HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS;%Cambodians: saving an 'endangered species'
Khao I-Dang refugee camp, Thailand Khao I-DAng makes a strange home for a ballet company. A spectacular sprawl of bamboo and thatched huts only four miles from the war-torn Cambodian border, the camp teems with 138,000 refugees. A pall of smoke from countless fires hangs over the roofs. Blue-painted UNHCR water towers rise like giant extraterrestrial plants from their midst. Enterprising Khmer children grab at the arms of passers-by and shout "OK, OK, " trying to sell them fresh fruit or locally made musical instruments. Women in colorful sarongs tend vegetable plots outside their front doors. Groups of men with blaring transistor radios prepare to slip out of camp after dusk to deal with the Thai black marketeers loitering around parked vehicles on the main road to Aranyaprathet. But here, amid all this dust and tumult, is a touch of enduring grace -- the remnants of the Royal Khmer Ballet Company. Roughly half the troupe, which toured the United States in 1971, now lives in the camp. "The rest have been killed or are living elsewhere," says Kong Chantith, a French- speaking former policeman from Phnom Penh. He came across the troupe in the camp, he explains, and decided to bring them together again. Mr. Chantith has never danced in his life. But, he says, "I felt it would help arouse interest in Khmer culture at a time when it is being destroyed." Today, as a result of his efforts as well as the expertise of lead dancer Madame Lor Chendamony, the company stages regular performances at the UNHCR-built theater. The two also have started classical dance instruction for some 60 children in the camp. "We are trying to persuade interested parties in the [United] States or Europe to organize the company and send it on a world tour," says UNHCR coordinator Tom Janericco, a former interior decorator from Boston. "It might make people out there realize that we should be trying to save not just lives but also a civilization." The dance troupe does seem to symbolize the tragedy as well as the hope of the ancient Khmer civilization. It is true that conditions appear to be improving inside Cambodia as far as food supplies are concerned. Yet many relief officials here feel frustrated at the prospects of ever finding a solution that will enable the estimated 300,000 Khmer refugees, crowded in four holding centers and numerous camps straddling the border, to return home. There is also a concern that increasing numbers of the refugees will lose their desire to go back. Resettlement has become tantamount to escape. A new life. "I think we'll have to face the fact that the West may eventually have to resettle the bulk of the Khmer unless the political situation improves," warns one Western diplomatic source. Despite its obvious humanitarian attributes, some observers fear that resettlement will mark the death knell of the 1,500-year-old Khmer culture. "How many doctors, engineers, teachers, engineers -- namely those who would be needed to rebuild the country -- will return once they have restarted new lives in the United States, France, or Australia?" asks a UNHCR official. "We've been marvelous about providing food, medical care, and shelter for the refugees," angrily remarks a British official from one of the voluntary agencies. "But we've been totally useless in finding a solution to bring all this misery to an end. We're just buying time." Various diplomatic and relief sources say the huge sweep of humanitarian aid has tended to detract form focusing on the real political issues at hand. "It's obviously vital to keep these people alive, but we have just been easing our consciences," notes one US relief coordinator. "It's time we started confronting the Vietnamese. they're the ones who can do something about it." Unwanted by the Thais, the refugees have no papers and are forbidden to work or travel. The only journeys they may take with official sanctioning are the road to resettlement or voluntary repatriation to the other side of the frontier. For survival, the refugees rely on the 100 tons of food trucked in everyday by UNICEF as part of the World Food Program's relief effort. Their only security is the presence of the international agencies and world opinion. Many live in constant fear of being shipped back across the border. In April 1979, some 42,000 Khmer were forced into the minefields on the other side. Many died or eventually succumbed to starvation. In a desperate letter to Amnesty International, the Khao I-Dang camp's refugee association recently appealed for refugee protection and the right to remain in temporary asylum until resettled in third countries. It maintained that the great majority of Khao I- Dang inhabitants could support neither the Khmer Rouge nor the present Vietnamese- backed Heng Samrin regime. "There must be some solution other than keeping us behind barbed wire in these hostile surroundings," the camp leaders pleaded. — Next: Afghan refugees