The volleyball and basketball courts look like those found in any gym, playground or camp. You can imagine the set up and the spike, or the effortless, all-net three point shot from the corner.
What you can’t imagine is that on these courts play limbless victims of landmines as well as polio victims and industrial accident amputees. This is no ordinary gym, playground or camp. It is Banteay Prieb the vocational rehabilitation center twenty five kilometers north of Phnom Penh where 100 ‘students’, all disabled, gain skills and self-esteem to, as the brochure proudly proclaims “live in peace and reconciliation and the joy of being with others.”
I had visited Banteay Prieb once before in 2002 and am spurred to do it again by a moving article by photo journalist Peter Lemieux that appeared in the Jesuit monthly, Company. I arrive with colleague Howard de Nike, teaching USF’s genocide course in Phnom Penh, in a taxi that turns right off of Highway 4 into a sprawling compound with 20 or more buildings that at once looks primitive and arid but also surprisingly together and lush, bougainvillea blooming with large red and white flowers and palm trees dotting the property.
People are sitting in wheel chairs or sprawled under trellises to avoid the very hot sun. I ask for Father Indon, the Korean Jesuit who has been running Banteay Prieb for the past 7 years, and with whom I’ve been corresponding. After several false starts down dusty paths, we are greeted by a young man in t-shirt and khaki pants who hardly fits your imagine of a Jesuit priest. Father Indon beckons us to a small table off a kitchen in a covered area that is completely open on one side. Soon we are joined by another Korean – a volunteer named Martha who would be our guide for the day.
The story quickly unfolds. The compound was once a military communications center and a Khmer Rouge prison/killing field. In 1991, at the time of the U.N. presence in Cambodia, it began its transformation into what it is today -- Banteay Prieb, The Center of the Dove. More than 1500 victims of land mines, polio and industrial accidents have made their way through the 12 month or more training program en route to productive lives with skills in electronics, sculptural wood carving, sewing, auto and motorcycle mechanics and agriculture. Of the 70 or so employees who make Banteay Prieb a startlingly productive venture, virtually all are Khmer and most of them, graduates of the program. Fr. Indon informs us of this last fact so when we tour the facility, it does not come as a surprise that many instructors are themselves in wheel chairs missing at least one limb and often more.
And tour the facility we do for nearly one and one half hours – Martha leading us from building to building with more poignant and moving images than the mind can absorb:
• A complex electronics class where students and teachers (the ratio is an intimate 8:1, numbers we would love to have a USF) study and dissemble transistor circuit boards, complex diagrams covering the completely full chalk board.
• A sewing building with amputees that turn out dresses, scarves and handbags on machines powered by special chairs that require only a rocking motion to propel the needle to stitch the cloth, a chair that legless students take with them when they leave to work on their own outside of Banteay Prieb.
• A series of buildings that is home to the wheel chair production ‘plant’ where more than 1000 wheel chairs are produced yearly with parts made at Banteay Prieb and imported from Vietnam and Thailand – wheel chairs of beautiful wood with a special third wheel to accommodate Cambodia’s difficult, broken and bumpy streets. This is Banteay Prieb’s only truly profitable enterprise we are told.
• Wood sculpture work – intricate and beautiful taught by a legless instructor to perhaps 20 students who study and work intensely for up to two years to hone this difficult skill that will provide a means of subsistence when they leave Banteay Prieb.
• Pens of pigs, small, medium, large and extra large, ducks, chickens and a rice paddy that is not in production at the moment, all tended by students who will someday emerge into the fields and farms of rural Cambodia – all of them male save for the one mischievous female student with one arm wreaking havoc by a good-natured punch and kick here and there to her male counterparts. Amid the laughter, they do stop long enough for a photograph.
And so it goes. As we walk Banteay Prieb, I say to Howard that the focus on skills training and the students’ work almost makes one forget that these are severely disabled people – the beauty of a particular sculpture, or the cleverness of a magnetic snap on a woman’s shoulder bag, or the efficient production of wheel chairs, the momentary focus. It is impossible, however, to walk the grounds without being jarred back into a sense of amazement at what the human spirit can conquer and what extraordinary souls like Father Indon can inspire (a moniker and claim that he would no doubt disavow.)
The metaphor to Cambodia’s rehabilitation is again inescapable. A maimed country, infrastructure destroyed, skill-less and poor, inching its way back with the help of those willing to preserve and the determination of those who have no choice but to persevere. But this momentary abstraction dissipates amid the reality of where we are and what these people are doing.
It is now nearly three hours since we arrived. We visit the Banteay Prieb crafts store, a small, metal, one-legged disabled Jesus crucifix my favorite purchase for a Jesuit colleague. The yellow, metered taxi sits incongruously under a palm tree near one of the eight buildings that serve as dormitories for small groups of students and their mentors. Father Indon and Martha thank us for coming. I promise to stay in touch as ideas for sustained contact and cooperation rumble through my head.
The cab exits Banteay Prieb and we turn left onto Highway 4, heading back to Phnom Penh in a torrential downpour that was kind enough to wait until we finished our tour before it unleashed its fury. Within minutes, the cab is leaking water through the overhead light and the driver is trying to keep one eye on the road while wiping down the console that is now wet as are we. This should be our biggest problem I think as an inspiring Banteay Prieb recedes in the distance.