THE QUALITY OF MERCY by William Shawcross
Kirkus Star


A Report from Cambodia on the International Organizations That Respond to Worm Disaster
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Revelations about unspeakable brutality by the Khmer Rouge, the Peking-allied guerrillas who ruled Cambodia in the early and mid-1970s, were paid varying degrees of attention until Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978. Then, when Western reporters saw the devastation, they invoked the image of holocaust. Shawcross, author of Sideshow, on the US war in Cambodia, was one of those who warned of famine in 1979 if help didn't come. It did--but Shawcross now knows there was no serious famine threat. Inquiringly, he has reconstructed the process whereby many experienced and honorable people misinterpreted the situation, while documenting and narrating the history of emergency aid. Information about Cambodia came from two sources: the refugees fleeing into Thailand and the Vietnamese-supported government in Phnom Penh. The refugees were clearly in dire straits: malnourished, malarial, some starving. In Phnom Penh, the government restricted Westerners' movements: what they saw was an almost-abandoned city with atrocious medical conditions. The Hight of refugees, and other factors, led Western relief experts to believe that the rice harvests would be devastated; that, combined with what they saw of conditions, convinced them that a famine was in the making. The Phnom Penh government, out to brand Khmer Rouge leader Poi Pot as a Hitler-figure, encouraged the famine stories, but did not cooperate with the relief agencies. The two in first--UNICEF and the International Red Cross--quickly ran into issues of sovereignty. When they tried to provide help along the Khmer Rouge border areas, the Phnom Penh government balked. Oxfam, the British relief group, did get medical and other supplies into Phnom Penh, but only by ignoring the border areas. Once some of the political wrangles were worked out, and supplies started going into Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese made little effort to distribute them. It now appears that conditions were much worse in the Khmer Rouge areas--hence the plight of the refugees--than in the Vietnamese-controlled areas. Rice was kept mostly in Phnom Penh, and given to government workers; this did leave the countryside free to feed only itself, however, and the abundance of secondary crops sufficed. Even if famine had occurred, Shawcross shows, the aid would not have arrived in time. National governments caused the programs to malfunction, and he is objective in his assessment of them. He never questions the motives of UNICEF, the Red Cross, and the others (though Oxfam played some competitive politics); but plenty of questionable decisions are cited--capped by the non-review, by these agencies, of their mistakes. (For lack, regrettably, of such funding.) The same can't be said of Shawcross, who knows when he has made a mistake and sets out to understand why. Every bit as important as Sideshow in a less sensational way; and likely to be as controversial.
Pub Date: June 28th, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1984


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