Han smiles with her grandson. She is determined to keep smiling for him because there is no one else to care for him. Photo by Tess O'Brien/ JRS Cambodia
Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1 April 2012 – Surviving mines and war was just the beginning.

“If you write about my story, you’ll never finish.” Han chuckles to herself revealing a mouthful of dark, empty crevices. Han’s remaining teeth are yellowed and cracked, stained by the challenges and struggles that life has forced upon her. 

In more ways than one, Han is a typical Khmer middle-aged 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 that was often used in the war to verify an area was clear of landmines and other explosive remnants of war before soldiers themselves would cross. 

It wasn’t. 

Living in a remote village 60 km’s away from Siem Reap hospital, it took hours to reach the hospital but had it been closer 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 neighbours 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 said leaning back in her chair and looking 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 back up and smiling warmly says “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

Sadly, 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 entire communities’ livelihood. 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 sudden and 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 naivety of such a question. “No one else can stand up and take care of my family! I must continue!” The answer for Han was obvious. 

Tess O'Brien, volunteer for JRS Cambodia
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