After Amputation: Life Experiences, Risks and Economic Precarity for People with Disabilities in Cambodia
April 4, 2018
Commemorating International Mine Awareness Day, Soulcial Trust has embarked on a life narrative project to unravel the lived experience of disabilities in Cambodia. Below is the life story of Bel. To read the rest of the three stories, the full document is available here- After Amputation: Life Experiences, Risks and Economic Precarity for People with Disabilities in Cambodia
He held tight to his crutch, slightly leaning his whole body on the crane. Once he had found his balance, he gingerly stepped forward with his left foot, beginning to walk step by step from popular Pub Street to Phsar Chas, the Old Market. He was about to sell the handmade jewellery that he was clutching.
Approaching a souvenir shop near the corner of Phsar Chas, he vigilantly took out his gemstone jewellery from an organza pouch. After showing his handicraft to the store manager, he asked gently whether they were willing to sell his jewellery. Their discussion continued for a short while and ended in disappointment. He left, with a blank look on his face, looking for another shop that would be willing to sell his treasure.
He is Bel.
Bel is one of the myriad landmine victims in Cambodia. He stepped on a landmine when he was seven years old. Born right in the aftermath of Cambodian Genocide, Bel’s life was torn apart by the civil war. His brother joined Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge whereas his other brother joined the opposition, the army of PRK (People’s Republic of Kampuchea).
“When both of my brothers joined the army, I am all alone,” said Bel.
As a boy, before the landmine explosion, he wandered around the fields, helping farmers take care of the buffalos in exchange for food. On other occasions, he collected food in the forest. “I can still remember the smell of the burning corn that I was collecting for food,” Bel recalled sensually. “It was great.”
The burning corn that once smelt of satisfaction and independence soon turned into the smell of horror and destruction.
Bel stepped on a landmine.
“I remembered that I heard the deafening sound of an explosion. I looked out and saw the faraway truck get exposed.” At first, he thought it was the truck that triggered the landmine. But then he saw that the surrounding trees were collapsing and burning.
His whole body was spattered by the warmth of blood. His t-shirt was burnt. His arms were burnt and his stomach spilt out. “I tried to run but my legs just wouldn’t move,” noted Bel. He cried for help for about five minutes until someone came. Brought to the village, he was engulfed by the sobs and grievances of the villagers. The doctors gave him an injection but predicted that he would not survive the night.
Miraculously, Bel, albeit severely injured, was strong enough to live and tell the tale. He was soon transferred to Siem Reap Province Hospital near the Old Market. At the hospital, he received medication and three bottles of blood.
When he woke up the next day, he found that the doctors had removed his right leg. “I want my leg back,” Bel said, “and I cried and kicked the doctors when they came to visit me.” Nevertheless, realising the inevitable necessity of amputation made him stay in the hospital for another six months. After a while, he learnt to walk with a bamboo stick.
THE BEGINNING OF A LIFE
When Bel returned to his village, he felt that everything had changed. His friends and neighbours kept him at bay. They stopped talking to him. His stepmother kicked him and hit him when she saw him.
Bel explained, “In Cambodia, people who lost their legs, arms, eyes… signify the end of one’s life. They said you are ‘finished’. You are not important anymore. The Khmer term for people with disabilities (jon pikar) also means that you are paralyzed and cannot do anything.”
Bel spent one to two more years in the village before leaving to earn money to go to school. But a series of futile attempts forced him to return home once again.
Eventually, Bel went to school to receive a junior education and graduated at the top of his class. Since there was no high school in the village, he travelled to Siem Reap to receive further education. He received the education he needed from the Cambodia Landmine Museum and School. During that time, Bel had the opportunity to learn English from some overseas volunteers.
This changed his life.
After completing high school, Bel received a scholarship to study economics at Angkor University, majoring in economics. In his second year of university, he decided to get a position in office administration. After sending countless job applications to companies, he managed to secure several job interviews. Nonetheless, the moment he stepped into an interview room he realised he was, and still is, facing an enormous obstacle.
“When I arrived,” said Bel, “they saw that I have lost a leg, refusing to hire me. They said their company don’t need people with disabilities and tell me to go to other places.”
Day after day, he applied for a job for more than a year and was rejected time after time. Realising how difficult employment for people with disabilities can be, Bel decided to open Khmer Independent Life Team (KILT) in 2003 to help people with physical disabilities earn a living. In KILT, Bel taught members English and skills to make jewellery, to sew, to make copper wire art, to paint…
Over the years, he helped his members get jobs.
“They call me teacher Bel,” he said with exaltation.
LIVING A PRECARIOUS LIFE
Since the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, however, the number of KILT members has dropped drastically. His team receives little funding and support for his business.
On top of that, he noticed that people started copying his unique jewellery design.
“I asked them why they are doing the same thing, and they replied that this is a FREE MARKET and everybody can do it. So basically they’re copying my original design. It’s copying,” Bel emphasised.
Unable to pay the outrageously high rent of 150 USD per month to continue to sell his jewellery at the Old Market, he attempted to sell his jewellery on the street. But life can be an arduous journey. The royal police in the Old Market forbade him to engage in any kind of “informal” economic activities, evicting him from the Old Market.
Currently, he is running his business through direct sales. He approaches shop owners in the city of Siem Reap, persuading them to sell his hand-made jewellery in their souvenir shops.
“Cambodians won’t buy my jewellery. They think they are for animals, and Khmer should not wear it.” His business is now contingent entirely on tourists and foreigners.
ABJECTION AND ASPIRATION
“Sorry I can’t help you with that,” the store manager told Bel. “I am not the owner of this shop. My boss is working on the other side of the river. Maybe you should visit his shop.” Bel went to the other side of the river but could never find that souvenir shop. “Let’s do this [selling jewellery] again next week. We may have better luck,” said Bel with a hint of a smile.
It was around ten o’clock on a Wednesday night. Bel decided to return to his home. Step by step, he gradually walked past the hustle and bustle of the Art Centre Bridge, as if he were loaded with the unthinkable weight of history and memory.
To read the rest of the other three stories, see our full document After Amputation: Life Experiences, Risks and Economic Precarity for People with Disabilities in Cambodia