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|Seng Sam, (left), a former soldier for the Khmer Rouge and Ly Ty, who fought for the government forces, now work together to help disabled farmers in their community.|
by Annie Bergman, Heifer International Writer
Photography by Matt Bradley
CHREY KREM, Cambodia - Driving through the endless green of Cambodia's rice fields in the late rainy season, it's difficult to imagine this country as anything but lush and peaceful.
Yet not long ago, these rice paddies were the infamous killing fields. They were the sites where anyone who posed even a perceived threat to the Khmer Rouge - the educated, the city dwellers, those from the upper or middle classes, doctors, lawyers, even those who simply wore glasses - were executed.
While the bloodstains from the 2 million Cambodians who died during Pol Pot's reign have faded over time, deep scars remain throughout the country. The legacy of more than two decades of war is a population with one of the highest physical disability rates in the world - most from land mines that still litter former battlefields, others from the lack of antenatal care.
For a population that depends on manual labor to survive, a physical disability can mean a life of permanent dependence or early death. But with the help of Heifer International, a group of 37 families in a remote village of western Cambodia led by two remarkable men - both amputees and former enemies - is proving that disabled doesn't equal incapable.
To live in Cambodia is to be presented with all the challenges of living in the developing world. But to be disabled in Cambodia is to be faced with a set of further challenges not yet addressed by an economy taxed with meeting the needs of a growing country.
Because the country lacks basic infrastructure including roads, access to electricity, sanitation and water, equipping buildings with things like wheelchair ramps isn't a main concern. No Cambodians with Disabilities Act exists to provide for their needs. The disabled carry a social stigma of worthlessness, and discrimination is widespread.
|Project participants help Phamm Phoung (not pictured) plant rice on his small plot of land. Most Cambodians plant the shoots a few at a time, a labor- and time-intensive task.|
Ly Ty and Seng Sam lived parallel lives.
Both men were raised on small farms in Pursat province in the western region of Cambodia. Neither was able to attend school. Neither family could afford the cost. Both ended up as soldiers in the bloody civil war that plagued the country for 22 years after Pol Pot was driven from power in 1979.
Though the men fought on opposing sides, the parallels continued. Both lost a leg to the land mines.
Ly, 55, considers himself lucky to have survived the bloody four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. Because he lived in the rural Pursat province, a Khmer stronghold during Pol Pot's regime from 1975-1979, he wasn't killed. The rural people were one group the Khmer Rouge trusted.
Like most Cambodians, Ly farmed rice under the Khmer Rouge, which had set up a system of government-controlled farms in its efforts to turn the country into a Communist, agrarian state. During that time, no information came into the village, and the villagers weren't allowed out, Ly said.
"I didn't know that the Khmer Rouge killed people," Ly said. "We lacked information. No information was coming in. No information even from other villages. People were confined."
He learned about the Khmer Rouge's brutality only after its collapse in 1979. And although Ly survived, one brother and two sisters who were living in villages to the southeast weren't as fortunate.
"I don't know the details of their deaths - why, where or when they were killed," Ly said. "I decided to join the government troops because … I felt very hurt and I wanted revenge for them."
Ly joined the government in fighting the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in 1981. As an "ordinary soldier" with no rank, he was responsible for shuttling materials to the front lines. It was a short-lived assignment. In 1982, he stepped on a land mine and lost his left leg.
|Seng Sam's son, Seng Ouy, bathes one of the family's two water buffalo. Seng received one buffalo from Heifer International, and with the income he makes from his farm and as the village animal health worker, he was able to buy a second.|
Seng was about 13 years old when he joined the Khmer Rouge.
"At the time the Khmer Rouge troops fought against the Republicans, and the Khmer Rouge needed soldiers," Seng said. "Because I lived in the area that the Khmer Rouge could access, I was persuaded to join the army."
Like Ly, Seng, now 48, was an ordinary soldier and his primary duty was to carry messages between the front-line soldiers and the Khmer Rouge commanders. He saw a lot of fighting, he said, and also fought when the Khmer needed him.
After years as a soldier, Seng said he adapted to the constant violence. But he said he knew nothing of the brutal killings and torture of his own people that was happening just 100 miles to the southeast.
"When I joined the army during the Khmer Rouge regime, I knew about nothing going on inside (the country) because I was sent to the border to protect the border with Thailand," he said.
When the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, Seng stayed loyal to that regime primarily because he was frightened he would be killed if he attempted to move back home and find his family.
"I stayed in the army because I was scared that if I joined the government, I would be killed. I did not get any information from inside, so I stayed with the Khmer Rouge troops until 1991 when I stepped on a land mine," Seng said.
Seng lost his right leg in that land-mine explosion.
After their injuries, both men eventually returned to Pursat and settled with their families in Chrey Krem village.
Because he was a member of the Khmer Rouge, Seng was taken to a Khmer hospital. But due to the systematic slaughter of the educated 15 years previous, there were no doctors to operate on his leg, only other soldiers who had been trained as medics.
Another soldier amputated his leg. After his operation, Seng often had to treat himself.
"The first time when I tripped the land mine, I wanted to kill myself because I had a small gun. When I took it out and wanted to shoot myself, I thought of my children. I thought if I killed myself, I couldn't help my children," Seng said. That's why I struggled to live. I farmed to feed my children."
Seng was part of the repatriation of the Khmer Rouge soldiers in 1998 and received amnesty from the Cambodian government.
|Seng Sam's wife, Heang Hon, feeds the family's chickens and ducks.|
Both men grew rice, but often faced a food shortage during the country's dry season. When food is in short supply, some villagers borrow from lenders with high interest rates while others reduce the amount of food they eat.
The men and their families struggled individually for years. As amputees, others often discriminated against them in their community.
"We were looked down upon - we had no possibilities," Seng said.
In addition to being unable to attain basic services like an education and health care, disabled people in Pursat have difficulty farming, often the only other option for those in the area.
To help, Heifer International partnered with Disability Development Services Pursat (DDSP), a nongovernmental organization launched in January 2000 to provide community services to the disabled. DDSP works with all disabled people, their families and the poor, but focuses on the most vulnerable, especially disabled children, women, landmine survivors and people with severe disabilities such as paraplegia and cerebral palsy.
The project called for them to form a self-help group. Thirty-seven members of the community were interested, 17 women and 20 men, including Seng and Ly. Both were fully aware of the other's past but chose to join anyway. The group elected Ly the chief of the community committee and Seng as the community treasurer.
Their first and perhaps greatest challenge, "was convincing others that a group headed by two amputees and made up of 35 other disabled people could be successful," said Pheng Samnang, director of the disability organization.
"They didn't understand what a self-help group was. They didn't understand what community-based rehabilitation meant," Pheng said. "They did not believe that they could work together with other disabled people, let alone with non-disabled ones. They did not believe they could do anything."
The group's disabilities range from moving difficulty - those missing a limb or with polio and spinal cord injuries - to vision and hearing impairment, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
"People with these kinds of disabilities are rarely comfortable with farming," Pheng said. It's either too physically painful, or they've been bullied into believing they can't contribute, he said.
Though it took cajoling, eventually the group began trainings together in animal husbandry, home garden development, composting, Cornerstones and gender equity, among others. It wasn't easy at first, but eventually the group gained confidence.
"Little by little they understood and then everything began to change," Pheng said. Now the group has a motto: "Nothing about us without us," which means that no decision can be made on behalf of the entire group without consulting the other members.
Another challenge was getting former enemies to work together.
It wasn't easy at first, but both Seng and Ly say that they never held a grudge about the other fighting for his former enemy. They attended the trainings together.
The men shared a bond of being amputees, which helped bring them closer, they said. But it was the thought of improving life for all in their community that helped them forge a closer relationship.
|Project participants Chhem Du and Nop Ean (in the background) walk their water buffalo home from working in her rice fields.|
Ly echoed that sentiment.
"We try to forget the past," Ly said. "We work together even if we have no salary or no payment from the group. We volunteered to work for our community's progress."
After training, the group collectively received 18 water buffalo, eight cows, three tons of rice for their "rice bank" and seeds for their home gardens. Almost instantly, Seng said, the quality of life for every group member and their families improved.
Seng was given one water buffalo, along with the seeds and training. In five years he has saved enough money to buy a second buffalo to help plow his rice fields. He also owns two cows, 10 hens, 50 chicks, two ducks, 20 ducklings and one pig. He further supplements his income of about $118 a month with money he makes as the village animal health worker.
Ly, too, says his life changed dramatically because of his involvement in the project. He was able to buy a second water buffalo, and also owns three cows, 50 chickens, five ducks and one pig.
And while both men and their families are much better off, the focus for them remains on the improvement of the entire community.
"We are one Khmer people," Ly said. "That's why we work together for our country."
What's happened in Chrey Krem is a life-giving paradigm shift. Neighbors now seek out once-ostracized members of the project to ask farming advice and also go to them for community animal health services.
The disability organization and Heifer are also teaming up on another project to help Cambodians in the western and northwestern provinces understand that the disabled are capable of self-sufficiency and success.
Pheng is hopeful that the members of the new project will accept their disabled neighbors as fully as he has seen in Chrey Krem. The two group leaders echoed Pheng's sentiment. "We thought of our community progress," Seng said.
"Yes," Ly said. "We thought "How can we make our community more progressive? And how [can we] make a better life for our project members? We hope that our community will make even more progress."