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.