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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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.