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Transforming victims into survivors

Noun Sophan’s life was shattered when, as a young soldier, he fell victim to a landmine that left him unable to work and support his family. But after years of suffering, Noun Sophan now helps fellow victims recover their health and dignity by giving them the tools for self-sustainability

Banteay Meanchey

Noun Sophan, 53, has been the Banteay Meanchey chief of the NGO Capacity Building of People with Disabilities in the Community Organisation (CABDICO) since early 2006. A former soldier, his story is one filled with tragedy, struggle and bravery.

In July 1985, when Noun Sophan was 30 years old, he fell victim to a landmine on the Thai-Cambodian border in Banteay Meanchey province’s Ou Chrov district and lost one of his legs. He was working as a soldier for the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), a force established by former prime minister Son Sann in 1980 to fight the communist movement still entrenched in Cambodia.

Walking back to his military garrison one evening, Noun Sophan was among 200 other soldiers, yet only he was ravaged by the mine. Upon hearing the explosion, his platoon panicked and bolted off into the forest, leaving Noun Sophan to fend for himself in excruciating pain.

“I believe I must have been carrying sin because only I stepped on the mine. I wasn’t even at the front of the pack; [was] almost at the back, in fact, of the line of troops walking through the forest, which was riddled with anti-personnel mines,” remembered Noun Sophan.

Lying there in the pitch-black darkness bleeding, Noun Sophan said his mind filled with fatalistic thoughts. “I decided to commit suicide at that moment. I searched in the darkness for my rifle but couldn’t find it. If I had, I would have killed myself because no one had stayed to help me, and I didn’t want to become a burden for my family.”

However, Noun Sophan was eventually rescued and taken to a hospital at Khao-I-Dang, a Cambodian refugee camp located 20 kilometres inside the Thai border, in what is now Sa Kaeo province. He stayed there for more than a month, and his thoughts of ending his life never ceased.

“Everyone around me was walking but I couldn’t. My injuries were definitely mental as well as physical. I had so much self-pity.”

Hatching a plan to carry out his intentions, Noun Sophan stopped taking the pain medication his nurses were giving him, instead saving them until he had 20 pills. Noun Sophan then wrote a letter to his family and prepared to say goodbye. However, before he could, a sanitation worker at the hospital found the pills and reported it to a French doctor who then ordered that Noun Sophan only take any additional medication in the presence of doctors.

Intensive therapy with the hospital’s psychologist then followed for Noun Sophan, who eventually resolved to get better for the sake of his wife and five children. After a time of relative stability, he was moved to another evacuation site, Nong Chan, where he received practical training and soon gained the skills needed to become a cassette player repairman. Noun Sophan then returned to live with his family in the Mongkol Borei district of
Banteay Meanchey province, but found the financial costs of running his own business too much and went to the Thai-Cambodian border in search of work. There, he set up shop selling food; a lucrative job, as most of his customers were smugglers with money.

After saving enough cash to establish a new business, Noun Sophan decided to get into the goldsmith trade. He trained for several years and established a business but was later robbed of his entire stock of precious metal.

Again sinking into a state of despair, Noun Sophan ceased work, leaving him with no source of income and no way to buy food. In order to survive, he went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which, at that time, only gave rations to disabled females.

“To get the rice to eat, I had to disguise myself as a woman. I wore a robe, make-up, and covered my head with a krama,” he said.

It was not a realistic long-term solution to his problems, and Noun Sophan soon moved to Phnom Penh, where he worked as a statistics controller for the Defence Ministry’s Department of Soldier and Civil Affairs. Staying there from 1988 to 1992, Noun Sophan found the work unsatisfying: a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that his salary was extremely low. Again, he saw himself living in a big world with no hope.

Gathering together what spare money he could, he invested in an old motorbike and, when not working at the ministry, aimed to make ends meet by working as a motorbike taxi driver. In his travels he met Chea Samnag, a regional director of Handicap International (now an executive director of the Phnom Penh branch of CABDICO), who offered him a job working with the disabled in Takeo province. Noun Sophan snapped up the opportunity and, one year later, relocated to Banteay Meanchey province where he was promoted to the position of group chief for Handicap
International’s restorative disabled labour project.

In 2006, the project became known as the Capacity Building of People with Disabilities in the Community Organisation (CABDICO) and Noun Sophan, after decades of pain and suffering, became the chief of the NGO, finally finding a place for himself where he could feel stable and fulfilled.

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