From the outside, the Samaki Hotel in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh seems the typical colonial hotel of Southeast Asia. Once the prized Hotel Royale under the former Prince Norodom Sihanouk, its driveway leads through gardens up to the French-designed, three-tiered stone facade and white- colomned portico where Cambodian chauffeurs stand absorbed in leisurely chats.
But inside, the stylish old building has become the teeming nerve center of one of the most successful international relief operations ever attempted.
The Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government has stationed the majority of Western aid agencies at the Samaki -- UNICEF, the International Red Cross, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Oxfam, Church World Service, World Vision International, and others.
And it is here that relief workers have been returning from the countryside with resoundingly good news.
Cambodia, a nation which just one year ago faced what President Carter called "a tragedy of genocidal proportions," has walked out of holocaust's grip.
Millions of Khmer (Cambodian) villagers who had been scattered around the country by famine or war have returned home to rebuild their broken communities.
Thanks to international aid, the Cambodians have been able to reopen their ports, get truck transport rolling, and revive basic agriculture.
The specter of hunger -- once so cruelly conspicuous in the countryside -- has vanished. And although no one can be sure that the entire country is being reached, relief workers have been encouraged by the sight of frequent convoys of rice-distributing oxcarts in the countryside -- even their own unannounced visits to remoter regions have turned up little evidence of starvation or malnutrition.
But enormous tasks remain, and aid must continue if progress is to last. Most important of all, a way must be found to end the political deadlock that stifles the region.
Vietnamese military occupation has brought some political stability to Cambodia, a country deprived of many of its potential leaders and its economic institutions by the mass executions and vast destruction of the Pol Pot years. But fighting still goes on in the west between the 200,000 Vietnamese troops on one side, and on the other, the guerrilla forces of the so-called Free Khmer and those of Pol Pot.
These warring factions continue to enjoy support from the superpowers -- the Vietnamese from the Soviets, and Pol Pot from the Chinese. And the United States refusal to recognize the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia has kept Pol Pot in his seat at the United Nations.
Still, the miracle of Cambodian recovery goes on, Americans and Europeans can take great pride in the fact that Western aid has undoubtedly been one of the greatest engines of that recovery, relief workers say.
"The impact of Western aid is visible everywhere," says Oxfam's Michael Scott , just back from field trips in the Cambodian countryside.
"You see it in the floating wharfs at Phnom Penh's port, the tugboats and ferries, the water works at Phnom Penh, the pastel blue and green Leyland trucks that pop up all over the countryside carrying food, seed rice, tools, and fertilizer."
Without Western aid, UNICEF'S executive director James Grant explains, Cambodian cities may have had to siphon grain out of the needy countryside and the government forced to place a debilitating tax on villagers.
Since 1979, the Western governments have donated an impressive $500 million in aid -- the biggest such operation since the end of World War II. About $140 million has come from the US alone. Another $70 million or more has been poured in by private voluntary agencies.
For a country which last December had harvested only a tenth of its normal crop, 250,000 tons of grain from the West have been very welcome indeed from Cambodia.
Thanks to some 60,000 tons of rice seedm aid last spring farmers were able to plant a substantial acreage -- about half that cultivated in the prosperous years of the '60s. The recent harvest of that crop brought in over 600,000 tons of rice -- enough to feed the country for about eight months.
This, coupled with revival of the lucrative fishing industry and bountiful vegetable harvests, has even permitted Cambodians something approaching a "balanced diet."
If all goes well, the country could be food self-sufficient by 1982.
Looking back over a year of Western aid to Cambodia, the big question now before hunger analysts is: Why was this relief effort so enormously successful, making other Western relief efforts seem pale by comparison?
International and private relief workers themselves repeatedly stress the role of the press and a concerned citizenry.
Through the first half of 1979, after the Vietnamese invasion, aid from the communist countries helped sustain a starving Cambodia at a time when community leaders had been killed, farms razed, and people stranded by the destruction of roads and bridges in the wake of the retreating forces of Pol Pot. Since 1975, an estimated 90 percent of the villagers who survived the bloody purges of the fanatical ruler Pol Pot had been forced to move to other villages by his agricultural "reforms" -- as if an entire population had been scattered with an eggbeater through its countryside.
In the summer of 1979, holocaustic starvation seemed inevitable, and by autumn nearly a million Cambodians were on their way to the Thai border looking for food.
Western governments were reluctant to send in aid they felt might entrench the Vietnamese. By October, only the British-based voluntary relief of organization Oxfam had gotten the Heng Samrin government's permission to move in some vital supplies.
At this critical point, when some Oxfam officials feared the entire nation might be wiped out by Christmas, the Western press played a vital role, according to Mr. Grant, whose organization has raised nearly 80 percent of the money governments have provided for Cambodian relief.
"It was only the interaction between a concerned media and an aroused citizenry in October and November of 1979 that would make it bad politics for Western governments not to act and good politics for them to respond very generously to the Kampuchean [Cambodian] ordeal."
Originally, he says, the Carter administration was planning on a mere $7 million in aid. But in October, when newspapers began headlining the Cambodian tragedy and concerned civic leaders from around the nation met with Jimmy Carter , the President announced a bigger aid package of $69 million. In another few weeks Congress had jacked that figure up to nearly $100 million.
With this, the Europeans joined in, and UNICEF and the International Committee on the Red Cross were ready to launch a massive joint relief program.
But all the credit does not by any means go to the West. The aid of communist governments -- the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Vietnam -- has been far more extensive than many Westerners realize. Over the last two years it may have reached as much as $300 million.
The Russians have moved in grain, trucks, cars, petroleum products, and a team of dockworkers that Western workers say was invaluable in reopening Cambodia's deepwater port at Kompong Som.
From the Cubans it was their forte -- boatloads of sugar.The East Germans, considered the most energetic communist aid workers, sent in medical teams and commodities. Their team of engineers has been helping to maintain western trucks, barges, and boats, and install conveyer systems at the port.In addition, they have offered Cambodians scholarships to go to East Germany for training in truck repair, forestry, and agriculture.
However, it is the Cambodians themselves who have most impressed relief workers just back from the Cambodian countryside. Despite the agonies of the past decade, the Khmer are determined to go forward.
Thay Bounthan Kong, for instance, is an agriculturalist in his mid-50s, and the only professional left at the Chancar Daung agricultural college outside Phnom Penh. The others were lost in the Pol Pot purges.
After completing his training in Athens, Georgia, he had returned in 1959 to help establish the self-supporting agricultural college, only to have it dismantled in 1975 and converted into a munitions factory by Pol Pot.
When Oxfam's Michael Scott visited the college in December, he found Mr. Kong was teaching 150 students a crash 2 1/2- month course in tractor repair. All he had was a small staff, the skeletal remains of the former library, almost no teaching materials, and a jerryrigged water system. By summer he plans to launch programs in agronomy, water management, and veterinary science.
Then there is Serey Sothea Ros, one of the most famous Cambodian singers, known throughout the country for her moving song about the Pol Pot period, "The Blood and the Tears." She lost her husband and children during the Pol Pot years and now devotes herself to training children to sing, hoping to reinstate the national chorale.
When UNICEF's Ian Hopwood met her, she was joining with the former minister of culture and with the surviving former stars of the Royal Ballet to start a school of fine arts in Phnom Penh. Already the school has over 500 students aged 8 to 15.
"When you see Mrs. Ros and her classes, and when you see these old former ballet stars, poorly clothed, undernourished, having gone through such trauma, leaning over the beautiful young girls, meticulously correcting every minute gesture of the elaborate Khmer dances, you can't help but be deeply moved."
In Kompong Chom, a city northeast of the capital, another quiet heroine, Mrs. Svay Malis, directs an orphanage for 103 of Cambodia's hundreds of thousands of homeless children.
"Kids were sleeping on the floor, the roof had holes in it, there were puddles on the floor and the kids' mats were getting wet," Eva Mysliwiec of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) recalls.
"The building was in terrible shape, the kitchen even worse. The villagers said they couldn't clean it because they had to walk a long distance for water, which could then be used only for very basic things.We had corrugated tin roofing, cement, cots, paint, tools, electrical wires and bulbs flown into Phnom Penh on a chartered flight, and one of the ministries sent them up to Kompong Chom in a truck about three days later.
"I returned to the orphanage about two weeks after that, and was amazed to find the roofing already installed, the cots were up, and the wiring so that the building was lit. Mrs. Malis checked over with me the things she had received -- obviously very pleased. The kids put on a show for us with the instruments they had been learning to play as well as traditional dancing."
Some black spots mar the success story, however.
Though aid officials are convinced that the vast bulk of Western aid went to those who needed it, waste and corruption have taken a considerable toll -- a sad, but apparently inevitable fact in such an enormous aid program.
Keeping an eye on distribution has been difficult, if not impossible. A lot of food and seed rice given out at refugee camps on the Thai border, aid officials admit, probably found its way back into the hands of Pol Pot's forces in northwestern Cambodia and to the Vietnamese via peasants with oxcarts.
As time wore on over the last year, more and more people arrived at the border who were not in desperate need. Nevertheless, border workers allowed them to take supplies, feeling that this might be the only way needy people inside western Cambodia would get food and seed.
However, Oxfam-America has no evidence, says executive director Dr. Joseph Short, that the Vietnamese diverted Western aid to their own troops, as had been feared earlier in the year.
A State Department spokesman says that US officials expect somem Western aid was siphoned off by Vietnamese, but he, too, feels it is not enough to worry about.
Some Western relief workers have also laid themselves open to criticism.
Some were reprimanded earlier last year by the Heng Samrin government for delivering mail to private homes from relatives abroad, and for encouraging Cambodians to leave the country -- even giving them the cash to do it.
Such actions are not easily understood from a distance, one American aid official who did not wish to be identified explains.
"None of the agencies has had a policy encouraging people to leave," he says, "but there can be tremendous emotional pressures . . . with people coming to you to ask for help. A number of individuals broke ranks back in January of 1980 and got involved. They have since been removed from these positions."
In addition, the international aid community was shocked to learn that even high level government officials had apparently became involved in shady deals.
George C. Warner, an official of the US Agency for International Development (AID) stationed in Bangkok last year, now awaits trial in a federal court on Jan. 21. He allegedly received $138,000 to ensure that US contracts with a Thai seed rice dealer would continue. He was allegedly caught by federal agents in a Georgetown hotel in the act of receiving a payment in an Abscam-like sting operation.
AID auditor-general Herbert Beckington, who directed the early investigations into Mr. Warner's activities, considers the case a rare exception, although he is not totally satisfied with the monitoring of the UN aid.
In 1981, relief agencies may face a still greater challenge: With Cambodia out of the headlines, public support could begin to dry up.
Governments and private agencies are already planning aid cutbacks, though they realize that without more help Cambodia could slide back into its previous condition.
Even US State Department officials, reluctant to entrench the Vietnamese further, argue aid must not end too soon.
Yet here controversy is reaching boiling point.
Southeast Asian governments, particularly the Thais who face Vietnamese troops across their border, adamantly oppose any new aid that could ease the occupation costs of the Vietnamese.
Western countries working through UN channels are renewing their insistence that aid must go to alleviate humanitarian emergencies and for nothing else. The principle was reaffirmed when the donors met in New York in December to pledge $65 million for the new year.
The Thais, who have allowed the International Red Cross to make daily relief flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, now allow only four passengers aboard the ICRC's giant Hercules aircraft. Since the US, for its part, refuses to allow the agency World Vision International to fly its largest aircraft from Singapore into Phnom Penh, it has been forced to rent a smaller aircraft registered in the Philippines, according to Michael Scott.
But how can the Cambodians be self-sufficient unless their institutions are rebuilt and some basic development is restored?
Some workers from UNICEF and the private agencies feel the US government must ease the regulations it imposes on the aid that voluntary agencies take into Cambodia. The State Department officially permits some agricultural supplies, temporary shelter and transportation, but only where they are needed "to save lives."
"But in the long run," AFSC's Eva Mysliwiec argues, "the Cambodians desperately need reconstruction of their institutions and employment opportunities."
"Cambodians constantly said to me, 'Don't send relief but more tools, and basic materials like electrical wiring and piping, spare parts for factories.'"
"Also, the requirement that we have to get US government licensing for our aid requires a great deal of time and paperwork, and ends up hurting our image in Kampuchea. The Cambodians know we're restricted by US licensing. It tends to make us look like an arm of the US government, rather than a private voluntary agency, and that hurts our ability to work under the conditions."
Adds UNICEF'S Ian Hopwood: "We're aware that some ASEAN nations are worried about the extent to which aid is promoting reconstruction. But this is really a false problem. Nobody's talking about major reconstruction. Cambodians can't even handlem that. They haven't got the people, the organization, or the structures to do that. We're still talking about the most basic of basics.
"This is a society that has been traumatized and torn apart to the extent of having hundreds of thousands of orphans and a clear majority of women to men. You can't revive a situation like this in a year or two. It requires depoliticized reconstruction of a much more long-term nature."