Seven Congresswomen Brave the Nightmare World of Cambodian Refugees—and Make a Difference
Soon after disembarking from their Boeing 707, the delegation, led by New York Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, went to the Lumpini Transit Center in Bangkok, where Indochinese refugees are processed for emigration to the U.S. and elsewhere. Then they were taken to a camp sheltering 31,000 at Sakaew, Thailand, a barbed-wire compound on an arid plain 50 miles west of the Cambodian border. There they saw clusters of people, clothed in rags and lying immobilized on the ground in heat of more than 100 degrees, suffering not only from malnutrition but also from malaria, pneumonia and meningitis. Holtzman nodded gravely as a 14-year-old girl described how her parents were taken away in 1976, never to return. A young man, formerly crippled by malnutrition, told how he had been helped by food and medicine. "I can stand up," he exclaimed in wonder. "I can walk."
Stricken by heat prostration, Representative Fenwick, 69 and requiring a pacemaker, was led from the compound and flown back to Bangkok to rest. She missed the last leg of the trip—a visit to Phnom Penh, where Foreign Minister Hun Sen agreed to permit increased air deliveries but refused the group's pleas to allow food and medicine to be shipped by road from Thailand into Cambodia. That is thought to be the most efficient way to provide the Cambodians with the 165,000 tons of rice they need over the next six months, but the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government fears the aid would be diverted to insurgent supporters of ousted dictator Pol Pot.
In Phnom Penh the congresswomen saw Pol Pot's legacy—a ghostly remnant of the city he emptied to start an agrarian revolution. "We were in a city that was not a city," Holtzman recounts. "There weren't many people, houses were burned out, cows were browsing on the streets." Even among the 70,000 who have returned to the capital, the Americans saw evidence of widespread hunger. They returned with a profound appreciation of the scope of the tragedy, which has already cost perhaps three million lives, and a determination to do something about it. "We came here on a humanitarian mission," said Holtzman. "And we don't have any guarantee that we will be heard. But we are going to try."