Kampot City-Linda McKinney and three Cambodian-Americans, including an ex-monk, all
who now work here with a vocational training center for war victims, sit at a restaurant
dinner table cackling nonstop with their chicken stories.
"Remember when we delivered chickens through the firefight?" starts McKinney.
It was in June in a remote area. She was driving. In the back was a security guard
and three graduating students, all leg amputees, along with 30 chickens. On the roof
was another 60 chickens and a rooster.
The group in their dark blue Jeep wagon had run through a swarm of government soldiers
attacking Khmer Rouge rebels who control portions of Kampot province, and kept going
despite the guard's terrified shrieks. One student who lived two hours farther kept
saying this was the biggest day of his life, McKinney recalls. "I had to go
But she says, "I was speeding for so long across the bumpy road, I thought,
'I've killed their chickens.'" All arrived safely except one chick with a broken
Then there was the time in November when the center's security guard was murdered
by a local bar owner. And then the next day the poultry people ran out of chicken
feed so someone had to drive four hours to Phnom Penh to get it along a route where
heavily armed soldiers take their taxes from vehicles. On the return in the dark
a tire went flat in the most perilous part of the road and he had to bribe a local
with a motorbike to go get McKinney to retrieve him.
"It's been a unique year," says McKinney, recalling the military commander
who in trying to extort money threatened her and her staff and sent squatters to
the land that had been given to her by the government to build a dormitory and training
school for men disabled by war. It's the only time she's hit someone, she confesses.
"I've never had to wonder," McKinney says, "I know I'm making a contribution."
The United Cambodian Community center in Kampot where McKinney is director opened
in February 1992. It's third four-month session began a few weeks ago at over capacity
with 60 men, including some Khmer Rouge along with former government soldiers and
a United Nations-trained deminer.
Thirty-five of the students are missing either one or both legs. A few have lost
an arm or an eye. While many of the men were soldiers, an increasing number of civilians
are signing up for the poultry farming, radio - or engine-repair training.
A former social worker, restaurant owner and assistant to California Governor Jerry
Brown, McKinney also spent 10 years in San Francisco helping Cambodians resettle
there. Twice in the past few years some of the resettled sent her to Cambodia to
assess the political and economic situation. Among the changes and multiple needs
McKinney saw was the growing number of amputees and increasing poverty.
But says McKinney, "Stepping on the land mine is the first step in a horrible
process." She shudders from the countless stories of victims who had the wrong
leg amputated, or whose leg was repeatedly amputated because of incompetence or infection,
or the ones who had to operate on their own eyes.
"They have incredible perseverance," she says. The disabled she's met remain
quite active and contradict the notion they're shunned by their communities or become
begging cripples. "We had one double amputee who was such a rogue," she
Making money is of course the issue for the disabled, but the bigger problem, McKinney
says, is getting back their self-esteem. A variation on the Zen and motorcycle repair
theme, the UCC concept helps them get artificial limbs, gives them a new skill, counseling
on human rights and family responsibility and turns them into "businessmen."
McKinney likens the poultry farming to a kind of pet therapy. "We have guys
so passionate about their chickens, they dream of them." Graduates are given
tools or 40 chicks and loans to start their egg-laying enterprise. Staff members,
including two local-hires, make routine follow-up visits no matter how remote the
Chhum Thla is an amputated ex-soldier who just expanded his farm to more than 250
chickens. Another amputee soldier has so much motorbike repair work he passed his
shop sign onto someone just getting started. Several of the men have gone from living
on less than U.S. $20 a month to earning more than U.S. $200 profit a month.
While still in San Francisco where her two children live, McKinney developed the
idea for the training center and it became the Southern California-based UCC's first
Cambodian project. UCC started as a vocational school for Cambodians then spread
to other refugees and then to anyone in need.
The Kampot center's training director, Thai Kuoch was part owner of Bayon, a French-Cambodian
restaurant in San Francisco. He had escaped on his own to the United States through
Thailand in 1975. Four years ago he located a brother still in Cambodia. Three other
siblings are in America but they don't know what became of their parents.
After a visit to Cambodia in 1991, Kuoch who had worked with McKinney in California
insisted he return here not only to work with the UCC but to spend time with his
brother and search for his parents. Two other instructors also are returning Cambodians
and two were hired from around the province.
Kampot's sunny resort image has long been shaded not only by the Khmer Rouge problem
but also it's "wild, wild West" reputation from the widespread corruption
and lawlessness. Many UCC students report of having their meager huts cleared of
Western women are a rare sight in Kampot. Especially one who drives her own car,
let alone one who fights back. McKinney, who says she's more the center's doctor,
moneylender, and mom as well as running the chicken delivery service, has found herself
a wide berth of respect in a province of difficult repute.
Before she leaves she says she's likely to begin courses for women and introduce
for females' sake, the concept of wheelbarrows.
First though she's determined to sell the idea of eggs by the dozen. In Phnom Penh,
Le Shop's general manager, Simon Parr, says if the packaging works, he'd prefer the
UCC eggs over the some 2,400 smaller eggs he buys each month from Thailand. UCC is
considering a woven bamboo box designed by one of their graduates.
McKinney is a woman of pragmatic vision in a murky situation. "This is a culture
that doesn't give any hope the future will be different than the past," she
says. Sometimes strained by the isolation of living where she does, McKinney says
on bad days she goes to a class and surveys the student's optimistic expressions.
"There's a healing that goes on here. It's magic to watch."