Charity Begins At Home - The Cambodia Trust

After a week spent immersing myself in the history and culture of ancient Cambodia and the legacy of the Khmer god-kings of the 9-13th centuries at Angkor, I returned to the capital, Phnom Penh and was abruptly brought back to the everyday realities caused by Cambodia's recent past with a visit to the offices and workshops of the British non-governmental organization, the Cambodia Trust. Nearly thirty years of civil war has had a devastating effect on Cambodia and its people. Successive governments have failed to bring lasting peace to a country whose soul was all but ripped out by the genocidal Khmer Rouge reign of the late 1970s. The lasting legacy of that troubled and turbulent recent past is the scourge of landmines. An estimated six million mines remain buried on Cambodian soil, waiting to claim their next innocent victim.

Learning to walk again at the Cambodia Trust HQ.The Cambodia Trust, a British charity formed in 1989, is at the forefront of the rehabilitation of mine casualties and a driving force behind the establishment of a home-grown national school to train Cambodians in the provision of prostheses (artificial limbs) for those victims. Their headquarters in Phnom Penh is in the grounds of the Calmette Hospital and a flurry of e-mails before my departure from the UK had elicited an invitation to see them at work. My flight from Siem Reap had touched down at 8am, a walk along the Tonle Sap riverfront, a cold shower and an early lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club followed before a cyclo ride to the hospital in time for my 1pm appointment. I walked through the hospital entrance and took a wrong turning into a spotlessly clean accident ward full of patients and their extended families before being directed to the Trust's buildings tucked away in a corner of the hospital grounds. A large blue sign with the Trust's logo emblazoned across it beckoned me in and I announced my arrival to Pith Sokra and Borithy Lun, two of the senior administrative staff at the Centre. Their office was light, airy and welcoming and Borithy filled me in with some brief background details of the charity's work before handing me onto Dudley Turner, a Scot and the Trust's resident Chief Prosthetist for the last four years. As we toured the amputees' dormitories, workshops, fitting rooms and rehabilitation area on foot, he explained the clinic's work in detail.

In a country of 35,000 amputees, the Trust's four clinics (in Phnom Penh, Kompong Som, Kompong Chhnang and Kien Svay) have 5,000 patients on their books who need regular repair and renewal of their artificial limbs and they also see up to 100 new amputees each month. The workshops and plaster room at the Centre were a hive of activity, the ovens shaping the polypropylene sheets used to create the limb sockets were doing brisk business and the fitting and rehabilitation rooms were occupied by a handful of amputees, hell bent on resurrecting their shattered lives and regaining their mobility, dignity and their independence. Despite their smiles and nods of agreement, I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of two of the group, a male and female, embarking on their first tentative steps between a pair of parallel bars with their newly-acquired above-knee artificial legs (photo above).

After an hour, Dudley took me next door, past a sign that proudly boasted the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO) and introduced me to the school's Principal, Carson Harte, a big Irishman in both stature and height, with a well-honed sense of humour. He in turn, introduced me briefly to Norman Springall, a VSO volunteer who'd himself only just arrived in Phnom Penh and excused himself from their meeting to take me on a tour of the school's facilities. A desire to provide Cambodia with a generation of native-born prosthetists is the aim of the school and a three-year course designed to produce some sixty professionally qualified specialists by the year 2002, produced its first batch of graduates in March 1997. The school's workshops mirror those next door at the Cambodia Trust and in addition, there are assessment and fitting rooms, student dormitories and two classrooms where the trainees receive two years of theory and practice before spending their final year in a practical environment, usually at one of the other NGO's involved in limb replacement.

Retiring to his office, Carson, an expatriate of four years standing, explained that he and his wife had recently adopted a young Khmer child and the trials and tribulations they'd experienced in achieving that goal. We also discussed at some length, the challenges he'd faced in his time at the CSPO. As an example, up to half of the current batch of third year students were unlikely to pass their final exams in time for graduation day in a few weeks time. In fact, the graduation ceremony came up trumps and received a lot of international press coverage and the school likewise, when Earl Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, flew into Cambodia to be the guest of honour. I later heard that with some expert guidance from Norman Springall, all of the students had passed their graduation successfully.

The Renakse Hotel's entrance, overlooking the Royal Palace.My afternoon spent at the Cambodia Trust and CSPO had been both an enjoyable and educational experience. Everyone I met had been far more helpful and accommodating than I could've wished for. It brought home to me the level of commitment and expertise shown by NGO's and expats in working towards an eventual goal of Cambodians being able to help themselves. The Trust is helping and supporting Cambodians now with their immediate needs and the fruits of the CSPO's labours, will continue that help for many years to come. They are both deserving of our support. I cadged a lift back into town in Carson's jeep and after a quick shower and a cold drink at the hotel bar, teamed up with a small group of travellers who were staying at the Renakse (left) for one night. After a cheeseburger and chips at the Rendezvous restaurant along the riverfront, we stopped for drinks at La Taverne and The Globe before picking our way through the picnicking Khmer families, on the lawns directly in front of the Royal Palace compound and a last drink at the hotel bar before retiring to bed.

Postscript July 1999: The Cambodia Trust celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1999 and needs to generate an income of up to 100,000 per year to provide professionally trained Cambodian specialists with the necessary resources to continue to provide free artificial limbs and rehab to Cambodian landmine amputees. Among the dignitaries and notables who've pledged support for the efforts of The Cambodia Trust are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Samdech Preah Maha Ghosananda, actress Emma Thompson, 'The Killing Fields' film director Roland Joffe and Dith Pran, on whom the film was based. For more information contact the Cambodia Trust by e-mail or visit their website. Five more Cambodians have recently qualified as Prosthetists/Orthotists from the Trust-inspired and co-administered CSPO. That brings the number of Khmers who have qualified to 18, of which eight are employed by the Trust at its clinics. The remaining graduates are now working at clinics run by other NGOs working with amputees and other disabled in Cambodia. The aim is that enough native trained prosthetists will form Cambodia's first National Rehabilitation Service and take over the running of the Trust's four clinics in the year 2002.

Update July 2000: Cambodia Trust proudly announced this month that Cambodians, trained with help from the Trust, have assumed responsibility for all rehab and administration at the charity's clinics. It was one of the charity's initial goals when they opened their first clinic in 1992. Today, the Trust employs fourteen home-grown professional Prosthetists/Orthotists, as well as four interns. A total of eight trained Khmer physiotherapists also work at the clinics. The Prosthetists are success stories of the CSPO, which has now produced 39 Khmer graduates, when another 13 Cambodians successfully passed out earlier this year. In the past year, the Trust has provided over 2,500 artificial limbs and braces and also repaired or adjusted another 1,700. Now responsible for the Trust's global activities, Carson Harte has been created International Director, with Bill Velicky replacing him as CSPO Principal. Carson was on hand to welcome French international footballer David Ginola, when he made a well-publicised visit to the Trust recently.

Update October 2001: Cambodia Trust have produced a film to raise awareness of the problems facing people with disability in Cambodia. Copies of the 30-minute film on video or CD-Rom can be obtained from the Trust for a small donation. E-mail the Trust for details. To-date, 48 students have now graduated from CSPO. A truly remarkable success story.

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