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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Labouring to defeat a mine blast nightmare

Labouring to defeat a mine blast nightmare

L IFE has never been easy for 29-year-old amputee Ba Bun Ra, like most Cambodians from a rural background.

Scarred by childhood traumas and then maimed by a mine as a young man, Ra says: "I forgot my early dre-ams... I no longer have the capacity...:".

He has seen fellow amputees give up and doesn't blame them. When asked why he struggles on, he touches his heart with the stump of his arm.

The third born of nine children, six boys and three girls, he went to school in his village of Chey, Kompong Cham for a while before 1975.

During the Khmer Rouge period he worked with other kids on the land, digging weeds into the soil as fertilizer.

He went back to school in 1979, learned to read and write and excelled in mathematics - he was the top of a class of 45. He loved geography, but says: "I didn't imagine going to new places, I imagined a new world."

But Ra became sick, having pain so intense in his elbows and knees that he couldn't walk more than five or six paces and he was forced to leave school. Doctors in Phnom Penh said his joints were "dry". After a year their treatment of him was apparently successful.

However, he sacrificed his place in school to his brother who was considered to have better educational prospects, so he had to join the army because the family had to volunteer one son.

Ra joined a "secret group", traveling his province in civilian clothes reporting "unusual occurrences."

It was safe and easy work which lasted a year, then he was sent to the Thai border. "I thought it would be a change... I was happy to go." He was "trained" as a mine clearer in just 15 days, then sent out as a leader of a 10-man group near the Thai border.

He saw a mine on the path ahead. He set about defusing it and awoke two days later in hospital. Ra spent "two months and 20 days" in a hospital, recovering from the blast that sheared off both his arms, then almost two years in rehabilitation with other war victims.

His parents somehow managed to visit and care for him, even though they were then living in Kandal province.

Ra was given two meals a day and an allowance of 200 riel a month and he had nothing to do but sit and think. It is a time many others would have given up.

He was then moved to a civilian center for the disabled where he met an orphan, Srun Yem, who is two years older than Ra.

The couple now have three children but Ra will not marry Srun Yem. "I don't feel complete and its not fair to her."

"I would love to be able to work with my parents as they are getting older and need help." Ra feels the responsibility would be too much.

Almost eight months ago he visited the Indochina project at Kean Kleang to ask for a hook for his right stump. The project, run by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, makes prothesis and wheelchairs for mine and war victims. Their workshop has many disabled Khmers working there, most victims of mines themselves.

For probably the first time in his life Ra was thrown a lifeline.

An American working on the building of the new prosthetics center offered a job. He jumped at the chance.

"I now have a new life. My family is so happy and for the first time since my accident I now have a job." The other workers have accepted him and he feels he belongs. He fills in where he can - hard labor, digging ditches of gravel, heaving around heavy steel girders - and his bosses praise his initiative.

He now has a job; a family with three sons aged five, three and two. Maybe now, Ra might dare to dream again.



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