None of the photographs or stories about current conditions in Cambodia fully prepare the visitor for the reality, the human tragedy there.
It is shattering to travel through a major city with no more population than a country town; to see countless drawn faces of hungry people and malnourished children so weak they cannot cry; to hear gentle Cambodian voices relate tales of horror and suffering, explaining how their families died or disappeared.
Cambodia hardly exists as a functioning nation. Remnants of a devastated people are struggling to reestablish the rudiments of a government and coherent social order even as they face widespread starvation.
As our group of five Americans representing the American Friends Service Committee drove into Phnom Penh from Pochentong Airport last month, we noticed that most buildings looked deserted, many were damaged, and the trickle of people on foot and bicycle seemed to live elsewhere.
Approaching Phnom Penh, a striking row of high-rise buildings that had been the university was deserted and partially ransacked. Schools and hospitals had been closed under the Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot. Only a few primary schools have been reopened in the city since the overthrow of Pol Pot by Vietnamese forces and the installation of the Heng Samrin government in January.
We found downtown Phnom Penh eerie and depressing. Empty canyons of high-rise buildings stretched along broad boulevards with only as many people in view as might be found on a country road. Some families were camping in first-floor rooms, but upper floors were vacant. Whole side streets seemed desolate with trees knocked down and rubbish heaped along the curbs.
The wide plaza in front of the railroad station was empty every time we passed through it during the two days. The central market, which had been a crowded scene of buying and selling before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975, had only 10 or 12 sellers with meager stocks and no visible customers.
At the old Hotel Royal, a dozen cows were grazing on the median strip in front of the building. The hotel functioned in skeletal fashion for a few international guests.
Outside the hotel, an impressive marble library next door looked unused, with half of the books scattered on the floor. Someone had tried to grow vegetables in part of the otherwise weed-filled front yard. One of the two largest Catholic churches in the city once stood across the street from the Hotel Royal; now not a stone remains on the flat, barren field.
The Cambodian Foreign Ministry sent two young women to be our interpreter-guides. Their main qualification was their prior study of English and French, a fact that they had hidden during years of work as peasants under Pol Pot. Knowledge of a foreign language usually brought a death sentence.
Both women told of experiences common to nearly everyone with whom we talked. They were driven out of the city immediately after the Khmer Rouge victory. Forced into the fields to grow rice, they suffered under the most primitive conditions: heavy labor, one meal and five hours sleep a day, no food for those too ill or too weak to work. Casual or calculated killings were frequent.
Our group visited Phnom Penh's only orphanage. Three months after opening, it had 539 children quartered in a former high school. Only 26 of them were 5 years old or less compared with 332 between the ages of 11 to 15 -- clear indication that the years under Pol Pot had been most lethal to the youngest Cambodians.
The orphanage provided basic medical care and food supplemented by vitamins and milk powder from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
We were briefed by Chau Sa, the staff member who spoke English best. In April 1976, Sa said, he carried his 2-year-old son and aided his wife as they were driven out of Phnom Penh into the countryside. After arriving in a rural village in Prey Veng Province he was imprisoned for five months, he said. Most of his associates from the city died, but he survived and rejoined his family. For the next three years he worked as a peasant, making fertilizer.
His whole village was forced to move halfway across Cambodia to the west of the country in 1978. Many more died on this trek or were killed later by the teen-age cadre who ruled the lives of the people, and whole village groups were executed, Sa said. Sa told of seeing a killing ground where several thousand persons had been beaten to death. He and his wife survived until liberation; their child did not. Sa was an exception among those we talked to since his spouse was alive.
Walking through the orphanage was both heart-rending and encouraging. The affection and caring of the staff were obvious. Many children smiled, reached out for our hands, were strong enough to cling to our legs and walk with us. They seemed rather small and spindly, however, and new arrivals were in more critical condition.
From a scene of moderate liveliness we went to one of deathly stillness.
Toul Sleng had been one of the top French schools in Phnom Penh. After the Pol Pot takeover it became a prison for political suspects, a center for torture and execution. Guides told us that 20,000 people died there. Four high-rise rectangular concrete buildings formed three sides of what had been a spacious lawn and compound. It now was ragged and overgrown.
The first section, we were told, had high-ranking political prisoners, one to a room, each shackled naked to a bare cot frame. Various devices for beating and torture were on display.
The most harrowing displays were in a central section of Toul Sleng. Authorities there worked methodically. They kept careful records of names, backgrounds, dates of execution. Thousands of documents were recovered. Some of the lists were enlarged and posted. On Oct. 15, 1977, for example, 418 persons were killed. The long tallies of those who perished -- professional people, technicians, diplomats, students, persons tainted by foreign exposure and even Pol Pot Cadre -- indicated the xenophobic mood of the Pol Pot government.
The past turmoil has left Cambodia in havoc. There is no currency. Rice is the medium of exchange. Barter and scavenging are common. For those who work a salary is only the scant weekly ration of rice, which must be further reduced to trade for other necessities and to share with family dependents. Most machines and vehicles are broken or unusable.
In Kampong Speu, a provincial town about 20 miles southwest of Phnom Penh, few vehicles were visible other than bikes and carts. Occasional trucks seemed to serve as buses. Roadside buildings mostly were damaged and derelict. Only a few stands or bike repair stops were evident, except for a more sizable market area at a crossroads, where some rice was planted.
With a local official we drove to what had been the center of town. Eight months earlier the retreating Pol Pot forces blew up their ammunition stored in the main buildings and leveled the area for a radius of 100 yards. Ragged craters 15-feet deep and muddy mounds covered with fragments of concrete were all that remained. The ground was strewn with howitzer shells, mortar shells and machine gun and rifle bullets. Most structures now were made of thatch.
We drove on to the provincial hospital. It served a population of perhaps 300,000. There were 485 patients, but only 200 beds and no doctor. Thirteen staff members had some training as nurses. The supply of medicines on hand was less than the office stocks of the average American physician.
Beside the hospital a thatch structure to house orphans had been put up -- the only other known orphanage beside the one in Phnom Penh.
On 12 bed frames covered with straw matting were gathered 92 children, some as old as 13, although none looked larger than an American 6-year-old. Sad faces and hollow gazes turned to me when I entered. Only one child in the ward cried fitfully, however, with barely enough energy to make a whimpering noise.
As I left, a mother and child stood in the sunlight. The boy she held had stick-like arms and legs and a distended belly. The otherwise gaunt mother had so large a bulge that we asked if she were pregnant. We were told that her stomach was swollen because she had eaten only grass and banana leaves for five days en route to the hospital.
Our last trip through Phnom Penh was as unsettling as the first. No quick adjustment is possible to the scarcity of people in the urban landscape, to the breakdown of all normal systems in a modern city. At the bridge on our way out of the city a strict checkpoint was patrolled by soldiers.
A stream of people walked and biked over the bridge, many carrying scavenged furniture or artifacts or, occasionally, some food from the country. At the far end of the bridge was the largest crowd of people we saw anywhere in the country. They were living in shacks and under tarps waiting to be cleared for entry into the city. The authorities permitted only those with a job or needed skills into Phnom Penh.
The highway heading east from Phnom Penh toward Vietnam was tolerable, pitted and potholed. Especially toward the border, it had been fought over so often and repaired so little that we slowed almost to a standstill.
Some people were almost always in view as we drove for six hours to the Vietnamese border, but there were few concentrations apart from Phnom Penh, Neak Luong, Kampong Trabak, Savay Rieng and several villages that seemed well reestablished.
Some farm animals and modest rice cultivation could be seen along the route, but far more land was unplanted even where the old dike lines indicated prior cultivation. One member of our delegation traveled this road 10 years earlier. He said the contrast from the old heavily traveled road through lush, fertile areas was as extreme as the near-emptiness of Phnom Penh compared to its former crowds and bustle.
After two hours we came to the ferry crossing the Mekong River at Neak Luong, where we had to wait half an hour. A crowd gathered and I fell into slow conversation in rusty French with a man who turned out to be manager of the ferry operation. Although he looked liked a tired teenager, he was 40 and had lived most of his life in Neak Luong. He had been wounded by American bombing in the early 1970s.
The same terrible tale emerged of his experiences in the Pos Pot years. Conditions had been "la plus difficile ." Many died. His family was gone, some killed because they held office under the American-backed Lon Nol government.
My companion estimated that half the population of the Neak Luong region had died and another 30 percent had disappeared between 1975 and 1979. With soft pleading he explained that they needed food, medicine, seeds, vehicles -- everything.