Shortly before Christmas 1979, at a time when the stations and underpasses of London were full of carol singers collecting for the Cambodian famine appeal, I received a letter forwarded from the Red Cross Tracing Agency in Bangkok to ‘The News Stastesment, London WC1’. ‘Dear Mr. James Martin Fenton!’ the letter began, ‘I hardly say to you that I could be alive up to now.’
The author, Someth May, went on to enquire politely about the health of my family before telling me about the misfortunes of his own. His father, his sister, three of his brothers and his brother-in-law had died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Now he was living in a refugee camp on the Thai–Cambodian border and wondering whether I could find him an office job. ‘I’m free right now,’ he wrote, ‘and especially I’m very very poor.’
The fact that this letter had got through to me gave me profound satisfaction and relief. Anyone from the West who worked in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 and formed friendships there, followed the news reports from that area with a particular horror and helplessness. When the Vietnamese invaded and swiftly defeated (or appeared to defeat) the Khmer Rouge, a large number of those who had suffered most during the previous four and a half years decided to escape into exile.