try not to talk about politics too much,” says Suon Rotanna, looking at me from beneath his camouflaged cap. His eyes glaze over for a moment, locked in memories, before a shake of his head and a long exhale of smoke. “Politics took my parents. And it took my leg.”
Suon is one of an estimated 40,000 Cambodians who lost limbs in one of the most savage civil wars in recent history. From 1975 until 1979, the Khmer Rouge – led by Pol Pot – attempted to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, an extreme movement based around rural life.
Up to two million skilled labourers were massacred, along with the educated; wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language was enough to condemn you to death by starvation, torture, disease or execution. Many others, often of a young age, were forced to fight in Cambodia’s jungles.
Suon was a child soldier. His father was killed in front of him in 1976, and at the age of 14, his grandfather – a leader in the Khmer Rouge – sent him into the jungle near the border with Vietnam. It was here that Suon trained to be a soldier.
“Every day we were scared for our lives,” he recalls. Friends and colleagues were slain, accused of being “lazy”, or spies for the CIA. It was kill, or be killed. And so, Suon shot his boss. “Otherwise, I knew that one day, it would be me.”
He spent the next 14 years in the wilderness fighting against the Vietnamese, until one misplaced foot turned his world on its head. Suon had stepped on an anti-personnel landmine. Designed to severely debilitate rather than kill, the landmine blew off his foot and lower leg, disabling Suon, as well as those who loyally stuck by his side.
It might sound like the plot of a horrifying Hollywood movie, but Suon’s story is an all too familiar one in Cambodia. It is thought that up to 10 million mines were laid over a 30-year period, leaving behind approximately 40,000 disabled people – and counting, as dozens more people are still killed every year.
Whilst Cambodia’s war officially ended decades ago, work continues to free the country of explosives. But as one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, the issue today is how to do this quickly, safely, and cost-efficiently.
“I “I try not to talk about politics too much. Politics took my parents. And it took my leg”