In the nearly two years since the people of Kampuchea (Cambodia) were rescued from starvation and disease by massive overseas aid, the country has turned the corner toward survival. But if voluntary aid is not maintained, the momentum of reconstruction may falter.
While traveling throughout Kampuchea, this correspondent found a picture of existence barely above survival level and a continuing need for outside aid.
During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 some 2 million Kampucheans were executed or died from hunger and disease, often associated with forced labor. Details of atrocities caught the world's attention in early 1979 as the invading Vietnamese pushed the Khmer Rouge back to the mountains of the north and west.
A guerrilla war between the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and Kampuchean forces backed by nearly 200,000 Vietnamese occupation forces continues there today.
The Kampucheans resent the Vietnamese presence, but they also fear the return of Pol Pot, whom the United Nations regards as the official Kampuchean representative.
Except for India and the Soviet bloc, the world community still regards Vietnam as the aggressor. To avoid strengthening Vietnam's occupying position, outside governments are providing little or no aid while the Vietnamese remain in Kampuchea.
While the political deadlock continues, the pressure remains on United Nations agencies and voluntary groups to bring humanitarian aid. So far about $ 850 million has come from noncommunist sources. The emergency help it provides includes food, insecticides, fertilizers, and literally anything else from a bicycle to a bar of soap. Now the second major phase -- the process of consolidation -- has begun, but Western donors appear to be much more cautious, even hard-nosed.
For example, they decided to limit themselves to one-third of the estimated 1982 rice deficit of 278,000 tons. Pointedly, the communist bloc was left to provide one-third, and the Kampucheans themselves were asked to provide the equivalent of the other third by concentrating on other crops.
Reports from a donors' meeting in New York on Feb. 11 disclosed a strong pressure for only a ''minimal'' program inside Kampuchea, and an acute aversion among main donors for any action that could be construed as ''developmental'' rather than simply providing emergency relief.
A good example of the difficulties facing many aid workers in Kampuchea is provided by the program of the World Council of Churches based in Geneva. During the first two years of the crisis, the WCC raised some $13 million to provide emergency help and refurbish five regional hospitals and a pharmaceuticals factory in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Now the WCC wants to develop the second phase of its program in health and agriculture, but it is $500,000 short of its 1982 target of $1.9 million. It will need another $1.2 million for agriculture in 1983 and 1984.
This money may be found eventually, but it is a much harder struggle than two years ago, when the cash poured in following the harrowing publicity about suffering of Kampucheans under the Khmer Rouge. Pictures and stories about starving babies are much more emotive than appeals for tractors and irrigation equipment. Yet in the long term, aid advocates say this is important if the local people are to become self-sufficient in rice.
The continuing need was demonstrated by a polite exchange of views in a government office at Siem Reap in the northwest. Kho Chan Dara, vice-director of agriculture for Siem Reap Province, was expecting a delivery of tractors from the WCC, but a WCC staff member explained in careful French that they had not yet been ordered.
The young official could scarcely conceal her dismay. ''We need the tractors so badly to meet our production targets,'' she said. ''Parts of the land have not been tilled for years. Our plows only scratch the surface.''
At the moment 17 international agencies, American or European, are based in Phnom Penh. They work under extreme difficulties. Living conditions are primitive, and there are bureaucratic delays and communications problems. But the aid workers continue to be impressed by the Kampucheans' willingness to help themselves, given half a chance.
A concise summary of the present Kampuchean situation came from Jean Clavaud, a French pastor who spent 15 years as a missionary in Kampuchea and is now responsible for the WCC program. ''Kampuchea is like a man who was rescued,'' he said. ''If help ceases now, he will almost certainly have a relapse.''