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Former enemies bound by poverty and disability

Former enemies bound by poverty and disability

Cambodia has 200,000 disabled out of a population of 13 million ó one of the highest disability rates in the world.

About six kilometers from Route 4, at around the halfway mark between Phnom Penh

and Sihanoukville, lies the village of Veal Veng. The smooth tarmac of the national

road gives out to a dusty road that bumps its way east towards the low hills.

Veal Veng is a slice of the country's recent history writ small. The village's almost

200 families are all headed by disabled soldiers from the four main factions of the

country's civil war.

Former Khmer Rouge have joined with ex-Funcinpec resistance fighters; members of

the late Son Sann's KPNLF help those who once served in the State of Cambodia army

that battled all three factions throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Other than their shared military backgrounds, what they also have in common is that

they are disabled, and feel they have been abandoned. Their mission now is to build

a future for their families.

Forty-seven-year-old Touch Seour Ly, who is disabled, has done what the ex-soldiers

complain that the government and NGOs have not: garnered land for them to farm.

Ly heads the Association for the Relief of Disabled Cambodians, and says he simply

wants to improve the lives of the former fighters.

"I found there was no one who would take care of these disabled soldiers once

the fighting had stopped," says Ly, who was a soldier in the State of Cambodia

government of the 1980s. "Therefore we, the community, have to join together

to help build our futures."

Veal Veng and its surrounds have been established on 2,000 hectares of bush and forest

land that the villagers are converting to fields. Ly says the men have only knives

and axes with which to work.

Chu Dim, who is 45, started fighting for the Khmer Rouge during the Lon Nol regime

in the early 1970s. He lost his leg to a landmine when he was just 14, and now provides

security for the village and assists in the fields.

"Since we learned that the government and international community had no desire

to support us, we have had to manage and survive by ourselves," he says. "During

the war we were proud to fight for the nation - we were heroes - but now they treat

us as though we are not even equal to the dogs in their houses."

Dim spoke for many when he expressed the hope that attitude would change, and that

the government or NGOs will take responsibility and provide them with food, a school,

a hospital and decent roads.

Cambodia suffers one of the highest disability rates in the world. In a population

of some 13 million, more than 200,000 are disabled. One in four of those are victims

of landmines. The high level of disability combines with a general disdain towards

those who are afflicted, making the lives of the disabled even more difficult.

The project was born three years ago. Dim and Ly gathered together a group of disabled

ex-soldiers and simply took over the land. Ly says it belongs to the local authorities

of Trang Trayeoung commune, Phnom Srouch district in Kampong Speu, but his group

did not wait for permission.

"[The local authorities] did not support us and did not treat us as though we

were human," he says of his association's decision to annex the land. "When

we asked them for land, they told us that they wanted a 'commission', so we ignored

them after that."

Touch Seour Ly led the drive to settle disabled people on 2,000 hectares of land.

The two men started the com-munity with five families. There are now 180 families,

with room for another 220. All disabled former war veterans, Ly says, are welcome


Ly has no formal agricultural education, but says that through a process of trial

and error the families have found that the land can support most kinds of fruit and


All who join the association, he says, get an equal parcel of land measuring 50 by

300 meters. The only condition is that they cannot sell the land at a later date.

"After the war many soldiers were disabled," says Ly. "They had no

funds to start a business to support their families, they had no land, and they had

no skills to sustain themselves.

"That is why I brought them here," he says, adding of the difficulties

they encountered: "We were short of food, yet at the same time we had to work

hard in order to farm for ourselves."

Nov San is 49-years-old and lives here with his wife and eight children. The former

CPP soldier left his native Takeo province three years ago after he ran up a debt

to an NGO.

"I don't know the name of the NGO, but they lent me 200,000 riel in 2002, then

wanted me to pay interest of 8,000 riel a month," says San. He could not afford

to repay the money, so packed up and left.

He lost both arms when clearing landmines in the northwest during the fighting between

the CPP forces and the royalist Funcinpec fighters after the 1997 coup. He subsequently

learned that the only help available from government or NGOs is concentrated in the


Nov San lost both arms while clearing mines after the 1997 coup, so his daughter works the land.

The association gave San his plot of land to farm, but his disability means only

his 15-year-old daughter is able to work the land. She grows rice and tomatoes on

the small amount of cleared land near the house.

"I feel so sorry for my daughter that I can do nothing, just tell her what to

do such as cutting the trees to make charcoal, or grow rice and vegetables,"

San says.

Another concern is that he does not know what he will do when the NGO returns in

April to collect the money he owes. He does not even have 10,000 riel to offer them.

"The NGO told me that if I don't have the money, they will confiscate my land,"

he says.

The frustrations associated with the hardships of disability are common to the association's

members. Forty-seven-year-old Sen Chamrong says he has nothing but regret for the

decades he wasted fighting for the Khmer Rouge.

"I am disappointed that the government has not taken any responsibility to help

us," he says.

Chamrong arrived in Veal Veng at the same time as Ly and Dim, and says some families

have no rice to eat after working all day converting the land to agriculture.

None of the men, he adds, has benefited from the government's demobilization program.

Chamrong says all were automatically taken off the payroll while they were recovering

in hospital.

The result, says Ly, was that they were left with no choice.

"We learned that we have to help ourselves, rather than waiting for food from

others," he says. "We fought a war which was not in our individual interests

but for the good of the nation.

"The government needed us when our physical health was good. Now that we are

disabled, they just ignore us."


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