Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's last leper colony still giving sanctuary

Cambodia's last leper colony still giving sanctuary

Cambodia's last leper colony still giving sanctuary

This man has lost both feet to leprosy. For those for whom the medical treatment comes too late to mitigate the ravages of leprosy, Troueng remains an island of normality and social acceptance impossible 'outside'.

IN 1968, Yim Heang bade fare-well to his family and left his Prey Veng village in

search of an "isolated island" where he heard his mysterious, disfiguring

disease could be treated.

"At first my family did not allow me to go," Heang explained at his home

in the leper colony of Troueng in Kampong Cham. "But then they decided I should

go to avoid spreading the disease and scaring the other villagers."

For over half a century Troeung has provided Cambodian sufferers of leprosy an "island"

sanctuary from the fear and discrimination their disease routinely condemns them

to.

One of several leper colonies established during the French Protectorate, Troeung

is now the last official sanctuary for victims of the still greatly misunderstood

affliction.

"People choose to come here to live because it is the traditional place for

lepers to go," explained 52-year-old Heang.

"People don't like lepers. Our strange disease makes others scared. Some people

show kindness and pity for lepers, but most are worried about infection and do not

want contact with them."

Heang is one of an estimated 20,000 Cambodians that the National Leprosy Elimination

Program say are living with the disease.

Lepers are traditionally scorned and isolated, and medical officials say those who

make it to Troeung are the lucky ones.

Lifelong leprosy sufferer Huon Nhor, 34, is a case in point.

"I lived in a small hut isolated from the rest of the village because people

were afraid my disease would spread," Nhor said. "People did not even dare

talk to me ... if they wanted to give me something they would just leave it somewhere

for me."

In 1999 Nhor was moved to Troeung by an NGO and has now found both paid employment

and a sense of community undreamed of.

"I never had a business before ... now I sell kerosene door to door and I am

happy," she said. "I have friends now, unlike before when I was in my village.

There, I never had a friend."

Troeung's leper population now numbers 300, a significant reduction from previous

decades thanks to treatment provided through the National Leprosy Elimination Program.

Drug treatments available at Troeung now limit both the physical pain and stigma

associated with leprosy.

According to Chin Chan Meng, chief of Troeung's Health Center, patients face less

discrimination if they undergo treatment before they become disfigured.

For those for whom the medical treatment comes too late to mitigate the ravages of

leprosy, Troueng remains an island of normality and social acceptance impossible

"outside".

Pun Soeun, 26, who was diagnosed with leprosy 10 years ago, recently made an attempt

to return to live in his home village in Prey Veng.

The attempt was a disaster.

"People still hate me and consider me a leper," he said. "They say

the disease can't be cured and that my wounds still exist. I tried to explain to

them, but they do not believe me."

After only a month back at his village, he returned to Troeung, where he plans to

settle permanently.

Life for Troeung residents is far from easy, however. In spite of assistance from

NGOs and rice given from the World Food Program, hunger remains a constant concern.

In spite of such scarcity, Heang says Troeung's doors remain open to fellow lepers.

"We welcome newcomers," Heang said. "We all have the same kind of

illness so we have to show love to each other."

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