When Wars are Over, Troops Go Home. Weapons Don’t
By Elizabeth MacNairn, Executive Director, Handicap International U.S.
In 2005, seven-year-old Kanha was playing in her family’s courtyard when her father came home from his fields. He brought home a rusty metal object, scrap metal he planned to sell. The instant he brought his hammer down on the object, it exploded. Shrapnel from the bomb killed him instantly, and the impact of the blast hurled Kahna across the courtyard. Her mother found her lying unconscious on the ground, her right leg torn to shreds.
Cambodia was not at war when Kanha’s father found what he hoped would bring his family some additional income. The country had known relative stability since 1997. But like nearly 60 other countries, Cambodia is polluted with explosive remnants of war (ERW) from conflicts past. In Cambodia, millions of bombs were dropped on the country by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge laid landmines during the Cambodian genocide and subsequent conflicts polluted a large swath of the country with ERW.
Hidden landmines and other ERW have terrorized Cambodians since the late 1970s. Those who survive contact with ERW are completely and irrevocably changed, and many victims require specialized support for the rest of their lives. The dangers are real. In 2011, 43 people died and 168 were injured in landmine and ERW blasts. About 65,000 people have fallen victim since 1979, a third of them children.
Survivors often need prosthetic limbs and mobility devices, as well as intensive physical therapy and psychological support to recover. Kanha is no different. After her accident, Kahna was taken to the hospital where her leg was amputated. Afterwards she languished in bed for weeks. Almost a year later in January 2006, Kahna’s mother helped her hobble on one leg into Handicap International‘s orthopedic workshop in Kompong Cham. Staff gave Kanha crutches, fit her with a prosthetic leg, and provided physical therapy.
With her new leg, she was able to walk on her own. Since the nearest school to Kanha’s home is more than 12 miles away, Handicap International also gave Kanha’s mother a motorbike to ensure that her daughter would be able to attend. Kanha still visits our workshop in Kompong Cham every six months. Her prosthetic leg is replaced as she grows taller.
Fitting a child with a prosthetic limb costs as little as $35 in Cambodia. As long as Handicap International still operates in the country, Kanha and other innocent civilians disabled by ERW will continue to receive the care and support they need to live independent and dignified lives.
Since its founding in 1982, Handicap International has helped more than 500,000 people with amputations walk again and gain access to services and inclusion in schools, jobs and the community at large. We believe it’s not enough to help people recover physically. Those with disabilities should also be able to live full, productive lives. I’ve had the privilege of seeing our field teams’ work with people with amputations in places like Haiti, Ethiopia and Mozambique, where, without our care, they might have languished. Instead, with proper care and additional access and inclusion support, we’ve seen them thrive.
International conflicts and violence naturally dominate headlines. Crises in Gaza, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo filled the pages of our 2012 Thanksgiving newspapers. We cannot forget that after the fighting stops, ERW will continue to harm civilians in these regions, stymieing confidence and development.
Kanha exemplifies these dangers. Now 14, she attends school and has many friends. She dreams of becoming doctor. After overcoming the physical limitations of her injury and the psychological trauma of being wounded, anything seems possible. But until her country is fully cleared of ERW, the lives of other Cambodian children and adults will continue to be at risk.
Learn more about how Handicap International helps people living in countries with ERW.
Handicap International is an independent and impartial aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. They work alongside people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, taking action and bearing witness in order to respond to their essential needs, improve their living conditions, and promote respect for their dignity and fundamental rights.