Khao-Dang, Thailand — The former head of the Cambodian Royal Ballet lives with her three children in a tiny bamboo and palm-thatch hut in Khao I- Dang, the largest Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
Mrs. Mom Kamel teaches classical Khmer ballet to children and teen-agers in a large hut near the center of the camp.The classroom has waist-high walls, which allow hundreds of rapt spectators of all ages to watch the graceful ballets that were forbidden under pain of death during the reign of the ousted communist leader, Pol Pot.
The dances use lyrical hand movements to tell Cambodian folklore. A new piece describes the decimation of the Khmer by Pol Pot, who seized power in 1975 and slaughtered the military and educated classes. Dancers crumple in mute agony as they are "murdered" by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Mrs. Mom Kamel was a prima ballerina who at 18 performed a ballet reserved for Cambodia's crowned head of state. She toured Europe and Asia and eventually married the head of the Cambodian Air Force under Gen. Lon Nol.
When Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot, she and her husband escaped execution only by lying about their professions.
But now, after walking 120 miles in three days and nights without food to reach the border, they are separated.
He is only a few miles away, at Nong Samet, an unofficial camp straddling the Thai-Cambodian border. The settlement, also known as Camp 007, houses more than 100,000 noncommunist Khmer Serei -- "free Cambodians" -- who oppose both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese who invaded the country in December 1978.
Her husband is president of Nong Samet's Air Force Club, one of several professional groups that cling to the past that Pol Pot tried to exterminate. About 300 former Air Force men still follow him.
The camp leaders fear that if they allow him to leave, his "air force" would follow.
His wife made it to Khao I-Dang, a dusty, barren holding center for 120,000 Cambodians about seven miles from the border, where she sits on the straw mat floor of the dance hut, talking sadly about her husband. She is still a beautiful and dignified woman, despite the Pol Pot years and the strain of separation.
Her dancers are accompanied by a makeshift orchestra. The musicians hid their instruments -- drums, metal flute, and stringed pieces -- from the Khmer Rouge and later carried them to the border, sometimes walking hundreds of miles.
Still, instruments are scarce at Khao I- Dang. The American Refugee Committee, a Minneapolis-based private relief group, has augmented the supply by purchasing pieces in Bangkok, Thailand.
An American nurse points to one of the players, a boy of about 10, strumming a large stringed instrument that looks like a zither.
"He came across the border by himself, carrying that on his back -- it was all he had," she recalls. "When he got through admissions and processing, he sat down beside the road leading to the living quarters and just began to play. He sat there by himself and played for hours, joyously, until it got dark."
Nou Sohk Tal is responsible for 10,000 people. His duties range from making sure his charges have food and shelter to mediating family disputes and arranging weddings.
He is the leader of Section 1, one of a dozen subdivisions at Khao I-Dang, a holding center run by Thailand and the United Nations housing 120,000 Cambodian refugees seven miles from the Cambodian border.
The refugee leader is a former English teacher and employee of the US mission at Battambang, Cambodia. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, he lied about his background and hid his glasses, which would have branded him an intellectual, to escape execution.
For four years, the slight Cambodian labored in the mountains, felling trees and hauling them down the slopes. Late last year he joined the exodus to Thailand and made his way to Khao I-Dang, where he was appointed section leader by camp administrators.
"Mr. Tal," as he is known to camp residents and officials, is one of thousands of refugees who tenaciously maintain the Khmer people's dignity and self-reliance, despite their tragic past and uncertain future.
The refugee self-government at Khao I- Dang was established by camp officials to organize food distribution, housing construction, and a myriad of other functions.
Mr. Tal's office is a bamboo and straw hut near a section civic center, which includes meeting halls and even a hut for dance classes. A dozen scribes silently copy documents while, in another part of the structure, several subordinates wait patiently to see him. An occasional policeman wearing a badge and armband -- but no gun -- saunters past on the way to his beat.
The refugee official has pioneered a form of administration that attempts to meet the needs of the UN staff and at the same time preserve aspects of the traditional village government that was obliterated by Pol Pot. His system works well and is being copied by the other section leaders.
He proudly displays an organization chart outlining his administration.
Eleven committees are responsible for every aspect of camp life -- education (schools were set up at the first of the year), health, fine arts (which sponsors dance, theater, and other cultural events), and sports (soccer, table tennis, boxing, and others).
"First of all, refugees are concerned about food, medicine, and clothing," he says. "After that, they are most interested in getting back what Pol Pot killed -- their dancing, their music, their customs, their way of living."
The charter graphically depicts the harsh realities of the camp: committees for "family tracing," food distribution, "water control," and "internal control" -- the anti- black-market police force.
The black market was already flourishing along the border when Khao I-Dang was established in November. Food, clothing, cigarettes, and radios are available at exorbitant prices, driving up the cost of living in surrounding villages and creating Thai resentment.
Refugees caught dealing in the black market are usually dealt with by their section leader and UN officials according to a published set of regulations governing behavior.
Minor offenders are usually denied food for a day or longer. Serious offenders are turned over to Thai military authorities, but the camp is reluctant to do so, Mr. Tal explains, "because the Thai soldiers are very cruel."
He says that curbing the black market and minimizing the inevitable friction between the camp and the local Thais are among his biggest challenges.
"We try to use education to try to explain that the black market causes inflation and makes the Thais angry."
Thai resentment is a major concern. Despite the flood of international aid, the small country's resources and security have been strained by the half-million Indo-Chinese refugees. As a result, their status is tenuous; the government does not consider them refugees but "illegal immigrants," to be placed in temporary holding centers such as Khao I-Dang.
Despite their difficult and uncertain exile, many refugees are managing to salvage remnants of their past.
Hundreds of educated Khmer such as Nou Sohk Tal have found volunteer jobs that enable them to use their skills. A doctor and former medical students practice medicine alongside medical personnel sponsored by the American Refugee Committee.
While the Khmer renaissance rises from the dust at Khao I-Dang, there are still many grim reminders of the Pol Pot era. The Khmer Rouge leader outlawed currency and attempted to re-create an agrarian system with a barter economy. The move wiped out the savings of thousands of families.