When I came across this Tuesday’s New York Times article about an annual 10k race in Cambodia for athletes with artificial legs, as part of the Angkor Wat International Half-Marathon, I was intrigued, because I visited this country two years ago. In the summer of 2007, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I traveled through Laos and Cambodia and had an amazing time in these Southeast Asian countries. When we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia after several days in Laos, we walked its streets, checking out the local crowds and wondering what it was like for them to grow up in a country that is slowly recovering from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. What immediately struck me was the realization that most of the people on the streets appeared to be under 30 years old, with little or no memory of the ravages of forced work labor under Pol Pot and the famine that followed under Vietnamese occupation. And that, among those aged over 30, a few of them were missing limbs and/or otherwise disfigured – presumably from the wars and famines of the 1970’s.
Admittedly our visit was mostly sanitized – we visited Angkor Wat and the many historic ruins surrounding Siem Reap, stayed in the Foreign Correspondents Club in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and toured the sights in Phnom Penh including the Royal Palace, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the haunting Choeung Ek fields, whose green meadows barely cover the scars of mass graves of thousands of people killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Yet during this visit I was able to get a sense of the real Cambodia beyond the tourist attractions — whole families on motorbikes riding through streets, locals in a poor neighborhood besieging my driver as he stepped out to buy water, and the occasional if not unusual sight of someone without an arm or a leg. That Cambodia and, in particular, Siem Reap could include 3,500 people with artificial legs from around the world (including 1,700 Cambodians) in the various Angkor Wat half-marathon events, is a commentary on the country’s determination in dealing with its past. And just as importantly, if not more so, there are evidently people in Cambodia who make a genuine effort to increase the level of acceptance of people with disabilities within society, in a country with an unusually high concentration of people with disabilities within its general population primarily due to war, famine, and more recently, land mine accidents. (The proceeds from the half-marathon events go toward purchasing artificial limbs for land mine victims, among other efforts.)
While in college at Brown University, I met a fellow student, Arn Chorn-Pond (click here for Chorn-Pond’s bio) in a class we both attended. When Chorn-Pond was a child growing up in Cambodia, he survived the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields by playing the flute to keep Pol Pot’s soldiers entertained. At Brown, he noticed that I was using a sign language interpreter to understand the professor in our class. He walked up to me, introduced himself, and commented on his amazement that I was able to rely on this type of support to get me through college. He said in Cambodia there are many people who are deaf who do not have the same kind of opportunities I have, and there are so many people who became blinded from Khmer Rouge’s genocidal practices, war injuries and the land mines that dot the Cambodian landscape. He said there was little support in Cambodia for people with disabilities. That was in the late 1980’s.
I was constantly reminded of his words when we traveled through Cambodia. When we visited the Bakong ruins outside Siem Reap, we came upon a group of blind musicians soliciting money. There was a sign near them indicating they were victims of land mines, and also a cup for coins. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this group, as we have come across many beggars who may be controlled by people behind the scenes who get a cut of the donations. Yet, the reality is, they’re blind, they were children during the Khmer Rouge regime and the war with Vietnam, and one cannot imagine what they experienced then.
Cambodia is increasingly becoming modernized — its first skyscraper is going up in Phnom Penh, and, prior to the 2009 global financial crisis, its economy expanded very rapidly. It is not without its many issues, as corruption is rife within its political system, and the child sex trade has been a serious, ongoing problem. Its population is booming — over 75% of Cambodians are under age 30 and memories of the Khmer Rouge are fading. With all that is going on today, the legacy of Pol Pot is in danger of being cast aside. Yet, after what Arn Chorn-Pond told me two decades ago about the difficult experiences of people with disabilities in his homeland, the annual Angkor Wat half-marathon event is progress enough, a well-deserved recognition of the perseverance of disabled Cambodians in bettering themselves and maintaining their pride and dignity.