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Drug addicts at a shelter in Phnom Penh
Drug addicts at a shelter in Phnom Penh. CHEAN LONG

Needles and the damage that’s done

Dear Editor,

Just over four years ago, the government of Cambodia refused to renew the licence for the NGO Korsang to continue their needle exchange program.

Korsang was a comprehensive harm-reduction program and, at the time, the largest supplier of sterile injection equipment for drug users in the country.

At its apex, Korsang served a population of over 3,300 drug users, between the ages of 12 and 55. Korsang also fed and housed 75-90 drug users and their children at Kamp Korsang each night.

In January 2010, Korsang’s needle-exchange licence was not renewed by the National Authority of Combating Drugs (NACD) as a part of a punishment of retribution.

This occurred because Korsang refused to allow the Khmer government, in collaboration with the Vietnamese government, to use their program participants as guinea pigs in an illegal, unethical, forced drug trial.

As the founder and Technical Adviser for Korsang, I personally made the decision to report NACD to the international press and the world, for blatantly violating the human rights of drug users.

Korsang was originally founded to serve Khmer drug users and to offer recently deported young men training and jobs in the field of harm reduction in hopes of giving them a sense of purpose and a means of survival following their deportation.

We were such an easy target, a bunch of guys who had just been uprooted and shipped back to a country for which they had no context and a horde of skinny, sick, sweet, street-based injection drug users.

In all honesty, I would make the exact decision to report the government again today for the illegal Bong Sen drug trial they were trying to get us to collaborate with them on.

So many people are afraid and so many people dance around the government, I guess that’s why the entire country is such a mess and is always getting slammed for this human rights violation or that one.

I’m still seething at how many drug users suffered because of the loss of Korsang’s needle-exchange licence. I left my heart there in Cambodia – shattered – and now that I am not at all affiliated with Korsang and they are in good standing – I want to speak out.

I want to be a role model for others to speak out, stand up, tell the truth.

I want to be a positive part of the change that will come to Cambodia, that is coming to Cambodia, that Cambodia deserves.

This retribution was also aided by United Nations organisations and international aid organisations as they turned a blind eye to what was happening to Korsang in order to protect their sketchy relationships with the Cambodian government.

Korsang’s services suffered greatly due to the apathetic disconnect regarding drug users put forth by the very people who were allegedly commissioned to serve them.

It was such a missed opportunity for Cambodia to be the hero, the model of international best practice for serving drug users, and they would have gained global fame and reverence for doing the right thing with their public health policy.

Now, four years later and after many countless and senseless HIV and Hepatitis C transmissions, abscesses, other injection drug use, related infections and most likely many, many deaths, Korsang’s needle exchange licence has been reinstated.

It’s about time, and I’m thrilled, pleased and proud of Korsang for hanging in there in order to survive in an attempt to serve the vulnerable Khmer injection drug users.

I am also, however, deeply saddened that those four empty years without services occurred.

The blood is on the hands of the Cambodian government, and those who looked away, walked away, cowered, closed their doors and protected their own selfish interests while drug users became infected, got sick and died.

You know who you are and you should be ashamed. You should have spoken up.

Speak up, speak out, create change, do the right thing, even when is scary and it’s painful.

Holly Bradford
Founder of Korsang



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