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What Life Is Like for Amputees in Cambodia

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Stories are powerful not just because they are “stories” but because they are the movement of life, in which the paradoxes, ambiguities, struggles and normalcy are all at once unveiled, unfolded and unsnarled. They give shape to social life and make the unspeakable visible.

Working in Cambodia with people with disabilities, I have the privilege of listening to their narratives of life after amputation.

After decades of civil wars and political unrest, Cambodia has emerged from its ruins, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world with an average growth rate of 7.6 percent. Substantial, if not radical, economic and social transformations brought by the total embrace of neoliberal policies such as privatization and marketization have opened up possibilities and opportunities for Cambodians to flourish.

Nevertheless, what has not been addressed is the intensified social inequality embodied in the lives of vulnerable groups, such as Cambodia’s community of people with disabilities. Today, over 650,000 people are living with disabilities, and an estimated 85.23 percent of the population of people with disabilities, most of whom are landmine survivors, are living in unreachable rural areas. They very often experience discrimination and social exclusion. These exclusions are embodied in the form of economic deprivation and employment difficulties.

Further intensified by Cambodia’s rapid development, the economic structure has gradually shifted from primary to secondary and tertiary sectors. This changing mode of production also means the transition of expertise, know-how and productive forces, where people with disabilities struggle in this sharp vicissitude of the economy. These forms of exclusion limit people with disabilities from access to education, resources, communal events and most of all, employment opportunities. The lived experience of disability is often construed as “individual” or “personal” stories, thriving in life despite experiencing tragic loss, constant exclusion and prejudice.

Nevertheless, their experience is not merely a personal account. Instead, the experience of inequality is also shaped by social structures, changing modes of production and global crises. Without denying the poignant trials and social achievements made by people with disabilities, the narrative of life often demonstrates the nuances and complexities of the experience of living with a disability.

These narratives give me chills, inspiration, awe and reflection. Through the experience of Bel, I attempt to tell the story of everyday challenges, the sudden glitch in life, dreams, aspirations and hopes after amputation.

My writing here is not to represent or generalize the experience of people with disabilities in Cambodia. On the contrary, I endeavor to offer a window for people to see their world and draw attention to lives that are made invisible in society.

Bel held tight to his crutch, slightly leaning his whole body on the cane. Once he had found his balance, he gingerly stepped forward with his left foot, beginning to walk step by step from popular Pub Street to Phsar Chas, the Old Market. He was about to sell the handmade jewelry he was clutching.

Approaching a souvenir shop near the corner of Phsar Chas, he vigilantly took out his gemstone jewelry from an organza pouch. After showing his handicraft to the store manager, he asked gently whether they were willing to sell it. Their discussion continued for a short while and ended in disappointment. He left with a blank look on his face, looking for another shop that would be willing to sell his treasure.

Bel is one of the myriad victims of landmines in Cambodia. He stepped on a landmine when he was 7 years old. Born right in the aftermath of Cambodian Genocide, Bel’s life was torn apart by the civil war. His brother joined Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge whereas his other brother joined the opposition, the army of PRK (People’s Republic of Kampuchea).

“When both of my brothers joined the army, I am all alone,” said Bel.

As a boy, before the landmine explosion, he wandered around the fields, helping farmers take care of the buffaloes in exchange for food. On other occasions, he collected food in the forest. “I can still remember the smell of the burning corn I was collecting for food,” Bel recalled. “It was great.”

The burning corn that once smelled of satisfaction and independence soon turned into the smell of horror and destruction.

Bel stepped on a landmine.

“I remembered hearing the deafening sound of an explosion. I looked out and saw the faraway truck get exposed.” At first, he thought it was the truck that triggered the landmine. But then he saw that the surrounding trees were collapsing and burning.

His whole body was spattered by the warmth of blood. His t-shirt was burned. His arms were burned and his stomach spilled out. “I tried to run but my legs just wouldn’t move,” noted Bel. He cried for help for about five minutes until someone came. Brought to the village, he was engulfed by the sobs and grievances of the villagers.

Albeit severely injured, Bel was miraculously strong enough to live and tell the tale. He was soon transferred to Siem Reap Province Hospital near the Old Market. At the hospital, he received medication and three bottles of blood.

When he woke up the next day, he found that the doctors had removed his right leg. “I want my leg back,” Bel said, “and I cried and kicked the doctors when they came to visit me.” The inevitable necessity of amputation made him stay in the hospital for another six months. After a while, he learned to walk with a bamboo stick.

When Bel returned to his village, he felt that everything had changed. His friends and neighbors kept him at bay. They stopped talking to him. His stepmother kicked him and hit him when she saw him.

Bel explained, “In Cambodia, people who lost their legs, arms, eyes… signify the end of one’s life. They said you are ‘finished’. You are not important anymore. The Khmer term for people with disabilities (jon pikar) means you are paralyzed and cannot do anything.”

Bel cooking in an outdoor kitchen.

Bel spent one to two more years in the village before leaving to earn money to go to school. But a series of futile attempts forced him to return home once again. Eventually, Bel went to school to receive a junior education and graduated at the top of his class. Since there was no high school in the village, he traveled to Siem Reap to receive further education. He received the education he needed from the Cambodia Landmine Museum and School. During that time, Bel had the opportunity to learn English from some overseas volunteers.

This changed his life.

After completing high school, Bel received a scholarship to study economics at Angkor University, majoring in economics. In his second year of university, he decided to get a position in office administration. After sending countless job applications to companies, he managed to secure several job interviews. Nonetheless, the moment he stepped into an interview room he realized he was, and still is, facing an enormous obstacle.

“When I arrived,” said Bel, “they saw I have lost a leg, and refused to hire me. They said their company doesn’t need people with disabilities and told me to go to other places.”

Day after day for more than a year he applied and was rejected time after time. Realizing how difficult employment for people with disabilities can be, Bel decided to open Khmer Independent Life Team (KILT) in 2003 to help people with physical disabilities earn a living. In KILT, Bel taught members English and skills to make jewelry, to sew, to make copper wire art, to paint…

Over the years, he helped his members get jobs.

“They call me teacher Bel,” he said with exaltation.

Since the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, however, the number of KILT members has dropped drastically. His team receives little funding and support for his business. On top of that, he noticed people started copying his unique jewelry design.

“I asked them why they are doing the same thing, and they replied that this is a free market and everybody can do it. So basically they’re copying my original design. It’s copying,” Bel emphasized.

Unable to pay the outrageously high rent of $150 USD per month to continue to sell his jewelry at the Old Market, he attempted to sell it on the street. But life can be an arduous journey. The royal police in the Old Market forbade him to engage in any kind of “informal” economic activities, evicting him.

Currently he is running his business through direct sales. He approaches shop owners in the city of Siem Reap, persuading them to sell his hand-made jewelry in their souvenir shops.

“Cambodians won’t buy my jewelry. They think it is for animals, and Khmer should not wear it.” His business is now contingent entirely on tourists and foreigners.

Bel's jewelry.

“Sorry I can’t help you with that,” the store manager told Bel. “I am not the owner of this shop. My boss is working on the other side of the river. Maybe you should visit his shop.” Bel went to the other side of the river but could never find that souvenir shop. “Let’s do this [selling jewelry] again next week. We may have better luck,” said Bel with a hint of a smile.

It was around 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night. Bel decided to return to his home. Step by step, he gradually walked past the hustle and bustle of the Art Center Bridge, as if he were loaded with the unthinkable weight of history and memory.

Originally published: May 28, 2018
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