War victims and their former Khmer Rouge enemies are playing volleyball together
They compete in a unique national volleyball league for disabled victims of landmines,
war and disease.
Next year, two teams of ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers from Pailin are joining the league.
Christopher Minko, secretary general of the league, said: "This is the kind
of unifying force Cambodia needs. It works because it is not political."
Making a living as an amputee in Cambodia is hard. Disabled people's issues are rarely
considered and little aid is available. A place in one of the volleyball teams could
mean a new start, Minko said.
People who used to have problems in life are now looked up to. Even though the players
are unpaid, their increased confidence can lead to employment and a better life.
"One day, I saw one of the players in town," Minko said. "Although
he was out shopping with his family, he had his full uniform on. You could see the
confidence in his eyes."
The league is now on its third year. The season is five months long and during this
time the 12 teams come together in Phnom Penh for five rounds of matches. So far,
the games are all being played at the National Rehabilitation Center. In the near
future, Minko hopes to move to the Olympic Stadium. The league is believed to be
Cambodia's only organized national sporting series.
Between the rounds, the teams train several times a week in their home provinces.
A lot of people are drawn to the courts. "The courts become like the town squares,"
The public interest is reflected in a widespread and continuous media coverage. The
league is now featured next to international soccer in Khmer newspapers. The newspapers
have even started to drop the word "disabled" in the league's name, Minko
said. "Few able-bodied people would want to play against these guys."
The national team is built from the best players in the league. It has travelled
all over the world to represent Cambodia, taking part in international competitions
and won the premier gold medal at the Asia Pacific championships in Korea 2002. The
team helps to raise awareness of the land mine problems.
In the future, Minko hopes to establish Cambodia as a regional center for disabled
sports. As a first step, the league has applied to host the 2005 Asia-Oceanic region
disabled volleyball championships in Phnom Penh. It would be the first major international
sports event in Cambodia since the 1960s.
Although there will be no volleyball for amputees in the upcoming Paralympics in
Athens, Minko expects it to be an event in Beijing. He said the plan for those games
is clear: to bring back gold to Cambodia.