Sab Bunsoeurn, 58, is many things. He’s a family man, married for over 20 years with three children. He’s a commune council member in Preah Vihear province’s Choam Ksan district. He’s a military veteran with combat experience. And he’s also a person with a disability and a landmine victim.
Interviewed at his office in the commune hall, Bunsoeurn said that even though he’s gone through a great deal of suffering in the past and had to weather the rigors of the battlefield, he enjoys life today and is happy with how it turns out because he’s proud of the work he does for his community and his service on the commune council.
He recalls that fateful day in 1985 when he was a soldier in the Cambodian army stationed on the frontlines when they were fighting the Khmer Rouge at the Preah Pralay dam in Banteay Meanchey province.
He said that he left base with his platoon to patrol for a few days as normal and it was all very routine until he stepped on a landmine in the forest on the second day. The explosion tore through his right leg and shredded it, while also breaking his left leg.
The blast rendered him unconscious and he was carried by his fellow soldiers on a stretcher across the Dangrek Mountain. Exhausted and traversing enemy territory, they had to rest at the foot of the mountain for one night despite Bunsoeurn’s condition.
At first light they resumed their trek through the forest until they reached the 307th Brigade Headquarters of the Vietnamese Army in Sror Aem commune, which had a field hospital.
The military medics there stabilised his condition, but he had to wait another five days before they were able to fly him by helicopter to the Stung Treng Provincial Referral Hospital for a one-week stay, after which he was transferred to the Preah Ket Mealea Hospital in Phnom Penh.
Due to the serious nature of Bunsoeurn’s wounds, his right leg had to be amputated.
Looking back, Bunsoeurn recalls that there was fierce fighting at the Preah Pralay dam at that time between the Vietnam-backed Cambodian government’s military and the Khmer Rouge forces, which were still quite strong in 1985, especially in more remote areas.
Soldiers on both sides were planting landmines at the time – some planting them to defend their hometowns or land from the Khmer Rouge, who were also planting their own mines and sometimes digging up the other mines up and repositioning them elsewhere.
The type of mine he encountered was a standard anti-personnel mine that exploded when stepped upon and he said he has no way of knowing who planted the mine or when or why, but for him those details became irrelevant as soon as his foot descended on it because the result was the same.
When it comes to the life of a disabled person, Bunsoeurn said that it was a difficult adjustment to make to go from being young and physically fit as an active duty soldier at war to being bed-ridden and disabled.
He noted that his family members were also disabled in a sense as well by the emotional and mental stress of it all and the uncertainty that came with the situation where no one was earning money to support the family.
After recovering from the ordeal, he returned to his hometown in Choam Ksan district to rebuild his life. Eventually, with the support of his family and friends, he was able to overcome his challenges and return to leading a productive life and he’s now been an elected member of the commune council there for the past 15 years.
Still, his disability does present him with certain difficulties every day. Riding his motorbike just one km to the commune hall from his house is not as routine a matter as it is for most. Putting the bike into gear or applying the brakes isn’t quite as easy when you’ve got a prosthetic leg all the way up the thigh.
That said, Bunsoeurn is thankful for the life he leads today. He is grateful to his fellow soldiers for risking their lives by carrying him all that way through the jungle. And to the Vietnamese medics and Cambodian doctors who saved his life, even though it cost him his leg. And to his family and friends for their support as well as the people of his community for voting for him in the past few elections.
“I really enjoy working as a member of the commune council. I am in charge of processing civil registry documents and I just enjoy serving my people and helping society,” Bunsoeurn said.
Ly Thuch, senior minister and first vice-president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), said that Cambodia has about 800sq km remaining of minefields, with the current highest priority areas being in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces.
Cambodia has its own demining operators as well as international operators providing assistance and in addition to the priority provinces already mentioned, extensive work has already been done in Pursat, Pailin, Oddar Meanchey, Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kampong Cham, Kratie, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces.
“Right now our team is inspecting minefield operations in active demining areas and also confirming clearance of post-demining areas in all mine-affected provinces. The goal of this survey is to redefine which parts of Cambodia are mine-affected areas so that we can expedite targets and reach our goal of completely demining Cambodia by 2025,” he explained.