Frontlines

Baez gives voice to Cambodia’s horrors

Catherine Fox November 26 1979
Frontlines

Baez gives voice to Cambodia’s horrors

Catherine Fox November 26 1979

Baez gives voice to Cambodia’s horrors

Frontlines

Catherine Fox

The lights go down and there on the screen is Joan Baez walking through a refugee camp on the Thailand/Cambodia border. Most of the thousands of refugees around her are lying down, too weak to walk or even talk. She relates the stories of the few who are strong enough. A man and a young boy, crouching down, are shown. “I asked this man if he could make it the 100 yards more to get food or attention. He said no. This boy is 14. He lost his entire family when he fled.”

In another scene Baez is on a rickety stage, with a bad sound system, singing to thousands of refugees. “These people didn’t know who the hell I was. I was singing notes totally unfamiliar to them. With all the misery and sickness around, we wondered if giving a concert was the right thing to do. When I saw the children dancing and clapping their hands, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

The lights come back on and there is Joan Baez, in a pretty purple dress, nails perfectly done, talking about “the right thing.” She is in Washington, trying to convince politicians, journalists and just about anyone else who will lis-

ten that the situation in Southeast Asia—especially in Cambodia and on the Thai border—is desperate; that perhaps 21/2 million people will starve to death in the next six months if aid is not immediately forthcoming.

It matters little to Baez that many people consider her schemes naïve. Detractors point out that the Vietnamesecontrolled government in Phnom Penh won’t allow aid to reach the victims, and ask what’s the good of organizing a “nonviolent” army to bear food and medical supplies into the country, as she proposes. Others question the practicality of this suggestion: “If your daddy’s got a plane, you could paint a rose and a wheat sheaf on its belly, fly in and land, even if they tell you not to. It may be scary, and you may have to risk your life.” But though some of her ideas may seem impractical, if not impossible to carry out, few people would question her sentiments regarding the holocaust in Cambodia.

“Many of the ideas being proposed sound harebrained,” she says, “until you try them.” Her own personal mission to Cambodia had a two-fold purpose: to bring attention to the plight of both the “boat people” fleeing Vietnam and of the “land people” flooding out of

Cambodia and Laos, and to try to substantiate claims of gross human rights violations within these countries. Her efforts, such as those of many other philanthropists, will be too late for many Cambodians. In October, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim launched an appeal for funds for Southeast Asia, saying that half of Cambodia’s 8.5 million population have already died as a result of war, disease and starvation.

Since the day she refused to participate in an air-raid drill at age 16, Baez has been trying all sorts of things for causes. Her primary concerns have been human rights — she has marched and sung for women’s rights, homosexuals, farm workers and prisoners, in theU.S. and abroad. She has demonstrated against the Vietnam War, nuclear power and the death penalty. In the past

several years she has also worked on new records—she has made more than 20.

Last spring, after several years of “battery charging,” as she calls it, Baez was back in the headlines and frontlines as the “Madonna of the Movement.” After her many years of protest against the Vietnam War, she was attacking what Weis once considered a victim of that war—the Hanoi government. In a $52,000 advertisement printed in The New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, she— and 84 co-signers—wrote: “With tragic irony, the cruelty, violence and oppression practised by foreign powers in your country for more than a century continue today under the present regime.”

As in the past, Baez drew sharp criticism for the ad—but this time it came from some of her old anti-war allies. Jane Fonda refused to sign, saying she couldn’t back up Baez’s charges.Chicago Seven lawyer William Künstler said: “I don’t believe in criticizing socialist governments publicly even if there are human rights violations.” Ten years ago, conservatives charged that Baez was a Soviet agent. Now she was accused of working for the CIA. “If I am, I sure hope they pay me better than the KGB has all these years,” she quipped.

She accused Fonda—whom she hasn’t seen since—of “pussyfooting” on the issue. To those who claimed she was betraying the Vietnamese she said: “I never supported the North Vietnamese government. I’ve been a Quaker all the years that I can remember which means that I’ve never supported violence. I’ve simply supported people and their right to live.”

While in Washington recently to testify before Senator Edward Kennedy’s judiciary committee, she silenced a jam-packed hearing room with her characteristic directness. She filled her report with detailed horror stories. She said she spoke to people who had been kept in small, almost airless packing boxes for weeks on end, to people who had relatives thrown into -snake pits, and to Catholic doctors forced to perform abortions. A clearly shaken Kennedy called her “an extremely articulate spokesman for humanitarian concerns.”

Whenever Baez speaks, whether it’s at a big National Press Club luncheon, or just one-on-one in her hotel suite, it’s hard not to be drawn in by her dark eyes—always described as “sad,” despite their sparkle—and her smile. At 38, her curly brown hair shows traces of grey. She wears stylish, colonial dresses and a large gold ring on her right hand. She is accustomed to com-

fort and makes no apology for it.

“When we were overseas we stayed in good, clean hotels and had enough to eat. After seeing what we did, we weren’t very hungry. At one camp we came under mortar attack. I felt the same as I did when I was in Hanoi [in 1972] and it was being bombed. I saw my own mortality and I hated it.”

Looking at the guitar case in the corner, she said “I haven’t had the chance to practise the guitar or sing to myself for months, unless I wake up at 4 a.m. It’s just assumed that I’ll do more recording, but I have no specific plans right now. People want me to do another European tour next summer, but I’m so wrapped up in refugee resettlement I haven’t had time to think about it.”

Baez has decided to sponsor one refugee herself, a Cambodian student who was beaten for 27 days in a row, but finally managed to escape.

“I also have to be concerned with being a good mom,” she says, thinking of her nine-year-old son, Gabriel. “He’s been spending a very masculine month with his father”—David Harris, divorced from Baez and now remarried. “His father, his stepmother and I get along very well and work together on his upbringing.”

She doesn’t reveal much more of her personal life, preferring to concentrate on her mission. “I even had one idea to go to the Pentagon and ask them for the money they spend on just one missile that would probably be obsolete in six months anyway. I guess I’m going to continue to be obnoxious and misunderstood by some.” But not misunderstood by an American editorialist who wrote of her: “Naïveté is not the cardinal sin. Hardness of heart is the cardinal sin, and seeking a cure for that we have no better instructor than Joan Baez.”