The Lame Will Walk

By Gee-Gee O. Torres

The great struggle to end anti-personnel landmines continues. Up to now, in spite of the campaign of Princess Diana, Pax Christi and a great number of Christian and to there group throughout the world, some countries continue to make landmines: Pakistan, India, USA, China. Below is an account of our Assistant Editor’s visit to Cambodia where she visited our Filipino missionaries and was faced with the stark reality of the effects of the landmines. (Ed.)

Before I went to Cambodia last year to visit our Filipino missionaries I had to finish laying out our March-April 2000 issue. I also had to edit the articles which I enjoyed doing, except for one: the articles on landmines. I quivered as I read the lines describing how landmines tore off the limbs of the victims. So I went to Cambodia not only with my unpleasant memory of the movie, The Killing Fields, but also with the uncertainty of my safety. I could step on a landmine by chance and lose my leg or... my life. Was I ready to take this risk? I had to make a decision. I decided to go.

Center of Dove

I visited our 15 Filipino missionaries in Phnom Penh. Among them was Fr. Totet Banaynal, sj from Mindanao. He joined the Jesuit Service Team in Cambodia last year after his ordination. Fr. Totet invited me to visit their technical school for people disabled by landmines, war and polio, not far from Phnom Penh, called Banteay Prieb, meaning Center of Dove. He collected me at my homebase – the Salesian Sister’s house – and off we went on his motorbike to the school. Fr. Totet told me on our way that it was in this school where my batchmate and friend in college Richie Fernando died.  As we entered the gate, I felt at home knowing that Richie was once here. I went to see the Buddhist memorial, erected in his memory which enshrined his blood. For a moment I stood there in silence.

Earning and Learning in Banteay Prieb

Banteay Prieb offers various skill training such as carpentry, weaving, electronics and agriculture to these war victims and others. With their new skill students not only learn to earn a living but also enhance their sense of dignity and self-worth. Aside form skills training programs, the center also makes the Mekong wheel chair. Fr. Totet said that this wheel chair is unique because first all of its parts are locally produced and second it is assembled by the handicapped for fellow handicapped.Mekong Wheelchairs travel across the different provinces of Cambodia helping the many landmine victims.

Does God Really Exist?

I asked Fr. Totet how does he find his first assignment. “I first arrived here in 1994 for my overseas training and during this time I want though a dilemma. Everyday I saw people with one leg, malnourished children playing on the streets, young girls dragged into prostitution. Everywhere I go I see these faces. I began to ask where God is amidst all these sufferings. Why are there so many people maimed by landmines, children becoming orphans because of war and girls force into prostitution because of poverty? Does God really exist? Of course, I felt guilty with my question because I was a seminarian and had taken my vows at that. But as the days passed the question deepened. I rarely went to Mass and if did I felt empty. I was almost convinced that God did not exist.”

God Exist

During his period of dilemma Fr. Totet met Vanna – a boy with elephantiasis, a kind of leprosy in which the skin takes on the appearance of an elephants hide. Every afternoon Vanna would go to Fr. Totet to have his wounds on his leg cleaned. Fr. Totet would boil water, prepare a towel and then start cleaning Vanna’s wounds.One day while cleaning Vanna's wounds he wondered. “Why am I doing all these for Vanna?" It suddenly dawned on him that he loves Vanna that’s why he was helping him. He finally found the missing piece in his question. “If I love Vanna and if God is love, therefore God exist. He had been here all along... in this land of suffering, in the land where my bestfriend, Richie gave up his life.”

Hopeful in Cambodia

Fr. Totet sees so much capacity n the Khmer people. Despite their brokenness, they have the potential to reach out to others, talents to be tapped and skill to be developed. He senses a lot of goodness, dignity and hope. Take Vanna for example. He never forgot to say thank you with a smile to Fr. Totet. And meet Suka who lost both legs and even has missing fingers. After she finished her course at the center Suka can now sculpt and radiates with so much life. She even joined a seven-kilometer race for the handicapped on her wheelchair and won the second place.

Visit to Angkor Wat

Then I went to see Angkor Wat at Siem Reap province. I stayed at the Jesuit Refugee Service Center (JRS) where I met Totok, Fr. Widi and Kao. They showed me around the compound of the historic Angkor Wat. I was surprise at its expanse and looking at the intricate designs carved on huge stones of the temple built in 12th century was just amazing.

Sokheum’s Fate

At the JRS Center lives Sokheum Man, one of the scholars of the Jesuits. In January 10, 1996, fourteen-year-old Sokheum and his best friend Chai Chun rode their bicycle to school to study together. They knew that landmines are dangerous but Sokheum could not understand until now why his bestfriend picked up the mine – which looked like a rocket – they saw on the road. They brought it to the nearest army base. On their way the mine fell to the ground and exploded – killing Chai on the spot. The blast tore of half of Sokheum’s right foot. Sokheum endured the agony and pain for almost two weeks because he didn’t want to join the army of cripples in Cambodia. But the doctor was obliged to amputate his leg when gangrene set in.

His Life Anew

“I wanted to die when I learned that the doctor had to amputate my right leg. I didn’t want to be counted among the landmine victims. I come from a very poor family. My parents had to sell a large part of our year’s rice crop to pay for my hospital expenses.”  Sokheum eventually got his prostheses (artificial leg) with the help of many organizations. He is now more than happy to have survived the accident. With his artificial leg he now lives a normal life. He plays basketball, rides a bicycle and can even plow the fields.

Keep on Dreaming

Sokheum wants to tell his fellow landmine victims not to lose hope and not to give up. To the young ones he wants them to continue studying and for the older ones to find a technical school like the ones run by the Jesuits at Banteay Srie and learn new skills. “When I lost my leg, I also lost interest in studying. But when I saw the students in Banteay Srie studying vocational curses such as electronics I was inspired to go back to school. It was difficult at first but after a while I got adjusted to my new leg.” I asked him what he would like to be when he graduates in high school. He said, “I want to be a lawyer and use my knowledge so that no more people will be harmed by landmines.” Our Filipino Jesuits are helping him to reach his dream.