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Artificial limbs in high demand in Cambodia


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Man Sareth works to the pounding of hammers and the whirring of drills in an industry that makes a product that is in distressingly strong demand here: artificial legs.

Production and consumption come together in Man Sareth, a former soldier, making one leg and wearing two in a country with perhaps the highest percentage of amputees in the world.

"For the prosthetics industry, business is great over here in Cambodia," his boss, Vietnam veteran Ron Podlaski, said. "We're busily taking care of the brave men, women and children who have been de-mining Cambodia one mine at a time."

How five non-profit relief agencies may soon be able to fit and manufacture enough artificial legs for thousands of Cambodians a story of commitment, cooperation and innovation in a poor and exhausted country that otherwise would not be able to make even small numbers of prosthetics.

Making artificial legs also helps illustrate the difficulties inherent in developing any basic industry in Cambodia, shattered over two decades first by U.S. bombing, then Khmer Rouge genocide, and finally a 12-year civil war fought extensively with land mines.

But by far the toughest obstacle faced by those in the prosthetics industry -- and the multitude of amputees they are serving -- is prejudice. Deeply fatalistic, Cambodians typically see their countrymen who have lost legs and arms as people unable to do much of anything.

Which is what makes Man Sareth's presence at a small leg factory developed by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation so inspiring. He is overcoming not only his handicap but the opposition of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Action, which did not think it wise to train an amputee as a prosthetics technician.

The International Committee for the Red Cross, a Swiss-based organization, has just begun mass-producing leg assemblies and spare parts.

Its two partners, the American Friends Service Committee and the French agency Handicap International, have started producing a lightweight rubber foot made of locally available materials for use with the Red Cross leg.

Then there is the Vietnam Veterans' Indochina Project, out of Washington, which has imported another low-cost, basic technology, the "Jaipur Limb," from India.

The leg is made out of recycled aluminum, the foot from molded beach-sandal rubber -- both available in Cambodia.

Finally, just arrived on the scene, is a British organization called the Cambodia Trust, which purchased the remaining inventory of a slightly outdated artificial leg system from a leading British prosthetic maker along with all the machine molds necessary for manufacturing, which will begin here once the existing inventory runs out.

Asia Watch, the Washington-based human rights organization, has estimated that there are more than 30,000 amputees in Cambodia.

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