An orphan looks at pictures of his parents amongst many victims of AIDS.
The social stigma of HIV/AIDS has seen many victims ignored following their deaths,
but their spiritual needs are now being recognized, with the opening of a crematorium
for those who have died from the disease.
Located next to Wat Opot, about 50 km out of Phnom Penh, the crematorium was built
by Partners in Compassion Cambodia (PCC) and the NGO provides services free of charge
to its members.
On the door is a logo of two hearts, alongside the Buddhist flag, the Christian cross,
and a rose -representing the love, sympathy and hope held for those infected with
Inside the crematorium, a separate room acts as a museum for the victims and is decorated
according to local Buddhist tradition.
On the wall hang more than 20 portrait photos of those who have died, their ashes
kept in a dozen small stupa.
The PCC was co-founded in 2002 by Buddhist San Vandin and his Christian colleague
Wayne Matthysse, a former Vietnam War medic.
Vandin and Matthysse expressed their desire to rebuild the lives of those living
with HIV/AIDS, and to ensure that the children left behind would receive education
Since its establishment the PCC has helped HIV/AIDS sufferers with residence, nutrition
and access to anti-retroviral treatment.
"We first got involved in the issues when we found that HIV/AIDS had become
more of a problem with the poor in rural areas. They were reported to have been discriminated
against and dismissed from their parents and communities," said Vandin.
"I am a poor Khmer from Kampuchea Krom and I used to be discriminated against,
just like those people living with HIV/AIDS," he said.
"I love the victims of HIV/AIDS and those who died, because if we deeply think
about them, about 70 percent were wives and children, infected with the virus from
their husbands," he told the Post.
In the beginning the PCC was established simply to provide an alternative for those
with HIV/AIDS who were seriously sick and going to die.
Matthysse, 62, said he chose to work with his Buddhist colleague by treating the
victims at the home.
"I don't plan to go anywhere in the next few years. I want to make sure that
they have a good life and their children get education and access to the university,"
Nu Phos, acting chief of Wat Opot, said PCC's work transcends religious boundaries.
"All religions are helping people with their suffering, I am happy to support
the Christians who are helping the victims of AIDS," Phos said.
The PCC offers sick people a place to stay where they can wait to die in peace and
dignity. If they die, they can have a traditional funeral, an option not afforded
at many crematoriums.
"In the beginning, when AIDS patients arrived at the PCC, about seven died and
were cremated each day, but now the AIDS patients who arrive at PCC can survive and
be more healthy," Vandin said.
Vandin's background involves a lot of work with target groups, informing them about
the dangers of AIDS and teaching them steps to prevent infection.
By early 2001 the number of people living at the center with HIV/AIDS had risen to
40 families. At the end of 2002 that number had jumped to more than 250 families.
"Many of our members have been hospitalized with us, most returned to their
homes, but others stayed with us until their death," Vandin said.
"Now they need to have our help in rebuilding their lives and educating their
PCC is supporting programs that will provide opportunities for victims as they begin
to restructure their lives. Vandin said that PCC has fed 1,394 people living with
HIV/AIDS in several communities of the Bati district.
Supported by the World Food Programme, Unicef and Health Net International, the NGO
gives each family 30 kg of rice, oil and salt every month, along with other basic
Chem Navy, 32, said that after her husband died of AIDS, she faced discrimination
in her village and she went to the PCC for help rebuilding her life.
"It's a happy life here, people helping each other, and there is no discrimination,"
AIDS sufferer Mom Sina, 27, said that she wants to live out her life at PCC. "I
have food to eat and am living in a good environment with good basic Khmer food nutrition.
I want to die here," she said.