Somewhere on the road between Thailand's newest mass encampment of refugees and a small hospital 35 miles away, an emaciated Cambodian boy, probably about 12 years old, died next to me in the front seat of my car.
I do not know his name, whether his parents were alive, or precisely what he died of. He was one of countless Cambodian children who have succumbed to disease and malnutrition in recent months.
Another boy, who lay motionless and wide-eyed in the back seat, survived the drive last week. A Thai doctor later diagnosed malaria -- believed to be the most serious disease among Cambodians, though it could be easily controlled if people had once-a-week preventative pills. The boy was wheeled off to a ward already crowded with refugees immobilized by disease.
A nurse said the dead boy's body would be sent back to the camp at Klong Kai Tuen, where about 30,000 Cambodians are sleeping beneath trees, oxcarts and plastic sheeting. Every day, corpses are collected there and carried into the forest for hasty burials.
The experience was for me traumatic confirmation of months of reports that war and politics have created famine and epidemics in Cambodia and kept readily available aid from many of those who desperately need it.
When Vietnamese forces pushed into the country last December to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, Cambodian society was once again turned upside-down. Guerrilla fighting continued sporadically as hundreds of thousands of people traversed the country on foot returning to home villages from which Khmer Rouge forces had removed them.
As a result, only a fraction of the country's rice fields were planted and tended through to harvest. Reports filtered out that food stocks were dangerously low and that Cambodia's few hospitals were filling with people showing the stark symptoms of severe malnutrition.
Meanwhile, political bickering slowed relief efforts. Western countries do not recognize the Heng Samrin regime, installed in Phnom Penh by Vietnam. They declined direct contact and insisted that aid be channeled through the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross.
Heng Samrin officials in turn argued with the two agencies over the amount of relief and who would get it. In August, token once-a-week flights begin into Phnom Penh -- most carrying 40 tons of supplies when relief officials estimated 1,000 tons a day were required.
Despite warnings from Phnom Penh that nothing must go to Khmer Rouge zones -- an apparent attempt to starve them into submission -- relief groups sent food to them through Thailand, including one area where the boy who died in my car probably lived.
But there politics intruded again to help keep children hungry: Khmer Rouge soldiers get priority over food supplies -- a fact attested to by the presence of well-fed, healthy young men among the boys' fellow refugees.
I and another journalist, John McBeth of the Hong Kong magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, saw the children after we had spent serveral hours last Saturday at the Klong Kai Tuen camp, about four miles from the Cambodian border.
Its people are among the more than 65,000 soldiers and civilians who began crossing into Thailand from Khmer Rouge zones Oct. 11, when Heng Samrin troops, believed to be Vietnamese, began a sweep around the Phnom Malai hills in western Cambodia.
On Saturday Thai and foreign doctors from an assortment of relief agencies were working furiously in a makeshift clinic -- a frame of tree branches freshly cut from the forest, topped by plastic sheeting.
Hundreds of sick people squatted in the sun waiting their turn. Consultatins were quick -- some as short as 30 seconds -- and usually ended with dispensing of vitamins and drugs to treat malaria and arrayed, shoulder-to-shoulder, on mats beneath the shelter.
Saline-dextrose solution -- the normal emergency treatment for severe malnutrition -- dripped through needles into patients' forearms from bottles suspended from the shelter's beams.
McBeth and I were about to leave when I noticed a spindly limbed boy lying on his side beneath the shelter. He breathed in starts and stared ahead vacantly. Flies were crawling undisturbed around his mouth -- the usual prelude to death in refugee camps -- and the smell of feces came from his filthy pants and fatigue shirt.
"Is the kid going to die?" I asked a Thai doctor. "He will for sure if he doesn't get to a real hospital," the doctor replied. I asked if we could take him, but the man shrugged and said, ?You'll have to talk to the soldiers."
Sick or healthy, Cambodian refugees are normally required to stay at sites the Thai army designates for them. But we were in luck -- the officer in charge agreed immediately to my request and wrote out a pass on a slip of notebook paper.
The doctor then suggested we take out two others, both malaria cases. Did he know their names? I asked. He shook he head -- with one clinic for 30,000 people, there was no time to worry about names.
Our car could only take two children comfortably, so we asked other journalists to take the third and any others allowed to leave.
One of the malarial cases, a boy of about 15, was stretched out across the back seat. For the child had first noticed, we reclined the front bucket seat and laid him on it.
McBeth drove and I sat on the gearbox between the two bucket seats with my arm over the child to support him when we crossed rough roads. As we rolled out of the camp he coughed and stirred slightly,and we began to think there was more life in him than first appeared.
But after a only mile, he again began breathing fitfully. Thick white liquid oozed from his lips and dripped onto his shirt.
For the rest of the 35-mile trip -- speeding along dirt and paved highways, passing everything on the road -- he lay inert. stench from his clothes was terrible, and we rolled down the windows despite clouds of dust raised by other vehicles.
Five miles from the hospital we began to suspect he was dead. There was no pulse or sign of breath and his arms dropped limply when I lifted them.
At the hospital I bundled him out of the car onto a wheeled stretcher. A nurse felt for a pulse, then shined a flashlight into his pupils. They did not react. She pronounced him dead.
Her confirmation was a shock. During the ride I had been thinking how I would visit him in the hospital, watch him recover and perhaps even adopt him.
The other boy was still conscious and feebly responded to inquiries in Cambodian about his name. A doctor listened to his chest, called him malarial and orderlies wheeled him past the dead boy.
We searched through his clothes for something to establish his identity. There was only one pocket, containing two pills apparently given him at the camp and some dried-out chili peppers.
He probably died of dysentery and malnutrition. It is possible his parents were dead; the state of his clothes indicated he had lain untended for many days. If his parents were dead, they might never learn how he died. Thousands of people come and go at the camp daily and the word we sent back of his death could easily have gone astray.
We left for Bangkok that same night. A doctor there advised that there was a small chance the boy had had cholera and I disinfected my clothes and the car as a precaution.
Few people visit camps like Klong Kai Tuen without an emotional reaction.
On Oct. 18, thai Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan flew to another camp containing an estimated 35,000 newly arrived Cambodians. He was reported to be so disturbed by what he saw that he decided no one would be forced back across the border, as the government had intended to do if necessary.
Current plans call for construction of a refugee center with a capacity of 30,000 people. Diet and medical care there will presumably be far better than what the people are receiving today. For the moment, however, there are too many cases like the boy who died in our car.