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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 11:22 GMT
Cambodia's landmine victims

By Stuart Hughes
BBC, Cambodia

Chum Sakhorn has no doubts about who was to blame for robbing him of both of his legs.

On one of his two artificial limbs, Sakhorn - a 38 year old father of seven - has written "I was cheated by war" in blue marker pen.

Chum Sakhorn's artificial legs (photo courtesy of Sean Sutton/MAG)
Cambodia has one of the highest ratios of amputees in the world

In 1987, Chum Sakhorn was fighting the infamous Khmer Rouge in one of its strongholds near the border between Cambodia and Thailand when he stepped on a landmine.

"I was transporting equipment for my regiment. I wanted to cross a bridge - but it had been blown up by a big anti-tank mine," he said.

"I couldn't go across, so I took a detour. I spotted one mine and disarmed it, but while I was walking along a small path I stepped on another one."

The resulting explosion blew off both of Chum Sakhorn's legs below the knees.

He is now among Cambodia's estimated 40,000 chon pika - or amputees. With a population of around 11.5 million, Cambodia has one amputee for every 290 people - one of the highest ratios in the world.

But Chum Sakhorn says the landmine he stepped on also blew away any chance he had of a successful future.

Sixteen years on from his accident, he ekes out a living selling books and postcards to tourists in Phnom Penh's central market with a group of other mine-injured former soldiers.

A local bookseller lends them the merchandise and pays them a small commission on each item sold.

Find out more about the global landmine problem

Most retailers in the market, though, are less sympathetic. They regard the amputees as the lowest of the low.

"Life for amputees in Cambodia is very bad," Sakhorn says.

"The shopkeepers don't even like me standing in front of their stores.

"Sometimes the police try to arrest us, or confiscate our merchandise. We're treated like outcasts - the authorities harass us because they think we're below them."

Next wave

Outside the main cities, 85% of Cambodians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Cambodia's chronic mine contamination problem means the threat of death or serious injury is a daily reality for most people here.

Chum Sakhorn and fellow amputees former soldier friends in Phnom Penh (photo courtesy of Sean Sutton/MAG)
Landmine victims are left to struggle to make a living

"A recent survey found that more than 40% of the villages in Cambodia have a mine problem," says Sean Sutton from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international mine clearance charity.

"Cambodia was constantly at war for more than 20 years. Landmines were widely used by all sides. Each time an area changed hands fresh mines were laid in areas that were already heavily contaminated," he said.

Indeed, Pol Pot - the head of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime blamed for the deaths of millions of Cambodians during the 1970s - described landmines as his "perfect soldiers," so effective were they at causing fear and death.

Democratic elections in 1993 heralded the start of a period of relative calm in Cambodia and many displaced people began returning home from refugee camps in Thailand.

Yet this population movement brought another wave of landmine casualties. "Many villagers lost limbs trying to reclaim the land they'd been forced from years before," explains Sean Sutton.

"Many of them knew their villages and fields were mined but they needed to work the land in order to survive.

"They knew they were risking their lives - but they had no choice."

Stuart Hughes is a BBC producer who lost part of his right leg after stepping on a landmine in northern Iraq. He now campaigns against landmines, and reports on the scale of the problem in Cambodia. Pictures from MAG

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