From the start of my two-week stay in Cambodia, I had asked at every farm and factory I was allowed to visit to speak to any former residents of Phnom Penh.

By talking to some former residents of the capital. I hoped to somehow weigh the accuracy of refugee reports that the 3 million Cambodians jammed into Phnom Penh at the end of the war had been ordered out of the city, and thousands had died on the rigorous march into the countryside.

Certainly, it was clear to me from walking and driving about Phnom Penh that the population of the capital now was only a miniscule fraction of what it had been.

But where had these people - more than one-third of the tiny country's total population - gone?

At a large rubber plantation complex with some 25,000 members, I was told not a single one of the inhabitants came from Phnom Penh.

Some cooperatives that I visited claimed that half of their members were from Phnom Penh, but all were out harvesting rice. None could be interviewed.

I particularly wanted to visit the Battambang region and tour the farming cooperatives there. When I visited a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, I had been told that many of the refugees from Phnom Penh were now in this area.

At last, the Cambodian officials agreed to take us to Battambang. When we got there we were told that we could not visit any of the cooperatives, and would be allowed to see only more dams and irrigation canal.

Our guide was a high-ranking member of the Foreign Ministry, and not without influence.

"You know what this means," I said. "I am going to write that I gave you every opportunity to show me cooperatives where refugees say most of the Phnom Penh people live, and you refused. This means you didn't try to show me any evidence to refute the stories about how the middle and upper classes have been abused and killed."

Our guide lowered his head, and then got angry.

"You lived in Phnom Penh and that's all you care about," he said. "Cambodia was more than that city. You'll never understand this country."

The government, however, finally took us to an agricultural cooperative in Takeo that seemed prepared for my request to meet someone who had lived in Phnom Penh.

Neth Yan, his wife, Neth Kean and their two teen-age daughters were brought out immediately, and set down before us and the committee members in charge of the Le Bo cooperative.

Excited and nervous, Neth Yan told us he lived in this region before joining the army in 1961 and moving to Phnom Penh. There seemed to be little doubt that this man was, in fact, a former soldier and a member of the middle-class.

He said that on April 17, 1975, he was frightened when the Communist soldiers won the war and marched into Phnom Penh. He said he was in the capital, exchanged his uniform for civilian clothes, and gave up his weapons.

Then he said, he voluntarily took to the road and settled in this cooperative. It took him two years, he added, to be accepted as a full member of the cooperative.

Neth Yan was one of only two people I met during the entire journey who would admit to being a former resident of Phnom Penh.

When I commented on this to our Foreign Ministry guide near the end of the trip, he said: "You've probably met people from Phnom Penh but they didn't tell you. Many of them have changed their names."

Why? I asked.

"because," he replied, "maybe they were afraid."

In interview with other officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary and Prime Minister Pol Pot (See box), I was given hints that they might someday admit that the Cambodian revolution to make a classless society after the was was over.

Thiounn Prasith, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of Asian affairs, often made two points when asked about the human rights issue raised in the West. First, he said, Americans especially have no ides what devastation was wreaked during the five-year war. The confusion and chaos, especially with "enemy agents," left the country in a situation that I took him to say was close to anarchy.

Secondly, he said that there was a problem of malaria and lack of food.

During our trip, I asked officials why friends of mine in the United States never received replies from their letters to friends in Cambodia.

I was told that it is difficult to find people so soon after a war, that there was no national registry and no mail system.

But when I asked Prime Minister Pol Pot how the government could so confidently cite birth and death statistics, the answer came back: "Every 10 days, our cooperatives send their regular reports, including figures in all fields. The Central administration needs only to gather these informations."

I was not given the opportunity to follow-up with the obvious question why the cooperatives could send figures every 10 days and not names once in three years. There must be a national registry of some sort.

Refugees have also described the new regime as one without justice, one that discouraged free-thinking or intellectual pursuits of any king. Except for Foreign Ministry officials, I saw very few people reading, and despite request, no school books were ever shown us.

When we first met an intellectual in the city, I asked him about his background. He answered that revolutionary intellectuals normally hide their diplomas.

There is no freedom of movement. When asked whether national identity cards were used by people traveling about the country, an official told us that cards weren't necessary: "Any travel is arranged by the cooperative; no one travels by himself."

After one day of human rights questions, Prasith told us the world cares far too much about the 5 percent, the upper class, than the 95 percent of the people who are peasants.

One person the world does remember. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was kept completely out of our signt. Almost every day one of us British scholar Malcolm Caldwell, Richard Dudman of St. Louis Post-Dispatch or I, would if our request to interview Sihanouk had geen granted. We pared that down to a request just to look at him, and perhaps snake his hand. Finally, we said we would be satisfied to see Penn Nouth, Sihanouk's former deputy.

The prince is retired, our guides told us, and has said many times that if he sees one visitor he would have to see them all.

I believe our request was not even forwarded to the former prince, who won independence for Cambodia in 1953, kept it out of war until his own overthrow in 1970 and then became figurehead for the rebels until they won.

Our attempts to discover how the country's justice system worked were equally frustrated. The process was described by Pol Pot and Ieng Sary as a form of people's court of people's justice.

"Every problem can be solved by the people . . . Ordinarily, the people hold regular meetings during which criticism and self-criticism are carried out. They always succeed in solving small or big differences . . . The court intervenes only to ratify the people's judgement and guides the implementration of democratic centralism," was the written reply from Pol Pot.

But when we asked officials at a cooperative about such a system, our question produced bewilderment.

"We have no people's court," the committee members at the Le Bo cooperative said.

Since the officials contended there were no jails in Cambodia, that it wasn't necessary with such a people's justice, I asked what they did with their Vietnamese prisoners of war.

They are kept in a compound and sent out to do production work, was the response. I asked repeatedly to view the compounds. One day our guide called me our and said my request had been granted. "Miss Elizabeth here are your Vietnamese," he declared.

It was a tank of crocodiles at a zoo - an allusion to the Cambodian war propaganda that the Vietnamese are like crocodiles trying to swallow up Cambodia.

Interestingly, some Cambodians have returned to their native country from aboard. Students and political leaders from the United State and from Australia had made well-publicized trips back to Phnom Penh since the war ended and we asked to speak to them. That request was also not granted.

No one that I met during the trip wanted to admit to any killings - not even the commander of Cambodian forces fighting against the Vietnamese on the border.

Pin was the commander of Cambodian troops fighting against the Vietnamese soldiers in bordering Tay Ninh Province. Earlier this year, Western journalists had visited that Vietnamese province and photographed villagers who had been beheaded, disemboweled and mutilated in the border war.

I asked Pin why his troops engaged in such atrocities. "That was not us," he claimed. "It was probably the national minorities uprising in Vietnam, the FULRO (the mountain people) and the Kampuchean Krom (ethnic Combodians who live in Vietnam.)"

This was only one of the many answers I received during my visit that struck me as far less than satisfactory.

To many questions, I got no answer at all.

I must also confess that I ultimately decided that in view of my doubts and uncertainties about the current situation in Cambodia, it might be better not to ask certain questions.

When I received my visa to Cambodia after three years of applications, friends called me to ask that I search for missing Cambodians they had known. I took down the names, added names of persons I was interested in, and carried the list with me the Phnom Penh.

I finally decided, however, not to ask after anyone by name.

The biggest favor I could do for missing friends, I decided, was to leave those that survived to the anonymity of the new Cambodia.