A Cambodian woman wearing a white ruffled shirt and orange vest sits in a living room with family photos hanging behind her

In 1982, Emilie received her first artificial leg made of bamboo

Emilie Pin Vath was 6 when she lost her foot in a landmine explosion in Cambodia. She was one of the very first people to be fitted with an artificial limb by HI after its founding in 1982.

Emilie was born in Battambang, Cambodia. She fell on a landmine in 1982 when she and her family were fleeing the Khmer Rouge. After arriving at Khao I Dang camp at the Cambodia-Thailand border, Emilie crossed paths with HI’s team and was fitted with an artificial limb made of bamboo. Today, Emilie is 48 and living in France. She tells her story:

At the time, there was a war in Cambodia. Because of the Khmer Rouge's hold on the country, my family had to flee their village, which is why I found myself on the road between Thailand and Cambodia.

One day as we were traveling, we stopped at a refugee camp near a pond. We had come a long way and, like the other children, I was eager to make the most of the cool water. I waited until my parents fell asleep and snuck out to go for a swim.

On the way to the pond, we passed some men running in the opposite direction. As they went by, one of them pushed me and I fell onto a landmine. There was a deafening bang. After that, all I remember is a black veil descending. Everything went dark. When I woke up, I saw that my left foot was gone. It had been torn off in the mine explosion.

Arriving at the refugee camp

I received emergency first aid, but for proper treatment, I had to go to another refugee camp in Thailand. It was a long way away and my family carried me through the forest on a stretcher for 15 days. I had no medicine, no painkillers—nothing. When we arrived at Khao I Dang camp, I saw many people with missing arms or legs, most of them children.

I was taken to the clinic, where they took off my bandages. It took at least five minutes and I remember very well how the white cloth suddenly turned red. Once the bandages were removed, the doctors could see that gangrene had started to spread up my leg. They decided to amputate.

A month later, I came out of a medically-induced coma. Before the operation, I thought they would amputate below the knee, which would have made it easier to walk again. But when I lifted the sheet, I realized that the amputation was in fact higher up, mid-femur.


HI’s first bamboo limbs

There was a workshop making a lot of noise in the camp, and as soon as I could get around on my crutches, I went to see what was going on. In the workshop, there were hammers, pieces of bamboo and iron rods. One of the workers saw me and explained: "We are making bamboo prostheses for children like you. They will be used for people who have been amputated because of landmines.” I ran back to my parents, shouting: “Mummy, there’s a workshop where they are making legs! For children like me!” 

That’s when I met the founders of HI. They came to support us and, despite the language barrier, they were training refugees to make artificial limbs from bamboo.

I had to wait for my leg to heal before I could try my first artificial leg. It hurt a lot at first. You have to remember at the time, there was nothing to reduce the pain. But as soon as I put my prosthetic foot on the floor, I said to myself, "At last I can walk like everyone else!” Six months after my amputation, I was standing on two feet again. Despite the pain, I wore my artificial limb every day. I played soccer in flip-flops, played with marbles and bungee cords, danced in the rain... and, like children everywhere, I got up to all kinds of mischief!

Living without limits

Thanks to the Red Cross, my family was able to move to France in September 1982. The early days were very hard. We came from a country with a totally different culture and, at only 6 years old, I had witnessed the indescribable horrors of war. Those memories have stayed with me ever since.

Growing up, I saw my artificial limb differently. I would meet children who had never seen an amputee before and they fixated on it. They always saw me as the girl with the prosthesis and that really affected me.

Fortunately, my parents always encouraged me not to worry about what other people said and to live my life as I wanted. So I never limited myself. For example, I played a lot of sports: eight years of badminton, table tennis, tennis, soccer and diving.

Now I live and work here, and I have even become a French citizen. But, the more time goes by, the more I miss my other country. Today, my dream is to go back to Cambodia and settle there.