Cambodians in Fear and Squalor, Victims of a War Without End

March 21, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

O KOKO, CAMBODIA — O Koko, Cambodia. There are, they say, 7,000 people living in thatched shelters or with no shelter here in the middle of what we would call nowhere, dry and dusty fields 40 miles southwest of Phnom Penh.

They are women and children, widows and orphans. Most Cambodians are, because the men are at war or were killed in the murderous years of Khmer Rouge rule.

They are, officially, ''displaced persons,'' Cambodians moved by government troops from mountain villages in areas now controlled, more or less, by the Khmer Rouge. This camp, as it is called, a hot, miserable place of diseased water and not enough to eat, is surrounded by land mines, little Chinese ones, smaller than little cans of tuna.

Who laid the mines? Are they there to keep the Khmer Rouge out or to keep these people in, or to keep them from growing rice? Who knows? Not American visitors.

This is just another fetid pool in the landscape of misery that is Cambodia and has been since Cambodia became a killing ground in the 1960s because it was a weak little country that happened to be in the geographical embrace of Vietnam during that country's civil war.

The numbers compiled by international organizations and the current government seem more precise than they ever could be, but you get the general idea: From 1969 to 1974, the Americans dropped 539,129 tons of bombs on ''Vietnamese targets'' in this country; from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge destroyed 1,200 villages, 5,857 schools, 796 hospitals and clinics, 1,968 pagodas, 1,008 factories, and killed or drove away 3,314,786 people.

Civil war began here in 1970 with the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk, a military coup backed by the United States. It continues, and there is a significant chance that the Khmer Rouge, with Chinese backing and indirect U.S. help, will regain power.

Cambodia is broken, smashed. The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh, dismantled the Roman Catholic cathedral and turned the National Library into a pig farm.

Savagery, war, and economic sanctions by the United States and United Nations, both protesting Vietnamese invasion and occupation in 1979, have left it one of the poorest countries in the world, with shattered roads and irrigation canals, without electricity, clean water and medicine.

The gross national product, another estimate, is half what it was in 1968. There were 45 doctors left in the country after the Khmer Rouge killed all the educated people it could find in a drive to return the country to pre-industrial simplicity.

There is for all practical purposes no hard currency, though people do trade in gold and precious stones. What the government can get it uses to buy weaponry, but it gets less and less from its two patrons, the Vietnamese and the Soviets, who have their own problems.

There is only nine months' worth of food produced and donated to the country each year, according to the World Food Program, and people survive by eating leaves, roots and insects.

But they do survive. Cambodians have seen death people regularly break down without warning and tell you how they lost their families in the Pol Pot years and they worship life. They are having children as fast as they can, even if that means a de facto polygamy because there are so few men available.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist. This is the second in a three-part report.

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