'Leftovers of war', disabled no more


You don’t have to take a bullet or step on a land mine to be a victim of war.

The young women, in their wheelchairs at a rehabilitation centre in Kampong Speu, an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, suffer from a collateral damage of war – a shattered healthcare and social support system that still hasn’t been put back together.

Some are amputees. One is partially paralysed, and wheels and shoots with just one arm. The referee had polio. They are all disabled by accidents and diseases which could have been treated - had they not been infants and children in the latter days of Cambodia’s decade of war, first the United States’ secret bombing campaign in Cambodia in 1969 and then the reign of the genocidal Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. 

But there is something different about them now. They are not victims any more. They wear colour-coded shirts, and in special five-wheeled wheelchairs they power around a basketball court, slamming into each other in aggressive tackles, passing the ball back and forth, aiming for the hoop, shouting and cheering.

Mr Didier Cooreman, head of physical rehabilitation at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Phnom Penh, calls Cambodia’s disabled the “leftovers of war”.

These women, as disabled people from poor rural communities, have been discriminated against, left out of school, and often also abused. But the new wheelchair basketball programme has empowered them.

The programme is inspired by Dr Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC’s orthopaedic programme in Afghanistan and legendary for his work for the disabled there. There are now two wheelchair basketball programmes for women in Cambodia. One is in Battambang province started a year ago; there most of the women are land mine victims.  The one in Kampong Speu was started just three months ago.

They are supported by the Cambodia National Volleyball League for the Disabled, a non-government organisation founded by another driven and charismatic individual, Chris Minko. 

The ICRC's government partner is Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. The ICRC supports the rehab centres in Kampong Speu and Battambang, and runs a prosthetics (artifical limbs) factory in Phnom Penh. It also makes orthotics or designed devices to support or brace limbs and bodies. The war decade left Cambodia with over 660,000 disabled people. 

Their disabilities range from amputation to deafness and blindness. But that is not all. A Swedish International Development Agency paper in 2007 stated: “It is well established that persons with disabilities generally belong to the poorest among the poor with very limited access to resources, basic social services, education, vocational training and employment, thus exacerbating their poverty.”

It added: “In addition, they are often seen as a hopeless, lonely, isolated group without sufficient affection from families, relatives and friends.”
For years, the ICRC provided only prostheses in war zones around the world including Afghanistan and Cambodia, says Mr Andrea Acerbis, head of its office in Cambodia.

“It was prosthesis and some physiotherapy, and off you go,” he recalled. “But lately, the ICRC has realised physical rehabilitation is not enough. You need social re-integration. You need to go beyond prostheses, to getting accepted in society, becoming independent.”

Sports as a route to re-integration has long been tried – from football in Africa to volleyball in Cambodia and basketball in Afghanistan. But for these women in Cambodia, it is new. For one thing, it is exclusively for women – often at the bottom rung of society even if they are not disabled.
And the results have been astonishing for the 28 women so far who are taking part in it.

There is a return to confidence, physical fitness, self-assurance and competitiveness, dignity – and freedom from the bonds of their disabilities.

“Their personalities change,” said Mr Acerbis.

This is obvious when the game is in full flow.

There is no charity here. The hoop is at the regulation height. The women – like Ms Son Chanda, 31, who as a child suffered perhaps meningitis, perhaps encephalitis, which paralysed the left side of her body - are on their own with their teammates. No quarter is given. But when one wheelchair keeled over with its rider face-down, everyone rushed to the woman’s aid.

The women, who had their first tournament in Battambang on July 26, have been fortunate to have the famously motivational wheelchair basketball coach Jess Markt work with them since the third week of July. Mr Markt, from Portland, Oregon, whose spinal cord was injured in a car accident in 2009, turned to wheelchair basketball, helping to bring the sport to Afghanistan.

The women come every Friday to the rehabilitation centre at Kamong Speu and stay through the weekend. Their average age is around 28.
Their dream is to make it to an international wheelchair basketball competition in Myanmar in February 2014.

But society is slow to change, and there are multiple barriers for these women who are all poor, with none having had more than a few token years of schooling. 

While there is affirmative action for disabled in Cambodia, many of the disabled have no skills, so they have difficulty finding jobs. The challenge remains of linking them with vocational training programmes.

For instance, Ms Chanda is still not able to go to school. She is still seen as a burden, at her home among the rice fields in the Kampong Speu countryside. “People don’t like me,” she says. There remains an assumption that the disabled are useless.

But she has gained new confidence since she began playing wheelchair basketball two months ago.

Panting from the exertion on a hot humid morning, she says she wants to be a computer programmer. It suddenly seems not outside the bounds of possibility.

“One day,” she says with a shy smile.