September 22, 1997
International -- Asian Business: ESSAY

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When I left my life here in Cambodia in 1994 after nearly three years as a news correspondent, I didn't know which memories would haunt me. Maybe it would be the time I witnessed a soldier explode the head of a policeman with a shot from a .45 caliber pistol while arguing over the affections of a $2 prostitute. Or it might be the day I interviewed a blood-soaked child, the sole survivor of a massacre of an entire village. Or the night I was pursued and shot at by a carload of soldiers who objected to free speech.

As it turned out, the memories that linger are not of violence or bloodshed. It is the victims--the people I had barely noticed at all. Every day, several times a day, some poor Cambodian would come up beside me, at a restaurant, outside the bank, or on the street, and beg for money. The echoes of their nasal pleas still ring in my head, as they have in my nightmares for years. More times than not, the beggar was a soldier in uniform, missing an arm or a leg, or both, the ugly stumps bandaged and doused in fake blood to evoke sympathy and an extra buck. "Social pests," advised my Cambodian friends. "Don't give them money or you'll encourage them." So I didn't. I didn't pay them any attention at all.

SUICIDE. What I didn't realize, at first, was the misery of living as an amputee in Cambodia. It can be harder than dying. Cambodians believe that a person missing a limb is not whole. A body missing a part means the spirit is incomplete. So the maimed are shunned. No one hires them. And if there are no family members who will support them, they must beg for food. Many commit suicide or spend their lives shut away, afraid to venture out.

These men and boys were forced into their fate by Cambodia's wars. They stepped on land mines while on patrol or tripped the mines with their hands while setting them themselves. And soldiers aren't the only victims. Many more are children or young mothers who went looking for firewood. Land mines are the leftovers of war in Cambodia, and it is estimated that there is one buried mine for each one of the 10 million men, women, and children in the country. About 30,000 people here are living casualties. And there are plenty more to come.

VETS RETURN. So now, I am back in Cambodia chasing my ghosts. Pol Pot has been captured in the jungle somewhere. The capital is teetering on a knife's edge of violence. And it's the kind of languid, tropical day that evokes the sweating, malarial scenes of Apocalypse Now.

I decide to visit one of the places that is trying to make incomplete people whole again--a prosthetics clinic called Kien Khlang. The collection of former military barracks and palm trees is just across the Tonle Sap River from the capital, Phnom Penh.

Although several aid groups now make artificial limbs in Cambodia, there's something remarkable about Kien Khlang: It was founded by American Vietnam War veterans who felt they had a debt to pay to the war victims they helped create. The first director was a former Green Beret who took part in the 1970s U.S. invasions of Cambodia and Laos. Current director Larrie Warren, 54, was in the Peace Corps and never fought. But he believes in the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's mission. "I'm not a big promoter of American guilt, but we played a part in the past here. We can afford it, and it's something we should be doing," he says.

A sign posted in the clinic says it has treated 6,052 persons since it opened in 1991 and has built more than 2,000 wheelchairs. As many as 150 new patients a month come through Kien Khlang's doors. The clinic's annual $1.7 million budget, which also covers a mobile outreach unit and smaller provincial clinics, comes from the U.S. government, foundation grants, and individual and corporate donations.

Touring the clinic is both disturbing and inspiring. Amputees have come great distances, drawn more by the free food the clinic serves than by the promise of treatment. They line up on wooden benches outside, in the shade of the eaves. It's not until they are fitted for a new leg or arm, says Warren, that they realize they can have at least some semblance of a life again. A mine victim is difficult to treat because shrapnel can do horrible, ragged damage to the muscles at the wound site and severely injure the limbs that remain. Then, the humid air slows healing and rots the skin. Many people have to be re-amputated before a prosthesis can be made to fit.

"I LOSE IT." "The misery here is just phenomenal," says Warren. "The military hospitals where new amputees first get brought in, they're like something out of the dark ages--smelly, dark, dirty. The [victims] are teenage soldiers and the wives of soldiers blown apart because they were out gathering wood. I lose it when I see a 19-, 20-year-old woman with two small kids who's got no legs."

So Warren and his staff spend their days trying to help. A new pair of legs will enable a mother to tend to her children and perhaps even work the fields. While she will never be whole in the eyes of Cambodians, she can be self-sufficient. Warren likes to tell the story of Tum Roeun, 23, who stepped on a mine when she was 14 and spent eight embarrassed years hiding in her house. With her new leg, she is now at the core of a rural sewing center where female amputees earn a living. "She's just the most vivacious young woman," says Warren.

The clinic employs materials much more rudimentary than those used for prosthetics in the U.S. A high-tech leg would fall apart and rust in a Cambodian rice paddy. So Cambodian limbs are plastic and hollow--to fill with water so they don't float when amputees wade through water. They have few metal parts. The feet, made of rubber, are designed to go barefoot, as Cambodians often do. They have a slit next to the big toe to hold a sandal thong. It takes days to get a leg or arm to fit right, and weeks of practice on the clinic's monkey bars and obstacle course to learn to use it.

A BETTER LIFE. Getting amputees mobile is only half the story. The other half is getting them working. About 70% of the clinic's employees, who make limbs as well as wheelchairs, are disabled. It is perhaps the only job each will ever have. The clinic's dormitory supervisor, Lim Sokheng, has arms that end just below the elbows, and he has only one eye. "I was very depressed," the ex-soldier, 35, recalls of his mine accident 13 years ago. "I realized I was alone because my parents, brothers, and sisters were all killed by Pol Pot." To eat, he depended on strangers to put a rubber band over the stump of his forearm and attach a spoon under it. "I wanted to kill myself," he says, which is difficult to do if you have no hands. New arms, hands made of metal hooks, and the job at Kien Khlang have kept him from the life of a beggar.

Many others, of course, are less fortunate, and are forced to hobble through the streets in search of food. And so, later on this hot afternoon, I find a ragged man begging on the sidewalk, both legs missing above the knees. In penance for so many others like him I had ignored in years past, I kneel before him and put a $20 bill into his old army cap. We both lower our eyes. He places his hands together, prayer-like, in thanks, and offers me his blessing.

Asia Editor Prasso was Cambodia bureau chief for the Agence France-Presse news agency from 1991 to 1994.