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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Stories of horror and stories of hope

Stories of horror and stories of hope

Former combatants from both sides of Cambodia's war are being brought together and

taught small business skills such as chicken-raising by UCC, a Kampot NGO. Jason

Barber and Ker Munthit paid a visit.

Moch Yarn and his wife Yin Roeun have one arm between them, five children and a crumbling

clay house measuring no more than six-by-four meters.

The family became a victim of war in a particularly grotesque way: Yarn lost both

his arms, and his wife one of hers, while trying to defuse a land-mine which he himself

had laid.

On their plot of land in remote Trapeang Chrey, east of Kampot town, this family

has become used to poverty and struggle as a way of life.

"I can still use a hoe. It was painful at first, and it's still a little painful

now," says Yarn, displaying bruises on his arm stumps.

"I do the work that I can do, and my children do the rest. I can still carry

water from the house, but I can't plough the harvest, and do heavy work."

Yarn was a former Khmer Rouge soldier on Phnom Vour (Vine Mountain) which overlooks

Trapeang Chrey. He cannot remember which year it was that he planted the mine that

would change his life forever, but knows it was during the State of Cambodia (SOC)

regime, when Trapeang Chrey was contested territory.

When SOC soldiers retreated from a make-shift base at the local wat, the KR mined

the pagoda against their return. Yarn thinks about 20 mines were laid around the

wat; he personally planted two.

A few years later, during Untac, his KR commander ordered his troops to find the

mines they had laid and clear them, so the wat could be put to religious use again.

Yarn, with his wife, found one of the small, green Chinese anti-personnel mines he

had laid and defused it. Locating the other one, he picked it up to do the same.

"My hand slipped" is all the explanation needed. Both his hands were blown

off and his wife Roeun, next to him, lost the helping hand she had been giving him.

The couple were taken to Kampot hospital for amputations and treatment. Yarn's voice

grows faint as he talks of those first days and weeks.

"My family fell into despair. All I could think of was how could I survive with

my arms gone? What could I do?"

One is tempted to ask his thoughts on karma- on laying the mine which destroys your

family - but is unsure of the sensitivity of the question. Instead, Yarn is asked

whether he wishes that nobody, including himself, had ever laid mines in Cambodia.

"Of course, of course. I do wish so, but there were orders and we had to follow

them," he replies. "Mines were laid by both sides."

Their children left in the care of relatives, Yarn and his wife returned to Phnom

Vour after the accident. They survived through the generosity of other KR, living

a life he describes as "useless".

In late 1994, the government captured Phnom Vour after hundreds of KR, including

Yarn and his wife, defected.

"I was very happy to leave the mountain," Yarn says, "but I still

had worries because I had no arms. I did not know how I could care for my children."

Today, Yarn, aged 36, and his wife, a year younger, are trying to rebuild a life

for themselves and their five boys, aged 4-13. After graduating four months ago from

an NGO-run course in poultry-raising, Yarn believes he might just have a chance.

His face pockmarked from mine shrapnel, a chunk of bone missing from his left leg

and his arms cut off at mid-forearm, these days Yarn sometimes wears a brightly-colored

shirt with birds and leaves on it. It seems a little incongrous, his stumps poking

out from the sleeves, and maybe it's supposed to be.

Talking and smiling more freely now than he has for years, Yarn is slowly regaining

something he had lost for a long time: hope. It's a hope for the future which he

sums up in one word: "chickens."

"I don't think we've found an amputee who said anything other than 'There was

a bang and when I woke up, I found my leg or arm was missing, and I just wanted to

die'," says Linda McKinney, who runs UCC, the NGO that taught Yarn poultry-raising.

For amputees such as him, the opportunity to learn new skills in order to make a

living is only half the equation. Boosting their self-esteem, and confidence for

the future, is just as vital.

Chickens are the centerpiece of UCC; poultry-raising is the main training it offers,

though alternatives are small-engine and radio repair, vegetable farming and well-digging.

UCC - an off-shoot from the United Cambodian Community, a Khmer expatriate community

group in the United States - was founded four years ago, and is mainly funded by

USAID.

The idea is to give a burst of training to war victims to get them back on their

feet and able to earn money, followed by refresher courses and other help.

UCC trains people with permanent war disabilities, whether they be former government

or KR soldiers, or civilians.

About 20 percent of the trainees, by a rough estimate, may be former KR. For poultry-raising,

they undergo a four-and-a-half month residential course at the UCC center in Kampot

town, learning and living alongside other students who include their former battlefield

enemies.

"Everyone assumes it's going to be open warfare but we've never had any incidents

of violence," McKinney says. "By living here 24 hours a day, they see that

they have a lot in common. They are all poor, they're disabled, they've all suffered

from tragic experiences."

No-one is asked about their background, although identifying the former KR is often

not hard.

"If they are recent defectors, they have the stare, they have the total absence

of social skills relating to fellow students," McKinney says.

"There was one who we accepted. He said: 'I am going to tell you who I am. I

was a Khmer Rouge, and I left. If that's going to make a difference, tell me now.'"

Despite being told that his history did not matter, the man proceeded to camp at

the UCC gates for the next fortnight, intently watching everyone and everything.

Eventually, one day in class he apologised: "If I made anyone nervous, I'm sorry.

I just had to make sure that what you said was true. I couldn't afford to have another

disillusioning experience."

The man is now a chicken farmer and, in his spare time, does family counselling.

Two UCC graduates, one a former KR and the other a one-time government police chief,

now run a business partnership. "Chickens for peace" has become, only half

jokingly, UCC's unofficial motto.

That was extended to "Chickens for Justice" after UCC helped set up a chicken

coop and vegetable patch at Kampot prison. The NGO also has an outreach program for

widows, who often will not leave their homes to attend the training in Kampot.

As of late last year, 482 people have been through UCC training. The poultry-raisers

each get 50 chickens to start with and free chicken feed - made by UCC - until the

birds start laying.

McKinney, knowing that too many chickens will mean too much competition, is eyeing

up other areas to diversify into.

A UCC study found that graduates' incomes typically rose about 250 percent after

their training, some chicken farmers earning up to $150 a month.

"I don't care if we make millionaires," McKinney says. "I care that

they can eat and take care of their families, and I care a lot that they can have

pride and dignity."

More than just dignity and pride, UCC seems to help produce amputees with attitude.

A while ago, a group of them decided that, because of their disabilities, they shouldn't

have to pay local officials' "taxes" - a euphemism for extortion.

They made a request for "tax-exemptions" at their graduation ceremony,

at which the Kampot governor was present, and then went around to explain it to every

district chief in the province.

Now, if they hear of breaches of their rule, a group of amputees will go en masse

to see the local district chief and give him a hard time.

At UCC's centre in Kampot, amputees can be hard to identify. Most wear shoes, socks

and trousers. It's not so much that they have something to hide as they have nothing

to show - they're just normal people.

During the last Water Festival, they were prepared to make an exception. They had

planned to enter the Phnom Penh boat races, which they never quite managed, and said

they would all wear shorts - so everyone could see the race winners were amputees.

"Of course, there was no doubt that they were going to win," laughs McKinney.

One favorite story is about a student from Kompong Som, an amputee with no family

and no home. After graduating from the engine-repair course, UCC gave him free tools,

on condition that he made some kind of investment in his new business as well.

So he built a cardboard shack - which qualified as an investment - opposite Kompong

Som port, to serve as both his shop and home.

Today, the man has earned enough money to have an "official-looking shop, with

a tin roof and living quarters in the back", and found himself a wife. In the

ultimate act of throwing off the stigma of being an amputee, he's painted his crutches

yellow, red and blue.

Another former student was a "real handsome" government army officer who

lost both legs and had one arm paralysed, McKinney recounts. His wife deserted him

with their children; he went from being "a person of status to a person who

had nothing."

Now, the man has earned enough to buy a motorbike - which he can't ride, so he hires

his neighbor to drive him around on it.

If improving their own lives is a boon to amputees' self-confidence, helping others

can be even more rewarding.

"Because the amputee population has been marginalized in village life, if you

give them the opportunity and the back up, they are dying to do something useful,

to do community activities," McKinney says.

"When you find somebody absolutely on the margin, who doesn't see himself as

a member of the community, and that guy turns the community around - that's magic."

One such one is Kung Ny, a former political cadre on Phnom Vour who now counts himself

as an advocate of human rights.

Ny, enlisted into the KR in 1977, stepped on a mine 10 years later. His leg was amputated

in a crude jungle operation.

He left the KR in 1991, spurred by news of Cambodian peace talks in France, but was

not welcomed by local authorities.

"They wanted to kill me," he says, recalling that he survived for months

by being hid by villagers.

In 1993 he learned poultry-raising from UCC and was later appointed the chicken feed

distributor in his district. Another farmer complained about him, saying "he

never smiles and he's cranky."

McKinney - with a degree of trepidation - called Ny in for a chat, which ended with

him saying: "I have a lot of learn. My former life didn't teach me how to get

on with people. I think I need to keep coming back here." McKinney figured he

would turn out all right.

Ny - who likes to wear a t-shirt bearing a large exclamation mark - now helps with

community projects and passes on information about human rights violations in his

village to local NGOs.

"I like the principles of human rights because they match the principles of

Buddhism that teach people to restrain from violence," he explains, adding that

all he ever learned in the KR was to "carry a gun and lay mines."

Asked how local officials treat him now, he replies: "They respect me. They

respect my efforts to help build ponds, well and roads in the village.

"Some have tried to recruit me into their political parties. I told them I don't

care about politics, I'm just trying to help people."

Back at Trapeang Chrey, the chicken coop on Moch Yarn's plot of land looks better-built

and more sturdy than the clay house he and his family live in.

Yarn, who finished the poultry-raising course in September, says: "I didn't

understand all of the course, but I will get better.

"My children share a lot of the work, raising the birds and planting rice, and

I can tell them what I have learned.

"Life before was very difficult. It is still difficult, because both of us have

only one arm," he says of he and his wife, "but now maybe it is becoming

less difficult."

Of the 50 chickens given to him by UCC, 10 have died from disease but he hopes the

rest will be okay and soon start laying eggs.

He has plastered new clay on the ramshackled house left to him by his dead mother.

The wat where he lost his arms - just a rice paddy across from his house - has been

repaired and repainted to a pristine state. His five kids go to school there now.

The family is also raising one pig, which weighs about 30kg, he proudly explains

and - if the word that UCC may branch out in pig-raising courses comes true - he

hopes to be able to get more.

"I don't see anything as hope for the future except for chickens. I think it

is the only work that I can do. And maybe pigs, as well, can offer me hope..."

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