Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Landmine survivor returns to school

By Chhaya Plong 

Ms Bun Khim Heng, Pailin provincial social work focal point, teaches Phoung
how to bandage his stump in preparation for his first prosthesis in November 2016.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Chhaya Plong

Phnom Koy village, Pailin province, Cambodia, December 2016: Pailin province borders Thailand in the east of Cambodia. It is one of the post-conflict provinces heavily contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) left over from the civil war that raged from 1979 to 1992. The Cambodian Mine and ERW Victim Information System of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority recorded a total of 64,000 casualties between 1979 and 2016. Pailin accounts for 25 per cent of the total casualties, and one in every five of those are children.

UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to train primary school students since 1994 to conduct child-to-child mine risk education to prevent accidents and injuries and report landmines and ERWs that have been identified by communities for destruction by de-mining agencies.

This programme targets new settlers who have moved from other provinces looking for work or hoping to cultivate the land, especially those who take risks to work in suspected contamination areas. Since 1992, continued support for mine risk education and de-mining by UNICEF and other partners has resulted in a significant reduction of casualties, from more than 4,000 in 1996 to less than 100 in 2016. However, landmine and ERW related explosions continue to injure and kill local community members, including children.

Phorn Phoung, 17, lives with his widowed father and five siblings in Phnom Koy village in Pailin. His family moved from Prey Veng province to this village to work as seasonal labourers. On 8 July 2016, Phoung was injured by a landmine while herding cows with his brother near the foot of a mountain about 1 kilometre from his house. Although he and his younger brother had worked in the area for five years without problems, it is thought that flash flooding in 2013 had washed a landmine down from high in the mountains to this safe area.

Phoung was unaware that flash flooding could wash landmines or ERWs to the area, or that in 2013 three landmines had already exploded nearby resulting in the deaths of three people and injury to two cows. On the day of his accident, a team of de-miners and local people working nearby saved Phoung’s life, but tragically his brother died.

“My brother, Somaly, and I had gone to graze cows after returning from school that day. We were both injured but my brother never returned. I was unconscious and seriously injured. I lost a lovely brother. I also lost a watch that my father had given to me when I got the first class student award in Grade 5,” Phuong said. “Now I worry if I can fulfil my dream of becoming a good teacher because I not only lost my left leg but the accident has also affected my memory. I am scared of loud noises and explosions and I often have nightmares,” he continued, tears in his eyes.

Phuong’s father was working when the blast happened.

“I was cutting wood to make a small house when the blast occurred,” he said. “Some people went to see what had happened, but I was not interested as the tree that I was cutting almost fell down.

“About 10 minutes after the blast, one of my neighbours ran towards me saying, ‘Your son, Phoung, was seriously injured by a landmine and Somaly is no longer with us’. I was shocked. I almost could not walk but I tried my best to return home with no hope.”

When Phoung’s father arrived home, his son had been transported to Pailin referral hospital on a motorbike for an emergency operation to save his life.

“At the hospital, I prayed to God again and again to save my son’s life,” Phoung’s father said. “After 42 minutes of surgery, I was informed by a doctor that they were able to save my son’s life, but could not save his left leg. I felt mixture of sadness and happiness as I still had him although he lost some parts of his body,” he recalled.

A physiotherapist checks Phoung’s stump at the Physical Rehabilitation Centre
of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Battambang,
and confirms he is ready for his first prosthesis.
©OEC Coordinator/2016

One week after the surgery, a government district social worker who works for Enfants du Cambodge (OEC) visited Phoung in hospital. She provided a small amount of financial and food emergency assistance to support his family as Phoung’s father could not work while his son was in hospital. “I am grateful to OEC for providing additional financial support for my son to have a second surgery at the emergency hospital in Battamang to remove pieces of fragmentation from his face, arms and legs that could not be done at the referral hospital,” his father said. “I moved his bed next to my bed because he felt pain in his chest when coughing, and sometimes he fell from his bed at night,” he added.

Before the explosion Phoung was studying Grade 7 but afterwards, he dropped out. He found it difficult to listen and remember what he had learned and had to abandon his education. After a few months of support and several visits from OEC, which included Phoung visiting his teachers and his school-mates, he was convinced to go back to school in the same grade.

Bun Khim Heng, the Pailin province social work focal point has been instrumental in supporting Phoung and his family. She’s been working with OEC for nearly five years. “I started to work with OEC in 2012. With the financial support provided by UNICEF, I have been able to assist 83 landmine survivors and support 374 children with disabilities to go back to school,” she said.

“I am very pleased to have an opportunity to work with OEC to assist my community. This work helps me and the Cambodian government to address and respond to the needs of people with disabilities.”

Phoung’s motorbike repair training centre is located about 5km from his house. 
He uses his prosthesis to travel by bicycle by himself. 
©OEC Coordinator/2016

OEC provided the family with food while Phoung was in hospital, and recently gave him a bicycle to travel to school. It also trained him in how to repair motorbikes and gave the family two cows to raise. With essential support received from Ms. Heng and OEC, Phoung and his family’s circumstances are slowly improving for the better.

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