PROFILE: Cambodian landmine campaigner hopes to "clean our world"
By Robert Carmichael Nov 25, 2011, 6:59 GMT
Phnom Penh - Tun Channareth was a 22-year-old soldier when he stood on a landmine in western Cambodia in 1982. The blast took his lower legs and utterly changed his life.
He spent six months in hospital and the following five years in a suicidal depression, unable to work and stuck in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border.
'I was very depressed. I lost confidence,' he says of those bleak days.
But nearly a quarter-century later, Tun is a different man.
In those years, he has picked up the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, met the pope and an array of world leaders, and contributed to a safer world.
Bare-chested in his wheelchair, Tun is seated in the front yard of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Phnom Penh, where he spends a day building wooden easels for a photography exhibition for the 11th meeting of the 158 countries that are party to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. The five-day meeting is to start Monday.
He recalls the day in 1987 when he turned his life around. His 3-year-old daughter wanted money for snacks, but he had none to give. His heart broke.
'Suddenly, my tears start to fall, and I sit and I think, 'Oh God! I never do anything for them. What should I do to be responsible for my family, to get money?' he says.
He started vocational training. By the time the family returned to Phnom Penh in 1993 after Cambodia's peace deal was struck, Tun could repair engines, radios and televisions.
He eventually landed a job designing and making wheelchairs for people with disabilities through the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic non-governmental organization. The following year, the group's Sister Denise Coghlan invited Tun to get involved in working to ban landmines.
And so he became part of a Cambodian team that gathered 2 million signatures worldwide and was integrated into the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Within months, he had addressed the British Parliament, using his damaged body to encourage politicians to get behind the burgeoning international drive.
There were visits to Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland and other nations. He helped build a mountain of shoes - symbolic of the legs that mines blow off - in Geneva and Washington.
By December 1997, the Ottawa treaty to outlaw landmines was ready to sign, and Tun was in Canada.
'Oh my goodness!' Tun recalls. 'Seven days I cannot sleep at all. I wait by the door for [the delegates] to come and sign. It was too much.'
It was a moment of success. The world - for the most part - had decided landmines were unacceptable.
'I am waiting, waiting, waiting until the Cambodian delegate gets inside to sign the treaty,' Tun says. It was a wait that was rewarded.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its then-coordinator, Jody Williams, were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. To his surprise, Tun was selected to accept it on behalf of the campaign. The work and travel piled up.
On his next trip to London, people congratulated him for completing his task.
'I say no - this is not only about anti-personnel mines! Now we must ban cluster munitions,' he says. 'I don't want people to suffer like me or your kids to suffer like me.'
The mission continued. To date, 111 nations have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions; 158 have joined the mine ban treaty.
At their meeting next week in Phnom Penh, the parties to the mine treaty are to discuss extensions for some countries' deadlines for mine clearance, the destruction of mine stockpiles and caring for mine victims - a job that is also Tun's work now.
When he is back in Cambodia, the ever-energetic Tun goes from village to village repairing wheelchairs.
'But you know, the wheelchair is not very important,' Tun says. 'The important thing is that we can see the people every day, month, year. We can share our compassion, our kindness, our loving.'
Some are in the same depressed place he was in during the 1980s and need 'to build hope,' he says.
'We start from zero until [we reach] two, three, five, seven, and we try to rebuild hope,' he explains. 'If they have hope and a good future, they will rebuild their lives by themselves.'
Five of his children have completed their accountancy studies at university; the sixth is to start next year. But Tun's professional ambitions remain unattained.
'Last century, the world was dirty from weapons,' he says, 'and now we are in the new century 11 years already. We don't need any new weapons. We need to clean our world.'