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A global voice on behalf of refugees

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1985



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.

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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.''