Cambodia: massive aid effort planted seeds of recovery in former "killing fields"

11-12-2009 Interview

In late 1979 the ICRC and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) began a vast relief operation for the people of Cambodia, threatened by famine. Thirty years on, François Bugnion, the first ICRC delegate to return to Cambodia after the genocide, talks of his experiences there.

  See the film A question of relief (made in 1979)

  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/kh-n-00020-45    
December 1979. François Bugnion visiting children at the Cambodian Red Cross orphanage in Battambang.    
Kompong Speu Hospital, September 1979.    
  ©ICRC/F. Bugnion/kh-d-00011-05    
UNICEF and ICRC relief goods being unloaded at Pochentong airport, in Phnom Penh.    
  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/kh-d-00031-05    
Distribution of rice in a suburb of Battambang.    
  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/th-d-00027-07    
Trucks loaded with relief goods for refugees and residents arrive in Nong Chan.    
  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/th-n-00018-22    
Kao-I-Dang camp, Thailand. Refugees start arriving at a still unfinished but operational hospital.    
  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/th-n-00028-19    
Samet refugee camp. An ICRC delegate delivers letters to refugees from their relatives left behind in Cambodia.    

  ©ICRC/G. Leblanc/th-n-00018-22    
Trucks deliver clean water for refugees at the Mak Moun refugee camp.    


Following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 by Vietnamese forces, rumours were rife of mass starvation in the country, which had been closed to the world for four years. It was claimed that millions of people had been murdered or starved to death in labour camps.

The ICRC and UNICEF, which were the only two organisations that remained in Phnom Penh until the fall of the capital in April 1975, made a joint approach to the new authorities for what they knew would have to be a massive relief operation. In July 1979 the two agencies were invited to send representatives – François Bugnion for the ICRC and Jacques Beaumont for UNICEF.

Bugnion’s immediate impression, as they arrived, was one of utter desolation: “We flew low over the eastern part of the country where the countryside was totally deserted,” he recalls. Phnom Penh itself was still a “ghost town”. In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge had evacuated the entire city in 48 hours; people who couldn’t keep up were simply killed along the way.

 Hardly anyone left in eastern areas  

“At the time we were under the impression that half the population had perished. Later, that impression was partly corrected when we were able to visit the western provinces, there we found people. But in eastern areas between the Mekong River and the Vietnamese border, hardly anyone was left.”

  Re-birth of the Red Cross

  When he arrived in Phnom Penh François Bugnion found just one survivor of the former Cambodian Red Cross: its President, Mademoiselle Phlech Phiroun. All the other members had been killed and the Society disbanded…
  “Mlle Phiroun helped us immensely; she was extremely courageous; despite the trauma of having seen her colleagues killed, she rolled up her sleeves and re-constructed the Society, seconded by a very efficient Secretary-General, Doctor My Samedy. When we left there were dozens of volunteers who helped to unload the relief planes and took part in the distributions.”    
The task facing the ICRC and UNICEF was made even more daunting by the fact that members of the new government of Cambodia had no government experience and could not rely on any kind of administrative structure.

“At the Health Ministry,” says Bugnion, “they told us that out of 600 doctors in the country listed in 1975, there were now 55! The others had either been killed or had fled abroad.”

 Reluctance to admit foreigners  

Although no-one doubted the urgency of the situation, the new government and its Vietnamese mentors were reluctant to allow foreigners into the country. Bugnion and Beaumont spent weeks explaining that it was impossible to launch a large-scale relief operation without the presence of the ICRC and UNICEF.

“First of all we had to ensure the practical running of the operation: if you have aircraft and ships bringing in supplies, there has to be coordination, so there has to be a physical presence,” explains Bugnion.

“Secondly, without an agreement guaranteeing that the aid would be distributed impartially and that we could verify that for ourselves, we would never get the support of the donors.

“Don’t forget that the financial appeal launched in October 1979, for a six-month operation in Cambodia, amounted to more than three times the ICRC’s budget for the entire world in 1978! It was a complete change of scale.”

 Aid for Cambodians fleeing to Thailand  

The two organisations wanted to carry out a similar relief operation for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who had fled to Thailand. Some of these were in refugee camps, most were scattered along the mountainous border. All of them needed food and medical aid.

The Cambodian authorities took this extremely badly: “They accused us of violating the country’s sovereignty and of using humanitarian aid to support the Khmer Rouge, the very people responsible for the genocide” recalls Bugnion.

As a matter of humanitarian principle both ICRC and UNICEF insisted on being allowed to help all those in need, wherever they were, and finally the relief operation was able to proceed - on both sides of the border. An airlift using military cargo planes provided by Britain, Australia, France and the Netherlands was established between Bangkok and Phnom Penh in October. This allowed deliveries not only of essential relief supplies but also of vital logistics equipment, such as trucks and other vehicles.

“In the following 18 months the ICRC and UNICEF brought more than 1,000 vehicles into Cambodia: we had never before done anything on this scale,” says François Bugnion. “With the cranes we brought in we were able to re-equip the seaport of Kompong Som, so as to be able to unload the ships bringing in food.”

 Race to distribute food  

Repairs were also made to the railways and river transport – vital elements in the race to get food distributed. But for weeks the relief agencies were unable to move far out of the capital, to assess the situation in the countryside.

In December, the government agreed to organise a field survey. “We visited several provinces all the way round the big lake in the centre of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap,” Bugnion recounts. “The situation in the towns was the same as that in the capital – practically empty, with everything looted and destroyed. However, in the western provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap part of the rice fields were being cultivated... there was a sense of hope, of revival.”

The delegates took all the medical supplies they had, to distribute as they went along. “In every province, according to the information we gathered, we gave out supplies.” When we returned, our trucks were empty.

The Red Cross, both local and international, played an increasing role. The Khmer Rouge had abolished the Cambodian Red Cross but over the following months hundreds of volunteers joined up to help.

 National Societies mobilized  

In Thailand, the Thai Red Cross was an important partner to the ICRC. Still, the need for extra help, especially for providing medical care, required reinforcements; these came from national Red Cross societies around the world. Teams worked at the Thai-Cambodian border as well as in health facilities within Cambodia.

Beyond the physical suffering, Cambodians were deeply anxious for news of their loved ones; countless families had been torn apart during the trauma of the Khmer Rouge and in the aftermath. With no specific structure in place to respond to this need – the absolute prio rity was to feed people – Cambodians found informal ways of trying to re-establish contact with their relatives.

“Every day we were given letters to post,” recalls Bugnion. “Sometimes we would find them tucked in the folds of a freshly-laundered shirt, or inside a book by the bed. People counted on us to post them once we left the country.”

By the end of 1980, the emergency phase was over and the UNICEF/ICRC joint operation came to an end. François Bugnion lists a number of achievements – the main one being that famine had been eliminated.

 Wide-reaching impact  

“Our operation alone had brought in some 250,000 tonnes of food which, with bilateral and NGO inputs, covered the basic needs. We also imported 40,000 tonnes of rice and vegetable seed, which helped farmers start up local production.

“We had got the health system working again, providing supplies to hospitals and health posts. The schools had re-opened and a basic transport structure had been re-established.”

Bugnion believes the ICRC was transformed by this experience: “It was our biggest operation since World War II, and served to reinforce the confidence of donor governments that the ICRC was capable of doing it. It also showed the ICRC as a fully equal partner to an inter-governmental organisation. Governments which had previously viewed the ICRC as one NGO among others now saw a new reality.”


Beyond the facts and figures and the political analysis, François Bugnion holds poignant human memories of this period, among them Orphanage No. 1 in Phnom Penh: “When we first went there we were horrified to see children starving, many of them unable to stand up… we began food deliveries there and after a few weeks went b ack and found the girls having dancing lessons, girls seven to eight years old, learning those beautiful, graceful movements of the traditional Khmer dances.

“The people in charge were determined that, now the children were being fed, the priority was to give them back their culture.”

 François Bugnion retired from the ICRC in 2007 as Director for Principles and Law, after a career spanning 38 years.