larger crowds than met the food trucks welcomed the arrival of the water. As shown below, the precious drops were carried away in a variety of containers.
I immediately inquired about the possibility of digging wells and was assured that preliminary hydrological studies indicated that there was a usable water table under the camp that could be reached by drilling. Remembering that at least two of the Asia Bureau’s missions were currently involved in well-drilling projects, I assured Schweitzer USAID could have the expertise — and as needed the equipment — on scene in a matter of days. We transmitted the word back to Washington.
As we were leaving the camp for the long ride back to Bangkok, I spied and photographed a scene that reminded me of something George Orwell had written in his book, “Animal Farm.” There Orwell compared the egalitarian claims of a communist organization like the Khmer Rouge with the reality: “Some are more equal than others.” As I was passing by one shelter I was struck by a mother bathing a fat baby boy, a far contrast from all the emaciated children I had seen earlier. Then I caught a glance of the boy’s father, still in the uniform of a Khmer Rouge commander. The reason for the contrast became clear.
Continuing on to my initial overseas destination, it was two weeks or more before I returned to my office in Washington, DC. Waiting for me there was the news that our USAID well-diggers had arrived in Thailand and were busy drilling down to the water table. It would only be a matter of days before the water trucks no longer would be necessary. Moreover, the death toll steadily was declining.
Despite continuing unrest and sporadic firing along the Thai-Cambodia border, Mrs. Carter visit the camp in early November, accompanied by Henry Kamm. He reported to the Times that the First Lady knelt next to the mats on which the sick were lying in the sand and declared at the end of her visit, “It's like nothing I've ever seen.” Four decades later I can say the same.