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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lepers speak of shame and hard time

Lepers speak of shame and hard time

T roeung, Kompong Cham - Shunned from their home villages, bearing the scars of a

disease eradicated in much of the world, hundreds of people live out their

existence here in Cambodia's last remaining leper colony.

A few have been

here since the 1940s, interrupted only by their forced removal during the Khmer

Rouge rule. Many have married other lepers, and children are a common sight at

Troeung.

Most of the lepers and their families are reduced to making a

living breaking rocks or cutting firewood, if their handicaps allow, for a

pittance.

"Troeung is like a dead man not yet buried," says an elderly

woman.

"It's shameful, it's embarrassing," a man says about leprosy. "We

just live here and wait until the day we die."

Troeung - off Route 12

about 18km from Kompong Cham town - is home to 835 people from 186 families.

About 300 of them have, or had, leprosy.

The colony, the only one left of

several in Cambodia, has been here since the French colonialist days, according

to the village chief and the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh.

In those

times, and particularly during the later Sihanouk regime in the 1950-60s, it was

the main receiving center for lepers from throughout the country.

By

1969, some 6,000 people were at Troeung, according to village chief and former

leper Try Sorn, who has lived here for 34 years.

The village was

"sophisticated" then, he says, with concrete buildings, good electricity and

water supplies, and enough food and medicine from the government.

Today,

there is less food, fewer people and the village rarely gets lepers from other

provinces, but little else has changed.

On the surface, the village is

pleasant, with old, pot-holed tarmac lanes winding through the shade of tall

trees. There is a dormitory-style hospital, a school and a pagoda.

But

the piles of rocks and stones outside the thatch and wooden houses hint at the

hardships the villagers face.

Troeung's staple industries are

rock-breaking - two buckets of stones, a day's work, earns 500 riels from road

builders - and selling firewood (300-600 riels a day).

Chum Kek, 67, has

lived here for more than half a century. He says he came to Troeung from his

Prey Veng village as a teenager in 1941.

"These spots emerged on my arms

and my knees, and then my ears and my face. I knew what it was because at that

time I had an uncle who was here receiving treatment [for leprosy].

"He

went back home to take me to this hospital. There were a lot of people here then

and there used to be a large wooden building full of adult patients, most

without their fingers and some who had been cured before they lost their

fingers."

After months of treatment, Kek went back to his village. But,

still bearing the marks of leprosy, he knew he could not stay "because I was

ashamed in front of my friends and neighbors".

Returning to live at

Troeung, he earned a living then - like most do now - breaking rocks.

"I

thought I had been cured. My fingers were straight and I could move them a

little.

"But as I kept breaking rocks, it [leprosy] started to come back.

It's very easy for the infection to spread in the same areas as before, and my

fingers got infected and curly."

That, he believes, was in the mid-1950s.

Today, Kek can no longer hold a hammer to break rocks. Three fingers on each of

his hands are completely bent over at the second joint, and his little fingers

no more than shrunken stumps. His toes are the same.

His second wife, Iv

Ym, 53, - his first wife, also a leper, died under the Khmer Rouge - has

similar-looking hands and feet from leprosy.

The task of breaking rocks

now falls to their healthy 15-year-old daughter, Sam At.

Sam At used to

go to Troeung school but stopped two years when the family could no longer

afford to buy her books.

Kek says Troeung has changed much over the

years, "mainly from good to bad."

"In the old times, we used to receive

enough rice and fish to eat and we only broke rocks to get money for cigarettes

and other things. Now we break rocks to get money to eat to live."

Kim

Sokhom, 24, arrived here last year. He, too, expects to stay for the rest of his

life.

Sokhom developed the circular marks of leprosy four years ago at

his Kompong Cham village.

To begin with, his neighbors still spoke to him

but "when my fingers got twisted they began to avoid my face whenever they saw

me walking down the street."

His leprosy progressed until, for nearly a

year, he lay immobile in bed, unable to bend his swollen joints.

His

family heard about Troeung and bought him here for treatment. He is much better

now, can move his arms and legs, but his fingers remain twisted. Much of the

skin on his body is discolored, course and patchy, like ragged

leather.

"I will stay here forever because back at my village I'm the

only one who has this disease and it's very shameful," says Sokhom, who has no

idea how he got leprosy.

The village chief, Try Sorn, 55, was sent to

Troeung from Kampot province when he was 21.

He was cured of leprosy, and

even given a certificate saying he was not infectious, but shame prevented him

returning home.

Life was good under the Sihanouk regime, he says. Lepers

and their families received weekly supplies of rice, fish, pork and beef from

the government.

Later, during the Khmer Rouge years, he and the other

lepers were forced to leave and work in the fields around the

district.

Those whose disabilities prevented them from doing enough work

to satisfy the KR cadre were told to return to Troeung to go to the hospital, he

says. Not knowing the village had been turned into a prison camp, they were

killed there.

Today, Sorn says, the government's policy is that lepers

cured of the disease should not stay at Troeung.

Provincial authorities

give rice - supposedly 15kg a month but sometimes only every two or three months

- to around 100 people who actively carry the disease.

The Don Bosco NGO

dug a well at Troeung and donated a water urn to each house, but Sorn says there

has been no other aid.

Yin Sot, a nurse who acts as director of the

Troeung hospital, says he has occasionally turned away lepers because of a lack

of medicine from the Kompong Cham provincial hospital.

Two or three

lepers arrive at Troeung each week, says Sot. Those from villages 10-15km away

are given a course of medicine, and sent home. Those from afar stay at

Troeung.

"One woman was brought here yesterday and abandoned by her

husband. She is basically paralyzed, she can barely walk."

In its

advanced stages, leprosy causes the bones in fingers and toes to curl and, along

with the face and nose, eventually decay and "shrink" Some victims request their

fingers and toes be amputated to help stop the disease spreading.

Sot

says leprosy is relatively easily treated with oral medicine. Its progress can

be stopped, and the patient cured, but skin and bone already damaged remains so

forever.

Providing patients take their medicine properly, they should not

pass it on to their children or other relatives. Sot, who spends most of his

time monitoring the children of Troeung lepers, says very few get the

disease.

For them, there may be the chance to leave and build another

life. Their parents, with withered skin and bones, have no such hope.

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