Veteran International Cambodia provides a rare chance for the Kingdom’s disabled population and victims of landmines to access much-needed rehabilitation and care
Former patients of Veteran International Cambodia account for 30 percent of the staff currently working in the centre’s workshop making prosthetics for the disabled and landmine victims. Photo by: JEAN CARRERE
IN Bun Then is 50 years old. He has a wife, four children and a job that allows him to provide for his family. In 1991, while enrolled in the Cambodian army, he stepped on a landmine in Kampot province. The result was the loss of both his legs.
Relying on the use of a wheelchair ever since, he started working with Veteran International Cambodia (VIC) in 1994. Now, he spends his days building wheelchairs for other landmine survivors and people suffering from disabilities.
When asked what he does in the workshop of the VIC centre, in the Kien Khleang National Rehabilitation Centre for the Disabled, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, his answer is simple: “I do everything,” he says, before bursting into laughter then admitting this would be unfair on the other workers in the wheelchair workshop, including two other amputees. Currently, former patients account for roughly 30 percent of the staff.
The marginalisation of people with disabilities remains a problem in Cambodia and Hin Bun Then is clearly thankful to VIC for giving him his position.
“I am very proud of my job. Thanks to VIC, I can help other people with disabilities, and support my family,” he says.
Founded in 1992, VIC is a non-profit organisation aiming to provide rehabilitation services to victims of landmines and other unexploded ordnance, as well as people with impeding diseases and birth defects. The organisation offers free treatment and therapy, combined with a dormitory that houses all patients in need of accommodation. To date, VIC has provided rehabilitation services to more than 22,000 people with disabilities.
VIC also operates two other centres: one in Kratie and another in Prey Veng. However, Sun Pao, a physiotherapy specialist working at the centre’s gait training wing, describes the Kien Khleang site as the “flagship” of the association.
It has two main areas of work, explains Rithy Keo, the Kien Khleang site manager.
“One aspect is the medical work: physiotherapy, rehabilitation, and the production of wheelchairs and artificial limbs. We also provide community services, which include awareness raising, vocational training and mobile assistance to people with disabilities ... We are very busy.”
The creation of artificial limbs – prostheses and orthoses – is one of the centre’s main activities, as they provide patients with the greatest degree of independence. Suzanna Garcia Canalea, a 30-year-old kinesitherapist from Spain who has been volunteering at the centre for a month, is amazed by the efficiency she witnesses. Having worked in various developing countries in South America and Southeast Asia, she praises the “high quality” of the care provided.
“It was overall a very positive experience,” she says. “They are very independent, well trained and well equipped. It’s amazing to have a centre like this open to everyone, for no fee.”
VIC also helps to supervise the infrastructures of local schools, to make sure that children with disabilities can access them and integrate freely. Children are an important part of the organisation’s work, with many at the centre having birth defects. The treatment they receive at VIC would simply not be available to them were it not for the centre’s existence.
Another landmine victim, Bun Sopehal, 42, also spoke enthusiastically of his experience with VIC. He lost a leg in 1991, and has been provided with an artificial one which he changes regularly. He is in the centre for a short time, getting his new prosthesis and undertaking a couple of days of gait training to get used to it, before heading back to work in a rice field in Ratanakiri province.
Most of VIC’s funding comes from international donations, with USAID being their primary donor. They also receive support from the government, covering 10 percent of their budget. Rithy Keo expects VIC to head toward a step-by-step integration into the government, under the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, for sustainability.
Rithy Keo believes that overall, the integration will be positive for the organisation. With the worry of continuing funding removed, it will be possible to place an even greater focus on the patients. He does fear one possible downside, however: a potential move by the government to relocate the Kien Khleang centre and the organisations working within it to Phnom Penh Thmey. The question of accessibility for his patients could then become a serious issue.