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Media darling crowded out from Pope

Media darling crowded out from Pope

THE Filipino media, searching for a "human interest" story during the recently

completed visit of Pope John Paul II, scored big with a tiny, 11-year-old girl

with one leg and a huge smile - Ko Sol, of Bavel, Battambang

province.

"It was amazing," said Brother Totat Banaynal who accompanied

Ko Sol and five other Cambodians, including two others handicapped by land mine

explosions, on a special invitation.

"Filipino television interviewed us

five times and local newspapers six, including the leading Filipino daily, and

many other overseas papers" he said.

"Ko Sol was the darling of

everybody".

"People knew her everywhere she went, they even knew her by

name at the airport when we left."

Ko Sol - still excited by her first

airplane ride, her first ocean swim and her first overseas visit - laughed to

her friends when arriving back in Phnom Penh on Jan 17, saying "I didn't get to

see him," pointing to a souvenir keyring picture of the Pope hanging around her

neck.

However, Ko Sol came closer than most. The Cambodian delegation was

granted a rare private audience with the Pontiff - but missed out twice on

seeing him because of the huge crowds.

Ko Sol had her right leg blown off

just below the hip when she stepped on a land mine while playing in her village

when she was just one.

She features on the national anti-land mines

poster and, on Jan 4, flew out to meet the Pope on a special invitation arranged

by Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines.

Along with fellow mine victims

Soun Chrek, 35, of Kandal - who has lost both his legs - and Hem Phang, 40, of

Phnom Penh, Ko Sol's presence was designed to make Asian neighbors more aware of

the problems mines caused in Cambodia.

"We were granted our request for

an audience and were due to meet the Pope privately just before the special mass

Papal blessing," Brother Banaynal said.

"But although we turned up 45

minutes early we could not get through the crowd. We were 300m from the

grandstand but it was hopeless, we were getting squeezed and I was afraid for

our three handicapped".

He said Chrek, in a wheelchair, had to hoist

himself up for air. The mass was delayed for two hours and even the Pope had to

fly to the nearby grandstand by helicopter.

"But Ko Sol was very

clever... she poked her crutch into the crowd looking for space, then she would

place her leg by her crutch and squeeze her way ahead," he said.

However,

it was too difficult, especially for Chrek in a wheelchair, to

continue.

However, the Pope, told of what had happened, specifically

asked for another meeting.

"We got up at 3am for a meeting at 7:45am, but

even then we were just too late. There had been people camping there all

night".

Again the delegation missed out on a rare Papal

audience.

"But for us, it was enough," Brother Banaynal said.

"We

were just a motley crew of eight among a crowd of four million but the Pope was

concerned about us and knew we were there," he said.

He said the Khmers

felt "very special". He said the Pope granted private audiences to only the

Chinese and Cambodian delegations.

Neighboring countries like the

Philippines were made more aware of Cambodia's mine problem because of Ko Sol's

media exposure, he said.

However, for Ko Sol, she will still have to live

with the problem. Her father for instance, a farmer, dare not work his tractor

in the mine-strewn fields.

On the day Ko Sol was fetched from her village

to visit the Pope, two local boys were killed by a newly-laid mine.

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