Cambodia: surviving mines and war was just the beginning
05 April 2012

Han smiles with her grandson. She is determined to keep smiling for him because there is no one else to care for him. (Tess O'Brien/ JRS)
Han does not want to talk about the remaining landmines that she fears surround her village, the death of her children or the devastation caused by the floods.
Siem Reap, 5 April 2012 – "If you write about my story, you'll never finish". Han chuckles, revealing a mouthful of dark, empty crevices. Her teeth are yellowed and cracked, but don't be fooled by her appearance life has not worn her down yet.

In more ways than one, Han is a typical middle-aged Khmer woman. She doesn't remember the year she was born and tries not to remember the horrors of the Pol Pot era. She does, however, remember the day she stepped on a landmine.

She was fifteen years old when she was ordered by the occupying soldiers to "clear the forest", a tactic often used in the war to verify an area was clear of landmines and other explosive remnants of war before soldiers themselves would cross.

This time, it wasn't. Living in a remote village 60 kilometres away, it took hours to reach the from Siem Reap hospital. But had it been closer, it wouldn't have made a difference. The blast had completely taken off Han's left leg.

After a month in hospital, Han eventually went back to her village only to be thrown out of her neighbour's home where she had been living since the death of her family under Pol Pot. Destitute and alone, Han lost hope.

"I didn't think that I could keep on living..." she leans back in her chair and looks down at her three-year-old grandson.

He is playing on the ground beside her now broken, footless prosthetic. A moment passes before she looks up and smiles warmly, saying "but then my village leader started to help me. They built me a little house and slowly I got better… My hope came back."

Never giving up.
Like most Cambodian women, this incident marks only one of many challenges that Han has had to face in her lifetime. Only 45 (she estimates), Han has suffered the tragedy of having lost her husband and four of her six children. She struggles to support her remaining two children and two grandchildren, particularly since the floods ravaged her village in September of last year, destroying the livelihood of the entire community. No doubt, this will be a very hungry season ahead.

Han does not want to talk about the remaining landmines that she fears surround her village, the death of her children or the devastation caused by the floods. Currently, Han's main concern is her eighteen-year-old daughter who she tells me is experiencing "bad spirits".

Han pulls up the sleeves of her shirt to reveal bite wounds along her arms. Flustered, concerned, confused, Han immediately begins to tell me stories of her daughter who presumably is experiencing some sort of psychological trauma; something so unexplainable in rural Cambodia that "bad spirits" is the only possible explanation.

"Bad spirits haunt my family…" she tells me while shaking her head. "Today has been a difficult day..."

When asked how she gets by on the more challenging days, she suddenly throws back her head and laughs at the naiveté of such a question. "No one else can stand up and take care of my family! I must continue!" For Han, the answer was obvious.