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After the Killing Fields 0

Douglas Gloin

Tim Coulas was scarcely two months into a new job in Cambodia last fall when fate, arriving in the form of an errant Thai taxi, landed him in hospital with severe injuries.

About three weeks ago, after nearly seven months of recovery from multiple leg fractures and a separated shoulder caused when the cab struck him on a Bangkok street, he returned to the work he loves in a land he was just getting to know.

Coulas, who was staying at his parents' home outside Combermere, is a land surveyor who has worked on international aid and development projects in several countries that have undergone major trauma, be it political upheaval, war or natural disaster. He started doing overseas work about 12 years ago, conducting land surveys after the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He spent about six months in Russia and about 1½ years in Ukraine. Coulas also worked in Moldova, and Rajistan, India before returning to Canada for several years.

Then about 3½ years ago, he returned to the field, travelling to Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra following the devastating December, 2004 tsunami. An estimated 167,000 Indonesians died in the maelstrom, and Banda Aceh was one of the worst-struck regions.

Last September, Tim Coulas took a job in Cambodia, which has recently emerged from decades of war and unrest. The Southeast Asian nation is still scarred by the rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered or starved to death at least one million people in a crazed bid to restructure the country into a primitive agrarian state. Educated people were singled out for execution or forced labour, leaving the country bereft of teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

But Coulas found Cambodians eager to put those tragic years behind them.

"A lot of the people I work with lost relatives," he says. "One fellow was sent to the labour camps and nearly starved to death." But today, Coulas says it's a nation on its way to recovery.

"It's a poorer country - it's not up with Thailand or Indonesia, even," he says. But there is nonetheless a building boom under way, with investors buying up highrises for the country's elites. This in turn has created land disputes such as instances in which poor people are pressured to vacate lands slated for development.

"There's huge growth and huge disparity, which is quite common there," Coulas says.

Like many Third World countries, Cambodia didn't have a system guaranteeing land ownership, something which is vital to establishing political and economic stability. With the help of international companies, governments and aid agencies, that is being built now.

"They're putting in a system in order to guarantee ownership and then have a better market in land," Coulas says. "And by guaranteeing ownership, two of the main benefits are that then people know what they own and they feel secure about it, and they also have collateral for loans because then the bank feels secure if someone has a certificate of ownership."

In Cambodia, the biggest part of the task is land titling. Coulas works for a private Canadian firm on the LMAP, or Land Management and Administration Project. The work is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. The German and Finnish governments and the World Bank also are involved.

Coulas is working on establishing peoples' titles to their land. It is a type of project he has worked on previously in Indonesia and Ukraine.

"They give notice to the community," he says. "Everybody comes together, says what they own and they bring all their certificates and any documents that they might own that will help prove it.

"Then they go out and survey the parcels, put the maps up on the wall so that people can say, 'Okay yes I do own it.' And then they sign off and a certificate is issued."

A reliable land ownership system has been recognized as being a vital part of creating stable government and societies, particularly in nations that have been ravaged by war or disasters. Coulas says he often meets with non-governmental organizations who are also working on related issues, and he has met quite a few Canadians there. Most of the work is in rural areas. The Canadian projects are largely in two provinces, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey.

Much work is still under way to clear land mines and other unexploded ordnance from the countryside, where these relics of the wars still maim and kill people frequently.

Before his accident, Coulas was looking forward to visiting Siem Reap, a city near the ancient Angkor Watt ruins. He still hopes to get there. It can be reached by boat up the Mekong River from Pnom Penh, "which is the way I'd like to do it."

"I'm enjoying it," he says of his work. "It's a very interesting project so I'll probably see it through. But I have an eight-year-old daughter who lives here in Canada so it's tough being away from her."

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"At the last split second when I saw I was being hit, I tried to jump like James Bond," Coulas says with a chuckle when describing the traffic mishap that very nearly killed him last fall.

He was crossing a street in the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand when a speeding taxi struck him. He had been in Bangkok less than 36 hours.

After that, he remembers going in and out of consciousness . a crowd gathering . people trying to help him . an ambulance arriving . then being strapped tightly to a stretcher board and carted away. "That was quite uncomfortable," he says. "You can't move, you can't budge a muscle."

He was first taken to a Thai public hospital, but once they found out he had health insurance coverage, they moved him to a five-star facility. (The Thais use a hotel-like rating system for their hospitals.)

"Before they would operate or anything like that, they wanted a deposit," Coulas says. He was slated for a CAT scan to start, but first he had to give them his credit card so they could take a $8,000 deposit. They had to settle for $5,000 - that was his credit limit.

"It's expensive . I think after the first operation I was over $20,000 (in costs)," he says. Over the coming days, he went under the knife twice: the first time for 12 hours to work on his leg, which was completely broken in two places between the knee and the ankle, and a broken shoulder. Then there was a second surgery, they made a five-inch incision in his shoulder to put in a steel plate. It took 10 hours. The surgeon said it was the longest operation she had ever done. In between, there were skin grafts and other work. The whole affair was pretty painful.

"That was the first time I ever tried morphine," Coulas recalls. "Everything's good - for a few hours anyway."

He figures his leg was smashed by the taxi's bumper, while the broken shoulder happened when he hit the windshield. At any rate, his Canadian doctors were impressed at the repair job.

In late November, Coulas, who was still in pain and using a wheelchair, was deemed fit enough to fly home to Canada for Christmas. But trouble was brewing in "the Land of Smiles." A growing number of Thais were joining massive street protests calling on Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to call new elections to resolve an ongoing political crisis.

"I remember joking to someone that this was all okay as long as they keep the road to the airport open because I'm leaving on the 27th," Coulas recalls. "And then days later, they didn't just block the road, they took the airport over. In fact, they took the country's two (international) airports over." Tim's hospital stay was extended for the duration.

"It wasn't that bad, really," he says. The hospital food was pretty good (although he did get food poisoning once), and the care was top notch.

"I never once felt . you know how you see some of the tourists on TV saying 'This is ridiculous; why should we have to put up with this?' Well, I think that's ridiculous. You have to take these things as they come. . But I never felt unsafe and I never felt the Canadian government should be getting me passage out or anything."

The delay lasted another 10 days before he caught a Dec. 6 flight home, during which the airline added insult to his injuries. During a stopover in Vancouver, it lost his bags. Coulas confesses to a bit of lingering nervousness over his air-travelling future.

"There's lots of steel inside me," he says with a grin. "I'll have a hard time getting though the airport security."