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Army hospital comes under fire

Army hospital comes under fire

Iain Spooner describes the conditions under which badly injured soldiers

are expected to make a recovery.

Wounded soldiers return-ing to the

capital are hardly in for a heroes' welcome at Preah Ket Meala military

hospital, where most of them end up.

The hospital just north of Wat Phnom

lacks even the most basic of medicines, instruments and acceptable sanitary

conditions.

Preah Ket Meala used to be the main public-sector hospital

serving the entire city. Now utilized by the army medical service as its main

referral hospital, the derelict-looking four-storey buildings have become the

only shelter for many immobilized troops and their families, who come to tend

them.

The reception area is deserted, shutters hang precariously from

their hinges and some staircases are boarded off with clumsily-nailed planks of

wood, the stairs littered with rubble. A disused volleyball court outside adds a

sad irony for amputees as they transverse the weed-strewn courtyards on

makeshift crutches or peer from the darkened windows of the crumbling

buildings.

Once holding 500 beds, now most of the upper floors are unused

and, like the downstairs wards, a few old metal bedsteads are the only

furnishings.

Patients line the downstairs hallways to catch some fresh

air. Inside the heat is stifling, there are no fans and the small flickering

electric light bulbs provide little light and the stench of urine prevails.

Dr Miek Jantara has been working at the hospital for two years now. He

said: "Patients are sent here if they are military. But we need many things for

them. We need instruments for operations, medicine, mattresses, mosquito nets,

generators. The government is supposed to supply medicine."

But during

several visits by this correspondent to the hospital it was apparent that even

the most basic of medicines were not supplied by the hospital. Pharmacist Hel So

Phal admitted the problem.

"This medicine is old but we have to use it,"

he said referring to an injectable powder labeled Penicilline G. The expiry date

on the bottle was for last September. The same medicine with a future expiry

date is available in pharmacies in the capital for about 1,000 riel a

bottle.

Patients are mostly left to buy their own medicine. Many rely on

family to help. Ampun has been a soldier for twenty years, first for Funcinpec's

military wing during the civil war and now for the Royal Cambodian Armed

Forces.

On Jan 27 he stepped on a mine and lost most of his right leg

below the knee. "I have not been paid since December " he said.

His wife

lives at the hospital and they buy food and medicine with money sent by

relatives. Many families, including children and babies, live at the hospital to

support men folk injured in war. Some women bring in small stoves and cook in

hospital corridors.

Military medical services are funded by the Defense

Ministry, not the Ministry of Health.

The overseeing department is

headed by General Yeng Bunly who was unavailable for comment.

Foreign

aid groups say they do not usually like to get involved with military matters as

it detracts from the neutral image they try to cultivate.

One exception

is sixteen-year-old Sem Kun , who was brought to the hospital by Assemblies of

God nurse Carol Feigleson after being bitten by a snake in his village of Preah

Kaday in Kompong Speu. He was bitten on both wrists as he wrestled with the

snake which crept into his hut. Relatives kept him in the village for three days

while they tried traditional medicines which didn't work.

The American

nurse explained: "He is too old for the children's hospital and we were afraid

the other hospital would amputate without treatment. He is not a soldier. He is

a civilian."

But Dr Jantara said: "The boy's father is a soldier. That

is why he is here."

Whatever the reason, the terrible conditions that

surround him do little to aid his recovery and being saved from an amputation

may be only a temporary respite.

Nurse Feiglesen made a single return

visit with a supply of medicine but she expects him to lose all the fingers of

his left hand.

Now the youth is wasting away on a straw mat under a

filthy mosquito net despite the loving care of his aunt, who travelled with him

from the village.

Having been largely left to their own devices by the

hospital authorities, the patients and their families show an incredible courage

and compassion, which provides some light in the gloom.

As soon as a

stump has healed patients playfully arm wrestle each other.

Blind

amputee Sain Te - see accompanying article - is one of those to benefit from the

rough and tumble humor.

The young soldier, whose prospective bride

deserted him when she found out about his injury, is coaxed out of his morbid

world of self reflection by the wives of other patients.

They tug at his

nose and bounce up and down on his bed, cracking jokes as they get him to move

his stump.

"Som loi, som loi" (please - money) they shout into his ear

as they get him in training to be a beggar.

The women even make him smile

when they suggestively mention more private parts of his body he can still put

to use.

But the jokes sometimes wear thin. A relative lets her head sink

between her knees in complete exhaustion.

Her amputee husband tentatively

feels his leg stump, once more confirming the grim reality of his future.

The aunt of snake-bite victim Sem Kun crawls under the mosquito net to

fan him with an old krama.

Another lingering day comes to an end as the

broken soldiers and their families prepare for the long night ahead.

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