Bel is a jewellery maker and designer associated with the Ability Fair Trade Village. He is also the founder of the Khmer Independent Life team (KILT). Bel’s heart-rending story starts when very young, his mother died when he was one and his stepmother did not like him, deserting him when his father died. To survive, Bel helped with the cows, taking them out to the fields and bringing them in at night. Unfortunately, there were landmines in the field, and he stepped on one. He injured his leg and ripped open his stomach. He was so badly injured, the villagers thought he would die and did not seek help straight away. Following medical attention, his stomach was stitched closed but, sadly, his leg had to be amputated. He was only seven at the time.

Why are there landmines? They were placed by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Civil War, 1975-79, and also during the 1980-90s. They are still a constant danger to the Cambodian people. Land infested with mines are an economic disaster for Cambodian farmers as it severely limits where they can establish crops. You can read more about the efforts to remove them at HALO and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre.

Despite his physical challenges and lack of family support, Bel wanted to study. You have probably heard of the saying “If you do not want to learn then no one can teach you, but if you want to learn nothing will prevent you!” This pretty much describes Bel. He sold lottery tickets for a small commission, which provided him with food and the basics to complete primary school. To continue studying he had to leave the village so, at 13 years of age, he travelled to Siem Reap on the back of a pig truck. Handicap International fitted him with a plastic leg not long after his arrival, and staff suggested he contact the Cambodia Landmine Museum to help continue his education.

Mr Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, had started the museum after the war and uses the funds raised to provide several programs for survivors of exploded landmines. Bel lived with Mr Aki Ra while he completed his high school education. He then continued on to University and he now holds two degrees. Read more about the Mr Aki Ra and Cambodia Landmine Museum (CLM).

The world was now Bel’s oyster! No, regrettably not. Although Bel was very well qualified, and with an obvious work ethic, potential employers did not see see past his disability. Disappointed, and angry, Bel wanted to channel his feelings into a positive outcome. So he learnt a new skill, how to design and make jewellery, and started his own business. Bel’s vision was to establish an organisation to help other disadvantaged people – orphans, people living with disability or people living in poverty.

Bel believed that if they worked together, they could support each other and in 2009 KILT was born and registered as an officially recognised NGO. In 2015, Bel was introduced to Genevieve Fair Trade Village (renamed Ability Fair Trade Village in 2020) where he sold his unique handmade jewellery to international tourists for a fair price.

In 2019 he opened his own stall at the Made in Cambodia Markets. Currently, KILT provides housing for six adults living with disability and 17 children whose families are too poor to support them. Before COVID-19, the adults supported themselves and the children by making jewellery, which they sold at the Made in Cambodia Market in Siem Reap. However, due to COVID international tourism ground to a halt and the markets closed in early 2020. Like many Cambodian families. Bel and KILT families have been struggling to earn a living and they appreciate the assistance of food support from the Siem Reap Food Bank .

You can see more of KILT’s activities on their Facebook page.

Bel maintains his positive outlook today “If I cannot make someone happy, then I am not happy” he said. Not one to stay still for long, Bel is also a keen wheelchair basketballer and plays for the Eagles, Siem Reap.