Brick-red dust hung in the heavy heat of noon: an uncomfortable day in an unpleasant place.
More than 45,000 Cambodian refugees are encamped here, living in small, sweltering tents of sky-blue plastic sheeting. They have been here for more than six weeks now, and only the children show any enthusiasm for camp life.
Khao Yai is a Khmer Rouge camp, one of 12 "evacuation sites" that Thailand has set up for refugees from the Vietnamese offensive against Cambodian resistance bases along the Thai-Cambodian border.
More than 230,000 Cambodians have found sanctuary in the camps since the offensive began in November. Shelter, food and water are provided by the U.N. border relief organization, but it is a difficult existence, particularly for the Khmer Rouge.
"They don't take well to life in an evacuation site," said John Moore, who directs the U.N. program.
The Khmer Rouge, whose brutal Communist regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion of December, 1978, seemed nervous at Khao Yai, two miles from the Cambodian border and the Vietnamese. Many of the men in the camp wore the red-and-white-checked scarves of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas; they drew the cloth across their faces when approached.
Mon Nai, a leader of the refugees, disclaimed any connection with Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge military commander.
"He is frightened," an interpreter said.
Khao Yai camp is in an early stage of development. The families here are living in the dirt beneath the blue tents, which spread in seemingly endless ranks across the flat terrain. If the Khmer Rouge stay here, the relief organization will truck in bamboo and thatch for improved shelters, but it is a primitive existence so far.
Smoke from the cooking fires mixes with the gritty dust. Latrines have been dug along the perimeter road, but not all the refugees bother to make the walk from the center of camp.
A high point of the day is the arrival of U.N. tanker trucks that pump water into large metal storage tanks. At least it provides some activity.
Thais Keep Guard
Thai Rangers keep a close guard on the perimeter of Khao Yai. No one leaves, a Thai officer at the camp said, except fighting-age men, who are escorted to the border on a rotation basis to carry on the guerrilla war against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge are not allowed to bring weapons into Thailand. What they do on the Cambodian side of the frontier is their business.
The main problem at Khao Yai, as at the camps of the non-communist resistance groups in Thailand, is inactivity. The men spend their hours listlessly under the tenting. The women at least have cooking and washing to do, and the children play in the dusty passageways between the tents and along the perimeter road. Their toys are simple: a stick, a piece of plastic tubing, a small wagon with flimsy wheels made of tin cans.
At Site 6, a camp of the non-communist Khmer People's National Liberation Front, the toys' wheels are made of sturdier wood. The Cambodians came to Site 6 in mid-November, fleeing the Vietnamese attack on their base at Nong Chan, just inside the Cambodian border opposite the Thai town of Aranyaprathet.
There are 24,000 refugees at Site 6. They live in huts made of bamboo and thatch, with raised bamboo flooring. The camp is crowded but well-maintained.
Classrooms for Children
The camp administrators have cleared an exercise ground where boys do daily calisthenics. There is a badminton court, a building for the women's association and classrooms where the children are taught to read and write the Cambodian language.
There are also guns at Site 6, for camp security, the administrators say. Young guerrillas swell like peacocks when posing with their Chinese assault rifles for correspondents. The girls giggle when the cameras are turned on them. The mood is clearly more upbeat than at Khao Yai, about 50 miles farther south on the border.
Still, there is little for the men of Site 6 to do in the long, hot hours of the day. Some whittle pointed stakes to be planted in guerrilla trenches across the border.
Chea Chhut, the commander of the Khmer Front guerrillas in the region, described the military situation for reporters over a glass of tepid tea in a bamboo gazebo at the camp. He said his men control Nong Cham, the Cambodian base that the refugees at Site 6 fled. The guerrillas there are separated from the Vietnamese by 300 yards and hundreds of land mines, making it difficult for either side to advance, he said.
Raids and Sabotage
Chea Chhut said his forces do not have enough weapons or ammunition to dislodge the Vietnamese in a direct assault but will try to slip behind their lines to attack their supply columns and sabotage their installations.
He said the first stage of his campaign is under way, sending guerrillas into the Cambodian interior to scout targets and cache weapons. In the second stage, he said, they will seek to win support of the Cambodians in the countryside, and the third stage will be guerrilla warfare, to which he will commit 70% of his men, reserving the rest to defend the civilian population of his base camps.
But so far the refugees are not ready to return to the border. Mae Sam Deun, who works on the sanitation detail at Site 6, says life was better in Nong Cham. The people could plant vegetable gardens there and cut wood for their shelters and for cooking fires.
At Site 6, his wife is ill with fever and their baby is "not in good health." But he cannot return to the border now. "The Vietnamese are there," he said. "It is not safe."
Smiles 'Very Dry'
The refugees say they are happy at the evacuation sites, but they have little choice. Thou Thon, the administrator at Bangpoo camp, which with 54,000 refugees is the largest evacuation site at the border, said of his people's apparent cheerfulness: "You can see the smiles--a very dry smile."
Bangpoo is in a relatively advanced stage of development. The refugees there came from Nong Samet, a Khmer Front base that fell to the Vietnamese three months ago. The huts are a mix of plastic sheeting, bamboo and thatch, but the passageways are more crowded than those at Site 6.
In the hospital, women tend babies sick with diarrhea and respiratory problems caused by the heat and dust of the camp, which is about 12 miles north of Aranyaprathet.
Ly Seng, 23, who works at the dental clinic, said, "We can do scaling, extractions and fillings, but there is no money for dentures."
Many of the men and women at Bangpoo, as at Site 6, wear Western clothing, while the Khmer Rouge women at Khao Yai wear the sarong skirts of the Cambodian countryside.
Children Half Naked
The children in all three camps are generally half naked, some with tops and others with bottoms. They swarm around visitors, curious and noisy. And they have learned a bit of English. "OK, OK," they say, as Western visitors pass by. As the visitors leave, it becomes a chorus of shouts and waves: "OK, by-by. OK, by-by."
For now, the evacuation sites are safe--none of the three camps has been shelled by the Vietnamese--but there is no life beyond the perimeter roads for anyone except the guerrillas.
The Thais guard the camps to prevent the refugees from slipping into the countryside. These people will not be eligible for resettlement in the West.
There are no resources for anything except the necessities of life. When the people of the camps lived on the Cambodian side of the border, they carried on a busy trade, with goods moving both ways. That activity is gone now, along with the extra income it produced. (The Thai merchants of Aranyaprathet have felt the squeeze too, many of them giving up businesses that once thrived on the trading at the border.)
Water Trucked In
In the camps now, the only source of supply is the U.N. relief organization and its contract volunteer agencies.
"We never had to live on rations before," Thou Thon, the head man at Bangpoo, said.
Eighty percent of the water for the camps is trucked in, Moore, the U.N. official at the border, said. He has a fleet of 112 tank trucks; before the Vietnamese offensive, he said, 35 did the job.
His organization provides everything from firewood (Thai farmers do not want the refugees cutting the trees in the area) to mosquito netting to buckets. When the resistance bases were attacked, he said, the women had a choice of using a free arm to carry out either a child or a bucket--"so we provide the buckets."
Moore's superior in Bangkok, David Morton, estimates that the U.N. organization has provided more than 430 miles of the blue plastic sheeting for refugees' tents in the last year.
Problem for Thailand
He said the Thai authorities have been cooperative and efficient in what has become a major problem for Thailand--the new refugees within its border plus tens of thousands of Laotian refugees and some remaining Vietnamese.
"The Thai military has been letting them out of dangerous areas in time," Moore said of the Cambodians.
But while they may be safe from shellfire or direct attack, the refugees at the evacuation sites have an uncertain future and a situation drained of hope at the present. Like a man in the Khmer Rouge camp here at Khao Yai, many sit sullenly in their shelters, refugees on foreign soil, living on handouts.