Sport saved my life, athlete says

A Cambodian athlete participating in the Athens Paralympics speaks about his accident and his desire to continue "running" towards his goals.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/IHT) – Nhork Kimhor was one of many Cambodian soldiers involved in clearing mines in his war-ravaged country. "I was right in the middle of a mine field when I heard a big explosion," he remembers. "I started to kneel down and I thought: What happened to me? I've lost my right leg! . . . I should be dead."

Nhork Kimhor also remembers promising himself that "if I stepped on a mine, I'd kill myself right away. I wasn't afraid to die, but I didn't want to be an amputee." "But," he adds, "my best friend just walked right through [the mines] and carried me out."

Nhork Kimhor did not the let the accident get to him and found in sports a new reason to live. After winning many medals in the Asian Paralympics he is now one of Cambodia's athletes at the Athens Paralympics that began on September 18 lasting till the 29.

On Monday he competed in the 200-meter race for those with amputations below the knee, finishing last in his heat of six. Not front-page news but for the Cambodian athlete just being in Athens is a victory.

In a country that is poor, where both prosthetics and training facilities for the disabled are not readily available, just going to the Olympics is reason to be happy.

"We the prize money from some meets I bought a small motorbike. Now, I pick up taxi fares for pennies, barely covering the cost of gasoline," he admits. "Unemployment is high and many people turn themselves into taxi drivers. But earnings are really low, about 2,000 riel (about 52 cents) per day."

According to various organisations, including the World Bank, Cambodia has the highest ratio of amputees per capita in the world, about one of every 250 people. Most of its 40,000 or so amputees are victims of land mines.

The number of people killed or injured every year by the estimated four to 10 million mines still buried in the country is around 200. All the same, clearing mines is a complex operation and too expensive.

Mines are a legacy of Cambodia's civil war (1970-1975) and the Khmer Rouge regime that followed it. In 1979 Vietnam overthrew Pol Pot's Khmer Rouges after some 1.7 million people were killed under their reign.