Christmas Thoughts

Christmas 1993 North West Cambodia

The Civil War’s still dribbling blood in the border areas. It seems a wound that might never heal. After the elections the United Nations have withdrawn proclaiming success; in some places there’s still a fight for money and power. The Khmer Rouge soldiers are fierce jungle fighters underestimated by everyone except those who come into contact with them, few prisoners have survived the experience.

The KR have been pushed back into jungle strongholds after a Vietnamese invasion ousting them from power in 1979, there’s been nearly twenty years of civil war. The frontlines border the forest. They fund their war selling gems and wood. I run a demining operation based in Mongol Borei for the HALO Trust. We’re clearing large areas of land that used to be villages so people can go home.  No evidence of previous habitation exists, the wood and bamboo huts burned in the fighting, people fled to camps on the Thai border. Now

I visit the ICRC  hospital every week to talk to people injured by mines so we deploy teams for the maximum humanitarian benefit. The concrete ward has walls four feet high then a gap to allow the breeze under the extended roof which keeps out the monsoon rain. I glance at the clipboard at the base of his bed his name is Somonn. He was injured near Anlong Venn, probably a soldier. I’m not allowed to read his notes, patient confidentiality, but I can see and smell he’s dying.

His flesh only just covers his bones. He’s lying on a reed mat on the metal frame bed. His sweat drenched body is covered in scabs; punctured like a pin cushion and a lemon scrapped for zest. He must have been close to a large blast. Fragments of the ground, small stones have pitted his body. He’s covered in sweat and fighting a fever that’s winning.

I walk towards him to ask where he’d been blown up and my friend Fernanda Calado, the Spanish ICRC head nurse, standing in the corner shakes her head gently and tries to smile. She’s seen so many people die, which is hard because she joined ICRC to stop that. She says she never wants to grow old she just wants to keep nursing with ICRC, maybe she has. Rest in peace (Sadly a few years later she was shot in her bed in Chechnya- see  )

I think at least I can say something kind to him and be a friendly face before he dies. To my horror I see his legs are amputated high up and a two year old and four year old are sitting where they should be. Their deep eyes are hopeless and sad. He grips my hand like a drowning man grabs something that floats and keeps saying ‘How will I feed my children?’

I’m proud of my three years on operations as an officer in the British Army; but I’m lost. He squeezes my hand and I realise when we’re dying all we need is love and hope. I feel totally inadequate to help him and ask for assistance from the big man upstairs. There are no atheists in battlefield and there’s nothing to lose by asking.

Then a random thought arrives, I responded to a request a few weeks ago and went to the JRS Centre to clear unexploded shells. They helped disabled Cambodians earn a living by becoming mechanics or woodcarvers. I was moved by the simple goodness of the people I met and how hopeless life must be for the disabled who get no help.

My time as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge taught me. You have to believe you can make it or you don’t stand a chance. So I keep saying ‘you have to believe you’re going to make it. I know some good people who will teach you to be a wood carver. Finally he relaxes his grip and something strange happens. I get a feeling he’s going to be alright. So I get back to work I’ve got no time to mess about.

The next day Fernanda tells me much to everyone’s astonishment he’s survived the night and they think he’ll make it. I contact Kike (now Bishop of Battambang) at JRS and know they’ll take care of him.

South Africa 1995

I’m lying in intensive care wired up to heart monitors and numerous other monitoring systems. The surgeon tells me I’m the only patient he’s ever seen survive with such a small amount of blood. I just had my lower right arm and leg amputated, but in no way am I a victim because I chose to clear landmines. My sympathy is with those who live in mine affected areas who have no choice. Ironically I was blown up doing the least dangerous thing I ever did, walking in the middle of a cleared area, but shit happens to us all in life. The important thing is to wipe it off and crack on, because no one wants to be next to somebody who’s got it stuck to them.

A nurse comes in clutching a handful of taxes and hands them to me saying ‘the wonders of modern communication-your friends in Cambodia have heard you were injured yesterday and these have arrived for you.’

As I thank her I look at the top one and see the symbol of the Dove, it’s from Kike at JRS; he’s written on behalf of Somonn. ‘Dear Chris, sorry to hear you were injured. I hope your injuries heal fast. My life is great now, I’ve learned to be a wood carver and I’m teaching others to do the same. I need to build a school here. Good wishes for fast healing.’

There’s an opportunity in every crisis if we choose to see that way. One of the reasons I lived was because I was very fit. I’ll run the London Marathon next year and raise money for Somonn to build a small school at JRS.


I successfully completed the London Marathon less than a year after leaving hospital in 1996. Subsequently I’ve run many of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons and I’ve done two 1000 mile charity runs; I’m told I was one of the first amputees running ultra-distance. Thanks to the support of Oxfam and my friends and family we raised enough for the new building.

I have met up again with Somonn many times and his courage, determination and refusal to give up in the face of adversity are truly inspirational. He sold everything he owned (including his house) to pay for his medical treatment. In his first year at JRS he was given money to buy food. He saved the money and ate the food everybody else threw away for a year to get enough money to buy a plot of land for a house. When I ran the length of Cambodia he pushed his wheel chair alongside me ‘till his hands bleed.

During these harsh economic times it’s easy to focus on what we don’t have, but during this festive season it might be helpful to be thankful for what we do have, arms and legs being one small example. We all know there are people much worse off than us, that might not help us feel better if we’re having a tough time but if we ask what do we have in our lives that we take for granted and what internal resources do we have that we don’t really use? Then it might help because I believe we will have the capacity to go one step beyond limits. So I wish you a happy, peaceful and restful Christmas which invigorates you for a great new year, after all tomorrow’s another day…

Merry Christmas

Picture December 2011 Chris and Somonn at JRS woodcarving school