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
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
"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
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
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."
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."