TWO NUMBERS describe the continuing horror of Cambodia. Its daily need for food is estimated by the international relief agencies to be about 950 tons. But as of 10 days ago, the aid reaching Cambodia from the West had amounted to only 200 tons over the last nine months.
The starvation battle has to be fought on two fronts -- along the Thai border and inside Cambodia. As the monsoon season ends and a new Vietnamese offensive begins, the refugee population in Thailand is exploding. In the last nine days, perhaps 100,000 refugees have arrived, and that total is expected to double within weeks. It takes several days to locate groups of refugees near the frontier, and then Thai military units must detonate mine fields before the border can be safely crossed. During the delay, many refugees die. Private relief agencies may not cross over to help those just out of reach on the other side if any of their financial support comes from U.S. government or United Nations sources. Once the refugees cross the border, more delay must be endured before food arrives from Bangkok. Medical care is desperately short, disease rampant.
Inside Cambodia the situation is worse. A recent visitor, the director of the British relief agency Oxfam, found the population "emaciated, walking Belsen-type skeletons," Their situation, he says, "is one of extreme anguish, extreme pain, extreme malnutrition," The Red Cross reports tautly that "the number of children under the age of five is abnormally low."
Politics still hamstrings the relief effort. The United Nations recognizes the ousted Pol Pot regime. The Red Cross, though not a U.N. agency, has linked up with UNICEF. This enormously complicates negotiations with the government of Heng Samrin. The relief agencies, rightly, insist that aid be delivered to areas controlled by both sides, but Heng Samrin's foreign minister has been quoted as saying, "We would prefer to eat grass -- indeed, to die -- rather than share aid with Pol Pot." Logistical difficulties keep whatever aid can be agreed on to a trickle.
American government officials seem hopeful that aid will soon be arriving in the necessary amounts. But they have been saying this for some months, and little has been accomplished. The dimensions of the tragedy call for radical new approaches. One possibility worth exploring would be for the Red Cross to sever its tie to the United Nations and to negotiate with the Vietnamese for the right to deliver food by the quickest and most direct means available -- by airdrop. People are starving.