T roeung, Kompong Cham - Shunned from their home villages, bearing the scars of a
disease eradicated in much of the world, hundreds of people live out their
existence here in Cambodia's last remaining leper colony.
A few have been
here since the 1940s, interrupted only by their forced removal during the Khmer
Rouge rule. Many have married other lepers, and children are a common sight at
Most of the lepers and their families are reduced to making a
living breaking rocks or cutting firewood, if their handicaps allow, for a
"Troeung is like a dead man not yet buried," says an elderly
"It's shameful, it's embarrassing," a man says about leprosy. "We
just live here and wait until the day we die."
Troeung - off Route 12
about 18km from Kompong Cham town - is home to 835 people from 186 families.
About 300 of them have, or had, leprosy.
The colony, the only one left of
several in Cambodia, has been here since the French colonialist days, according
to the village chief and the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh.
times, and particularly during the later Sihanouk regime in the 1950-60s, it was
the main receiving center for lepers from throughout the country.
1969, some 6,000 people were at Troeung, according to village chief and former
leper Try Sorn, who has lived here for 34 years.
The village was
"sophisticated" then, he says, with concrete buildings, good electricity and
water supplies, and enough food and medicine from the government.
there is less food, fewer people and the village rarely gets lepers from other
provinces, but little else has changed.
On the surface, the village is
pleasant, with old, pot-holed tarmac lanes winding through the shade of tall
trees. There is a dormitory-style hospital, a school and a pagoda.
the piles of rocks and stones outside the thatch and wooden houses hint at the
hardships the villagers face.
Troeung's staple industries are
rock-breaking - two buckets of stones, a day's work, earns 500 riels from road
builders - and selling firewood (300-600 riels a day).
Chum Kek, 67, has
lived here for more than half a century. He says he came to Troeung from his
Prey Veng village as a teenager in 1941.
"These spots emerged on my arms
and my knees, and then my ears and my face. I knew what it was because at that
time I had an uncle who was here receiving treatment [for leprosy].
went back home to take me to this hospital. There were a lot of people here then
and there used to be a large wooden building full of adult patients, most
without their fingers and some who had been cured before they lost their
After months of treatment, Kek went back to his village. But,
still bearing the marks of leprosy, he knew he could not stay "because I was
ashamed in front of my friends and neighbors".
Returning to live at
Troeung, he earned a living then - like most do now - breaking rocks.
thought I had been cured. My fingers were straight and I could move them a
"But as I kept breaking rocks, it [leprosy] started to come back.
It's very easy for the infection to spread in the same areas as before, and my
fingers got infected and curly."
That, he believes, was in the mid-1950s.
Today, Kek can no longer hold a hammer to break rocks. Three fingers on each of
his hands are completely bent over at the second joint, and his little fingers
no more than shrunken stumps. His toes are the same.
His second wife, Iv
Ym, 53, - his first wife, also a leper, died under the Khmer Rouge - has
similar-looking hands and feet from leprosy.
The task of breaking rocks
now falls to their healthy 15-year-old daughter, Sam At.
Sam At used to
go to Troeung school but stopped two years when the family could no longer
afford to buy her books.
Kek says Troeung has changed much over the
years, "mainly from good to bad."
"In the old times, we used to receive
enough rice and fish to eat and we only broke rocks to get money for cigarettes
and other things. Now we break rocks to get money to eat to live."
Sokhom, 24, arrived here last year. He, too, expects to stay for the rest of his
Sokhom developed the circular marks of leprosy four years ago at
his Kompong Cham village.
To begin with, his neighbors still spoke to him
but "when my fingers got twisted they began to avoid my face whenever they saw
me walking down the street."
His leprosy progressed until, for nearly a
year, he lay immobile in bed, unable to bend his swollen joints.
family heard about Troeung and bought him here for treatment. He is much better
now, can move his arms and legs, but his fingers remain twisted. Much of the
skin on his body is discolored, course and patchy, like ragged
"I will stay here forever because back at my village I'm the
only one who has this disease and it's very shameful," says Sokhom, who has no
idea how he got leprosy.
The village chief, Try Sorn, 55, was sent to
Troeung from Kampot province when he was 21.
He was cured of leprosy, and
even given a certificate saying he was not infectious, but shame prevented him
Life was good under the Sihanouk regime, he says. Lepers
and their families received weekly supplies of rice, fish, pork and beef from
Later, during the Khmer Rouge years, he and the other
lepers were forced to leave and work in the fields around the
Those whose disabilities prevented them from doing enough work
to satisfy the KR cadre were told to return to Troeung to go to the hospital, he
says. Not knowing the village had been turned into a prison camp, they were
Today, Sorn says, the government's policy is that lepers
cured of the disease should not stay at Troeung.
give rice - supposedly 15kg a month but sometimes only every two or three months
- to around 100 people who actively carry the disease.
The Don Bosco NGO
dug a well at Troeung and donated a water urn to each house, but Sorn says there
has been no other aid.
Yin Sot, a nurse who acts as director of the
Troeung hospital, says he has occasionally turned away lepers because of a lack
of medicine from the Kompong Cham provincial hospital.
Two or three
lepers arrive at Troeung each week, says Sot. Those from villages 10-15km away
are given a course of medicine, and sent home. Those from afar stay at
"One woman was brought here yesterday and abandoned by her
husband. She is basically paralyzed, she can barely walk."
advanced stages, leprosy causes the bones in fingers and toes to curl and, along
with the face and nose, eventually decay and "shrink" Some victims request their
fingers and toes be amputated to help stop the disease spreading.
says leprosy is relatively easily treated with oral medicine. Its progress can
be stopped, and the patient cured, but skin and bone already damaged remains so
Providing patients take their medicine properly, they should not
pass it on to their children or other relatives. Sot, who spends most of his
time monitoring the children of Troeung lepers, says very few get the
For them, there may be the chance to leave and build another
life. Their parents, with withered skin and bones, have no such hope.