Mol Saroeun was sowing rice in the jungle 15 years ago when he was caught in a battle between Khmer Rouge and government forces.
Government fighters mistook him for a Khmer Rouge soldier, he said, and bashed his hand so thoroughly he had to have part of his arm removed.
Tuesday he was again caught between the two sides, but this time a shared condition seemed to overwhelm any differences in politics—he was sitting in a room where everyone was missing a limb.
Officials and NGO workers for years have searched for ways to reintegrate former members of the Khmer Rouge with other members of society, but today a few dozen amputees—from one-time rebels and government soldiers to refugees and farmers—will go it alone when they open the Cambodian Association to Help the Disabled.
“We’re tired of all the fighting,” Mol Saroeun said. “I do not hate the people who did this to me anymore. They were at war and confused. We just want to forget it and move on.”
The 32-member organization in the Phnom Sruoch district of Kampong Speu province was founded by Touch Soeuly, an area resident who lost his leg in a land mine explosion. He said he is tired of seeing so many fellow residents without arms and legs struggling to make a living and decided to act.
“These people can’t walk through the muddy rice fields with one leg” said Soeuly, a 47-year-old former Khmer Rouge commander. “So their standard of living keeps going down. At the same time, they’re getting older and older, and they have children right behind them.”
The purpose of the infant association, where the mud-floor office has little more than chairs, a table and a hammock, is both to train landowning members on modern, less physically-intensive agricultural techniques, and to help landless members obtain property and supplies.
Although the organization’s overt goals of raising funds, securing land and building classrooms may be a while off, the underlying function of the group, to unite disabled residents of all backgrounds, seems to have already taken hold.
“We want to bring together people who have different abilities,” said Yan Saran, a 44-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier, who has also worked as an electrician. “Everyone here has different skills and by sharing these skills, we can raise our living standards.”
The members say the common plight of trying to overcome the difficulties of living without limbs will overshadow any possibility of conflict over issues of the past.
“The association is not concerned about past,” said Hak Than, a 48-year-old government soldier. “They don’t ask who we are. They just gather together to fight for a better life.”