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The battle against a hidden foe


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Sok Seng, 30, was only 7 when she lost her father to a POM-Z, a Russian-made anti-personnel fragmentation mine known in these parts as a “booby trap”. Now she is a section commander with Halo Trust, overseeing a battalion of nearly a dozen deminers working to clear that same land in Malai district’s Tuol Pongro commune to ensure a similar tragedy does not befall other 7-year-olds.

“I wanted to join the demining agency for a long time, because in my family, my dad died of an accident by mines,” she said.

Cambodia’s sordid and tragic history of land mines is well-documented – nearly 64,000 people have died from a land mine or explosive remnant of war since 1979, and it remains one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. That history will be on display on Sunday night when the Kingdom opens the 11th annual Meeting of the States Parties, a week-long gathering of the 158 states that have signed the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Also called the Ottawa Treaty, the Convention prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel land mines.

The treaty was ratified by Cambodia in 1999 and took effect in January 2000. And while the Kingdom has adhered to most of the Convention’s stipulations, it has failed to meet the 10-year deadline for removing all mines from the country, applying for – and receiving – a 10-year extension in 2009 that will give the government until January 2020 to ensure that the entire country is free of mines.

Achieving that ambitious goal is the painstaking work of people like Sok Seng who, through agencies like the UK-based NGO HALO Trust, meticulously comb the Cambodian countryside, searching for and destroying every explosive remnant of war. With zero margin for error, the demining process is a slow and meticulous one.

“With humanitarian de-mining, you can’t take any risks. You have to be 100 per cent certain that everything you are handing over to the local people is completely free of mines,” said HALO Trust Deputy Programme Manager Stanislov Damjanovic.

“It’s not like military de-mining, where you just clear a road and don’t worry about the surrounding area,” he added.

The complex demining process starts with a detailed survey of the environment. Villagers and village chiefs complete questionnaires on the mine-affected areas: How many people have been injured or killed by a land mine? Where have these accidents occurred? What is the land to be used for?  

This information, combined with field evidence, gives groups like HALO Trust a better idea of what “tool” to use from their “toolbox”: whether, for example, a “large loop” detector resembling a push-crate made of piping would be appropriate, or, rather a smaller, hand-held metal detector (the former is used for large mines resembling a big soda can – if a soda can weighed about 4.5 kilograms – while the latter is primarily used for smaller, tennis ball-sized mines).

Land to be cleared is prioritised based on what it is to be used for and its proximity to villagers’ homes. At a recent site visit with HALO Trust, for example, the 43 kilometres of land being cleared lay a stone’s throw away from villagers’ homes in Tuol Pongro commune, who were venturing into the dangerous area on a regular basis.

“I can go out into the field and get wood to make charcoal without fear now,” said 43-year-old Bun Thoeun, whose home bordered the area being cleared. “I feel safer.”

Once the demining team sets up camp, it works from 7am to 3pm, seven days per week for three weeks, with one week off. The work is so meticulous and the conditions so extreme (think heat, humidity, and layers of protective gear) that deminers can only work a maximum of 30 minutes before taking a compulsory 10-minute break, a schedule enforced by the shrill sound of a section commander’s whistle.

Each deminer is responsible for a one-metre-wide lane, in what is called a “one man, one lane” process. The deminer moves through with a metal detector, marking any areas that give off signals with small pieces of plastic that resemble poker chips: blue indicates the material is probably just a random scrap of metal, while red means it is most likely a mine. Each marker must then be carefully dug around and gently tapped at to determine what actually lies beneath the surface. At the end of the day, the discovered mines, if any, are safely detonated.

Deminers are put through a rigorous three-week training course and must pass a skills test before they are placed in the field. Literacy is a pre-requisite to employment, but due to the manual nature of the work, a high level of education is not, making it an attractive employment opportunity in a land where the alternatives are few.

“It’s a good job because I don’t have a high education. I cannot get many other jobs, this is the best I can do,” said 40-year-old deminer Thoung Soer of nearby Preah Netr Preah district.

At $170 per month, 25-year-old Som Srey Moum, who lives in the same commune as she works, earns more than the average Cambodian and more than she would as a farmer or day labourer in Thailand, which are pretty much the only other employment prospects available to villagers in this area of the Kingdom.

“Before HALO, I was farming, or I would cross into Thailand to work, but now that I am a deminer, I don’t need to do that,” she said.

The average HALO team will clear about eight hectares of land in a month, an area that will typically yield about 150 anti-personnel mines and five anti-tank mines. With the government estimating 65,000 hectares of Cambodian countryside still need to be cleared, groups like HALO Trust have a long way to go before they work themselves out of a job, as they like to say.

“We are working to push ourselves out of a job. In a perfect world [without mines], they wouldn’t need us,” Damjanovic said.

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