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
"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
"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
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.
it was too difficult, especially for Chrek in a wheelchair, to
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
Again the delegation missed out on a rare Papal
"But for us, it was enough," Brother Banaynal said.
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.