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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mine victims step out

Mine victims step out

Legless Kim Sovann assembles a wheelchair cycle for a fellow Cambodian.

Twelve years ago Kim Sovann tried to kill himself after his legs were blown off

by a landmine. These days he contemplates improving his skills as a maker of tricycles

for disabled people rather than suicide, Lon Nara reports.

Sitting in a wheel-chair under a warehouse roof, and sporting a stylish pair of sunglasses,

the 36-year-old former soldier starts building a brand-new tricycle at Takeo's provincial

prosthetic center around 70 kilometers south of Phnom Penh.

Sovann counts himself luckier than most other disabled Cambodians, as he has landed

a well-paid job earning $270 a month at Handicap International-Belgium (HIB), an

NGO.

He lost his legs to a landmine in 1990 while fighting the Khmer Rouge along the Cambodian-Thai

border. Sitting in his noisy workshop, he recalls his desperation after he was injured.

"When I found my legs had been amputated I didn't want to live," Sovann

says. "I tried to kill myself three times: by taking a drug overdose, by hanging

myself, and by jumping from a car."

Today his suicide attempts no longer weigh heavily on his mind. He considers himself

a 'useful man' whom people need, and has even taken part in international wheelchair

races in Japan and Belgium.

Facing the future with renewed hope, Sok Heang and Hueng Oh practice walking.

His life changed in 1992 when he met a Belgian working for HIB who persuaded him

that he should carry on living. He went to the Kien Khleang rehabilitation center

in Phnom Penh to learn how to make wheelchairs for the disabled, and worked there

until 1997.

"I am very lucky because [the] NGO helps me," says Sovann. "I am happy

to make these tricycles for other disabled Cambodians. There are so many and the

knowledge I have gained will help them."

Sovann is one of about 20 employees working at the Takeo rehabilitation center, which

was opened by HIB in cooperation with the Ministry for Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational

Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSALVY) in 1997.

Among the staff are physiotherapists, technical staff and administrators. They provide

tricycles, artificial limbs and treatment at no cost to the disabled from Takeo and

other provinces.

El Nimith, who is the chief technician, says the center receives around 50 maimed

people a month. Most are landmine victims. The figure has increased in recent months

- previously the monthly average was around 40, but this hike is simply because

the word has gotten out.

"Because the center provides a good service and [there are] good technical staff,

more people are aware that there is a rehabilitation center," Nimith says.

That awareness is boosted by MoSALVY social workers who travel between districts

disseminating information about the center to villagers. Free food and traveling

expenses are provided for those staying there. They spend their time learning how

to use their artificial limbs.

A technician fits a prosthetic arm to a young man.

"If we do not spend money they cannot afford to come here, because their homes

are far away," Nimith says.

MoSALVY conducted a provincial survey on disability in 1994 which showed that around

3,600 people in the province were missing a limb. Ninety percent of those were landmine

victims, and more than half of the total have now benefited from this center.

The Disability Action Council, a local NGO, says Cambodia has 200,000 disabled people,

one quarter of whom are mine victims. They are served by 14 physical rehabilitation

centers.

Many of the centers are run by NGOs, including the American Red Cross, the International

Committee of the Red Cross, HIB, and the Cambodia Trust.

The legacy of decades of strife means their work will remain unfinished for years.

The country has one of the worst landmine problems in the world, with estimates of

the numbers lying underground running into the millions.

But for those at the Takeo center at least, there's a chance to return to rewarding,

profitable lives. All the disabled people the Post talked to said they were happy

and felt something akin to a miracle when they acquired their new limbs.

Among them is Hueng Oh, a 53-year-old farmer. His leg was amputated six months ago

after it became diseased. He's spent a week at the center so far.

"I hope I will become like before," he says. "I just need to keep

on training, but I am very happy now. At home, I needed my wife to accompany me all

the time, even when I went to eat or to the toilet."

Sok Heang, 55, from Kampot is practicing getting used to using his new leg on parallel

bars. The former Lon Nol soldier said his leg was amputated two years ago after an

old bullet wound, gained fighting the Khmer Rouge, flared up again.

He learned about the center from MoSALVY, and arrived ten days ago. He spends seven

hours daily walking on his artificial limb, and says his mobility has improved. To

prove it he takes his hands off the parallel bars, balancing on his healthy leg and

the artificial limb he has been given.

"I am happy that I have learned to walk again," he says. "I feel I

have recovered my lost leg. Now I will build my life again."

International recognition

THE Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO) in Phnom Penh has gained

international accreditation for its work in providing prosthetic training and artificial

limbs for landmine and polio victims.

More than 30 Cambodian and foreign students are currently studying at the center,

says CSPO's clinical supervisor assistant Doung Chetha, who earned his diploma in

prosthetics and orthotics from CSPO in 1998.

While most of those training are Cambodian, it is the international appeal of the

course that most pleases Chetha. The foreign students he currently works with come

from Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

During the three year program, taught in English, students learn a variety of subjects

including technical drawing, physiotherapy, rehabilitation of the disabled, computer

skills and management.

Ananda Ruhunage is one of five Sri Lankan students. He was granted a scholarship

in 1999 and will graduate in October. He says the course has been very useful.

"I now have a lot of experience," says Ananda. "I've never studied

this subject before, but I've gained a lot of information on [both] theory and technical

knowledge. When I return home I will continue to work with disabled people, and share

my experience with the government staff."

Oung Tivea, technical coordinator at the Disability Action Council, says there have

been considerable improvements in the development of services for the disabled in

Cambodia. Although he could not say how many of the country's 200,000 disabled have

access to prosthetic limbs, he is adamant CSPO is helping their lives.

"Before they focused only on quantity, but now they focus on both the quantity

and the quality of the service," he says. "They are improving the standard

of prosthetics and orthotics in Cambodia."

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