IT was the steamy season in Thailand, a sweltering hot April day, when the dam broke. Relief worker Sue Morton saw it happen. She was in a car at 10 a.m. near a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Kampuchea (Cambodia) when someone rushed up to tell her the news: A wave of Cambodian refugees 1,000 strong had suddenly appeared at the border. They had clawed their way through the Kampuchean jungles for weeks, in a run for freedom after the Vietnamese had opened up some of the work camps of Pol Pot's notorious communist regime.
Mrs. Morton and the other volunteers couldn't believe the news at first; it was 1979 and the early stream of refugees from Kampuchea had slowed to only a few hundred a day.
``Well, by noon there were about 5,000 refugees,'' she remembers, ``and the people I knew with the [volunteer] agencies were bringing water and tents and so forth to try and help these people.''
Mrs. Morton, the founder of the relief agency Refugees International, sits in a United States senator's office and talks about the tragedy that happened later that day:
``The Thai military came screeching up in their trucks and said that we've had it, the free countries of the world are not helping us. We cannot accept any more refugees. We're pushing these people back. And within a week, the Thais had bused 40,000 refugees who had finally made it to freedom after all this genocide, up to a cliff that's 2,000 feet straight down, where you have Thailand on one side and the Cambodian valley on the other.''
Her voice goes tight. ``And by gunpoint and bayonet they pushed those people back over this cliff. Those who could survived by shinnying down, making it to the bottom. None of them had had any water. They tried to get to this river at the bottom. The entire valley floor was mined. . . .''
Thousands died as the mines exploded, she says. After four years of ``that terrible genocide, finally to put their feet on freedom at last, just to go to their deaths. And Refugees International was born that day.''
That tragic spot on the Thai-Kampuchean border can be seen in the movie ``The Killing Fields,'' in a climactic final scene based on the true story of American reporter Sydney Schamberg and Cambodian Dith Pran, who both covered the 1975 fall of Cambodia for the New York Times.
The film, which recently won three Academy Awards and the British Film Award as best picture of the year, has roused international concern over the plight of Cambodian refugees. The film ends with a printed statement that the refugee camps on the Thai border are still crowded with ``the children of `The Killing Fields' '' (that marked the mass slaughters under the Communist Khmer Rouge). Mrs. Morton notes that the film has helped focus attention on Cambodian refugees, among them those aided by Refugees International, a private, global relief agency for refugees around the world. On a national speaking tour for her agency she found people ``very, very moved, really shocked and moved by it, and I think perhaps `The Killing Fields' may be one reason why there's been more coverage this year in the press of the Vietnamese attacks on the Thai-Cambodian border.''
Mrs. Morton estimates the border population of Cambodian refugees at 250,000, with approximately 100,000 of them having relatives who have settled in other countries. ``And these refugees would like to be reunited with their families wherever they've settled in France or Australia or America.'' But they won't be, she emphasizes, until the free countries of the world absorb the 35,000 Cambodians held in Thai camps since 1979 and Thailand then opens up its border to the waiting thousands still in Kampuchea.
Speaking of that time in 1979 when thousands of Cambodian refugees were forced off the cliff to their deaths, Mrs. Morton explains:
``Refugees International was formed to prevent anything like this from happening in the future. Our key objective is the protection of refugees wherever they are all over the world, and being aware through our contacts in the countries where refugees are, where the trouble spots may emerge, where refugees are being ill-treated, where there is a chance for forced repatriation.'' The agency brings information to world governments and the public to prevent this, she says.
Mrs. Morton's blue eyes widen slightly as she explains what drives her: ``A refugee has to suffer so much anyway, when you think of the fact that he's lost absolutely everything in the whole world except for the clothes on his back, and this includes often many of his family members, sometimes all. And he has no way to speak out for himself, and no home whatsoever. So we try to be the global voice for that refugee who can't speak for himself.''
Sue Morton sits on the edge of a chair in the office of Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, after a day of giving refugee briefings that leave her husky-voiced. Now she talks of how Refugees International got started. Mrs. Morton's husband, Charles, was vice-president of Pepsico for the Far East in 1979 when she founded the organization. Within a week of witnessing the tragedy at the border, she had flown to Tokyo, gathered together other friends in the refugee aid community who represented eight countries, and set up the international agency.
Today Refugees International is based on two continents; the original Tokyo branch has raised over $1 million in funds for direct relief like food, shelter, education, etc., funneled through private agencies that the group monitors closely and believes do the most efficient job in Afghanistan, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America. Funds are raised by annual Tokyo Philharmonic benefit concerts conducted in alternate years by Seiji Ozawa and Maxim Shostakovich, as well as through embassy benefits and craft sales. Their all-volunteer staff works out of an office whose space is donated by Shell Oil. That means all contributions go directly toward refugee relief, and not administrative costs.
Refugee International's American branch, based in Washington, has concentrated more on public education, briefing policymakers so they'll know where the refugee trouble spots are and developing pilot projects, says Mrs. Morton. With the emergence of the Ethiopian famine crisis this year, she says, the United States headquarters has gotten deeper into raising funds for African relief. After her trip to Ethiopia, the agency ran a ``Save a life for Christmas'' program. She notes that a doctor in Ethiopia had told her that if a child was literally dying, four weeks of supplemental feeding and proper care could stabilize that child within a month for just $25.
She is a mother herself, this quietly determined woman who jumped from a BA in English at the University of Tennessee into a life as a civil rights activist, schoolteacher, founder of a Florida newspaper (the Key Biscayne Islander), and the woman Bangkok will never forget.
It was Sue Morton who took in 23 orphaned Cambodian babies and saved their lives when her husband was stationed in Bangkok. That happened just after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, when one of the last planes out took on a cargo of 23 baskets, each filled with an orphaned infant. The expatriate community in Bangkok volunteered to help Mrs. Morton, turning her home into a giant nursery with 16 volunteer round-the-clock nurses, with supplies donated by the American military PX and stacks of huge towels sent by the Queen of Thailand.
``After the babies left [for US adoption homes] it took three big military trucks to take what was left to the refugee camps,'' says Mrs. Morton. A Cambodian refugee teen-ager named Peter, who had seen his mother and father killed in Phnom Penh, shepherded a group of young orphans in Bangkok for months until they were ready for adoption. When only Peter was left and was afraid of being sent back to the refugee camp, the Mortons adopted him at 18 and added him to their family of five. Peter now specializes in job placement for refugees with a Boston agency. Mia, one of the Mortons' two daughters, is a student at Boston University majoring in East Indian studies; their son Michael is an electrical engineering student at Georgia Tech; and daughter Mimi is director of Meals on Wheels in Gloucester, Mass. Mr. Morton is president of World Concern, an international relief and development organization based in Seattle where the Mortons live.
Mrs. Morton says of her work for Refugees International, ``I really feel there's not anything in the world I'd rather do, outside of my family. My family is my first love, but they've been in a sense part of this with us.'' Her big push is to make Refugees International a truly grass-roots organization with members around the world.
``There is not a membership organization, national or international, for people who are concerned about refugees. We are building a broad-based membership organization. . . . It's like the Sierra Club or Amnesty, or National Wildlife.'' Except that it's for refugees who are an endangered species? ``Yes. We feel like if the animals can have it, and natural wildlife, surely human beings, then, who have lost everything.''