Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Forgotten amputees share hardships in community

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VEAL THOM, CAMBODIA

In Cambodia, old soldiers just seem to limp away.

Land mines were the confetti of the country's recent wars, scattered with abandon through its forests and fields. Their crippled victims, if they lived, became instant outcasts, a burden and a rebuke to their nation.

In ghastly military hospitals without running water, they shared narrow cots, begging visitors for crutches.

Today they hop about the marketplaces in ragged bits of uniforms, homeless and jobless, holding out their military caps for coins.

People try not to notice them.

"We are lower than dogs," said Chu Dim, 48, who lost his right leg in the 1970s fighting for a long-forgotten government. "People feed their dogs."

Now a band of these unwanted men has come together, hardly noticed as always, in an effort to help themselves.

Led by a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Touch Seour Ly, 47, they have formed what they call the Association for the Relief of Disabled Cambodians, an almost unheard-of self-help initiative in this demoralized nation.

Without help from the government or from any of the many private aid groups, they have carved out a village of their own on a patch of barren land as unwanted as they are.

Deep in the woods 90km southwest of Phnom Penh, they have cleared the ground, dug wells, built tiny shacks and prepared the soil for planting.

Over the past two years, about 200 amputees have moved in with their families, each with a plot that is 50m wide and 300m deep, enough to support a small farm.

They are just a few of the 40,000 Cambodians who have lost limbs to land mines over the years -- one of every 250 people, said to be the highest ratio of amputees per capita in the world.

During the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s, when 1.7 million people died of starvation and sickness as well as by execution, only the luckiest and fittest survived. The weak were left, sometimes with just a pot of water, to die on their own.

That attitude still darkens society today, and the amputees say people turn away from them as if they were ghosts.

"When we walk past, people don't even see us," said Touch Seour Ly, who lost his right leg in 1983. "Like we aren't there. Even our former officers won't look at us. Before, when we were useful to them, they cared about us."

Their new society survives through comradeship and mutual assistance.

For each ridge and furrow, legless and armless men have joined to lift and dig together. A few poor but uninjured men have been invited to live here in return for heavy labor.

The settlement, scattered across the hard, bare ground, does not look much like a village, and the small huts, empty of furnishings, do not look much like homes.

So far, their farms have produced little to feed their families, and nothing to sell. Some of the men have become scavengers, scouring the woods for edible leaves and tubers.

The amputees have not yet proved that they can succeed on their own. A few have already given up and returned to begging.

When Touch Seour Ly, their leader, describes their most urgent needs, his list could be summed up as: everything.

"We need a road," he said, "and we need a school and a clinic. We need tools to farm with, and we need food."

Several hundred children live here with their families, he said. Most spend the day at hard labor. Many are the arms and legs of their disabled fathers.

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