For almost two hours last week, a low-slung van rumbled through Preah Vihear, making slow progress over mud, gravel and potholes. Its cargo: the wheelchairs, prosthetics, crutches and other equipment needed to help Cambodia’s thousands of amputees.
The van is part of a fleet of vehicles that has been crisscrossing the Kingdom since the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) unveiled a new project in October last year to supply thousands of amputees with new equipment and to repair prosthetics that are old and worn-out.
Finally arriving in Chhma commune, driver Sok Sina reversed the van into the shade under the sprawling branches of a towering tree beside the commune hall.
“It’s too low, it’s too heavy,” Sina said, weary from the drive. “It’s very difficult,” he added, showing a video of the van bogged down in a mud pit from the day before on his phone.
Sina is based at a rehabilitation centre in Siem Reap. He also covers the provinces of Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom at the helm of his mobile prosthetic repair van. A pair of Land Cruisers headquartered in Battambang makes trips to Pailin, Pursat, Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey. Two others cover Kampong Speu and parts of Koh Kong.
An independent Swiss organisation operating in Cambodia for more than three decades, for this project ICRC works with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Ministry spokesman Touch Channy said its services are essential because it gives opportunities to people who would otherwise be overlooked.
“It is very difficult for the disabled to travel, so they have teams going to the difficult locations. The importance is huge,” Channy said yesterday.
The fleet services about 8,500 people per year, bringing equipment to the most immobile members of society in some of the Kingdom’s least accessible areas.
In Chhma commune, villagers gathered around Sina’s van to receive prosthetic upgrades and wheelchairs, and to register for physical rehabilitation courses.
Prosthetic technician Tam Kimheang opened the white van, now streaked with dirt and mud, to reveal a trunk packed with equipment.
“They can set the whole thing up within five minutes. They attach a work bench to the back of the van. Electronics are all integrated, they can plug heatguns and welders right into the work bench. There’s a push start generator and a compressor for wheel chairs,” Philip Morgan, ICRC’s physical rehabilitation programmes manager, had explained weeks earlier.
A long, metal table slid out from the bottom and was attached to the back of the van. Kimheang fastened a vice onto the table and used it to wrench an old, battered foot from the end of a prosthetic limb.
A glossy new one was unpacked and reattached and fresh clasps and straps for fastening the prosthetic to the patient’s knee were replaced.
After Kimheang was done with the repairs, he helped Lorm Ey try on his new leg. Ey, 48, is a former soldier who began wearing a prosthetic leg in 2010, after stepping on a landmine while fighting the Khmer Rouge decades earlier.
“It was very hard to walk, very clumsy. And it is very hard to do work like ploughing, raising the cows, it’s very inconvenient,” he said.
Sina explained that most of the amputees the repair van services were injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).
“For this area there’s not so many. In Anlong Veng and Oddar Meanchey there’s a lot,” he said, referring to one of the Khmer Rouge’s final holdouts.
“In one commune there’s nearly 100 people,” he said, adding that only about 20 people needed assistance in Chhma.
Cambodia is riddled with landmines and UXO, as a result of decades of civil war and a secret bombing campaign by the United States.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a leading demining international NGOs, calls Cambodia “one of the most heavily . . . affected countries in the world” when it comes to landmines and UXO. MAG estimates that two people are killed or injured by landmines every week in the Kingdom.
“More than 80 per cent of people live in rural areas and depend on the land for their survival . . . The presence of landmines . . . trap people in poverty by restricting access to productive land,” MAG’s website explains.
Another of those affected is Sao Bing, another villager in Chhma commune, who lost his foot after stepping on a landmine while farming in 1983.
“I was walking my cow on the rice farm with relatives when I stepped on the mine. I was the only one who got injured,” he said.
Life after the accident is difficult, he said. “It is very hard to walk. I can no longer do farming as before. My injured leg is just too short,” he said.
Bing said that before the ICRC came, there was no help from any other NGOs in his community.
“When the commune chief told us the NGO was coming to give [prosthetics], I was very happy to hear about it. When they come to our village, it’s much easier for us. This is very helpful. Even just going to the toilet was very hard, so I hope this helps me a lot,” he said.
While Bing did not receive a prosthetic on this visit, he registered with the ICRC, and will now be eligible to undergo physical therapy.
Kimheang explained that the repair van typically only fixes prosthetics and gives out wheelchairs, because patients need to be properly fitted and learn to use the limbs at a rehabilitation centre first.
“They need to do muscle exercises,” he said.He is well trained to assist others – as an amputee himself. “I was a soldier and stepped on a bomb in 1993 while fighting the Khmer Rouge,” he said. Unlike others, he received a prosthetic a year later. Then, in 1994, I got a prosthetic from Handicap International,” he said.
He started working as a technician for ICRC in 2005, before joining the mobile unit.
“I am very happy to do this job because I help people walk again,” he said. “When you’re disabled it’s very hard to do jobs, to do this and that. We can make them feel happy,” he said.