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Cambodia: flying team helps disabled keep walking

17-02-2004 Feature

There are reckoned to be some 30,000 amputees in Cambodia, following years of war that devastated the country and Khmer society. The ICRC's orthopaedic programme tries to make sure that even those living in remote rural areas continue to get help.

 

The ICRC vehicle is quickly transformed into a temporary workbench. The repairs can begin.
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. kh-e-00026
 
The six employees of the ICRC physical rehabilitation centre in Battambang set up their mobile workshop in less than half an hour. Every week repairs are carried out on artificial limbs and joints in Cambodia’s northern and western provinces, where most of the country’s 30,000 amputees live.
 
Years after the end of the war, around 60 people a month are still injured by mines and unexploded munitions. Since the centre first opened in 1991, the ICRC has fitted some 8,000 patients. The polypropylene limbs need occasional repair or adjustment because of wear or variations in the patient’s muscle mass.
 
Once they have installed the workbench on the bumper of their 4x4, laid out the tools on a cloth and set up the anvil, welding equipment, grinding wheel and generator, the team is ready to start work. There are 20 disabled people gathered today in the compound of the Khnach Romeas pagoda, around 60 km north of Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia.
 
These field trips spare patients a journey into town, a journey that many of them can barely afford. Most of Cambodia's amputees eke out a living doing menial jobs they could easily lose if they took a long leave of absence, even if it were to have their limbs repaired.
 
The two orthopaedic technicians – Eduard Von Allmen, a Swiss, and Joël Nini nger, who is French – also enjoy these field trips, which keep them in regular touch with their former patients in Battambang.

 Mine victim during the war  

 

  An ICRC employee adjusts a prothesis. Other patients await their turn.
Photo R. Sidler/ICRC, ref. kh-e-00025
 
 

On the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, Samkoy and his family live in a modest home. Samkoy, who is 39, lost his left leg in 1983 while serving in the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, which was fighting pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance in the west of the country.
 
After stepping on a mine during a reconnaissance mission, he was taken to the Koh Kong hospital, where his leg was amputated. As soon as he could, he went to the Khao I Dang refugee camp over the border in Thailand, where he was fitted with a makeshift limb and met Chimsok Kim, who is now his wife. A year younger than Samkoy, she had lost both her legs in the war.
 
Today the couple have three children aged seven, 10 and 11. Samkoy works as a government technician and, thanks to the new articulated limb the ICRC gave him in 1993, he can go off to work on his own. His children are all in school and his wife raises a few chickens in the yard.
 
They live simply enou gh, but their artificial limbs, at the cutting edge of technology, have enabled them to take part in community life.
 
 Report by Roland Sidler