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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A day of living dangerously with a demining team

A day of living dangerously with a demining team

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Stockpiled mines are blown up in a controlled explosion.

I  am inching forward on my knees on the bared earth, a piece of red twine between

myself and a partly exposed anti-personnel mine, about 40 cm from my camera. Hands

of Demining Unit 5, Pursat Province field staff, are gently gripping my shoulders

from behind, ready to strengthen their grip should I stumble on rising or make a

false move.

I had approached CMAC, the Cambodian Mine Action Center people in Phnom Penh, for

permission to visit the mine fields. There are thousands and thousands of live anti-personnel

mines and other unexploded ordinances still buried around Cambodia waiting for the

right moment to explode. Ongoing warfare meant that mines were used till as late

as 1998.

CMAC officially came into being in June 1992; the United Nations was involved in

training and financial support, technical advice came from the international community,

including my own country New Zealand. Now, mine action encompasses addressing all

those problems faced by populations as a result of land-mine or UXO contamination.

Although by now many of the minefields are known, there are still between 800 and

900 casualties a year from mine accidents, and nearly 40 percent of them are children.

The map of Pursat Province, which is largely forested, shows yellow lines for suspected

minefields snaking for 80 kilometers across it, plus numerous scattered smaller blocks.

The demining operations being so central to the welfare of the people, I wanted to

see the field staff in action.

Now here was this ugly little green canister, its lethal trigger once 7 or 8 cm or

so below ground level, staring me in the face, about to be taken out of the dry earth,

its detonator removed, and so another few square centimeters of land painstakingly

made safe for the people of Kandel village and their children.

The longer-term residents had known of the mines and till lately had lived with them.

But new people had moved in seeking land and food from the forest, and before the

unit had marked out the boundaries of the field, two had been killed, there had been

15 other accidents, meaning limbs blown off, and they had lost 60 animals.

The Tempest chain flail vegetation clearance machine - designed and built by Cambodians

- had reduced the forest floor to roughly cleared land, exploding some mines in the

process, so that what we walked over was dry earth with a thin covering of twigs

and small branches with some quite large trees, widely spaced. Dotted here and there

were small, one-meter-square, pegged red or yellow-twined areas with their prominent

bright red "DANGER + skull and cross-bones" signs, - yellow for suspected

areas, red for definite. Scattered blue-uniformed figures were checking hot spots.

We carefully followed Sao Yath, the Platoon Commander, as he took us first to see

one of the mine detectors in action, then to where a blue-shirted, flak-jacketed,

white-helmeted team man was squatting, probing into the earth where a small white

plastic triangle marked some unknown buried article, before carefully digging with

trowel-like implement to discover what it was the detector had responded to, then

on to this horrible little monster now at my feet - or rather knees.

There are images in my head: of the operator of a mine-detector carefully reaching

forward and removing by hand some small branches that were in the way of his detector

head as he worked his way into a marked lane, then moving his red plastic markers

a couple of paces further on; of a short steel probe, about the size of a chain-saw-sharpening

file being gently pushed into the ground around one of the small white triangles;

of more distant scattered blue-shirted figures, perhaps 15 all told, going quietly

about their work in this silent, peaceful-looking forest.

According to my reading of the figures, in the first 60 working days of this year

Demining Unit 5 had found and destroyed nearly 3,000 anti-personnel mines and 139

UXOs in the 304,000 square meters they'd cleared. As well, the unit had dug up nearly

600,000 metal fragments, each of which had had to be treated as lethal till finally

exposed.

Marked off in the middle of all this was the live mine I'd seen, which was later

exploded for my benefit. A CMAC deminer attached to it a small explosive charge with

a short length of fuse, escorted me to a safe distance, and then a man stood and

shouted warnings to the four points of the compass, lit the fuse and casually walked

over to us before the thing went off with a loud bang, leaving a plume of smoke drifting

up through the trees.

Ithought of Chea Chamrean, the ex-soldier I'd met some days previously at the Cambodia

Trust Clinic in Phnom Penh, who had stood on a mine while fighting the Khmer Rouge.

He now had the stump of his right arm to below the elbow, his right leg ended just

below the knee, and he was unable to wear prosthetics because embedded shrapnel made

that option too painful. They'd given him new crutches, but that was all they could

do. The doctor had told me that he had been left with five children to support in

his home in the provinces, and insufficient money from the government. His "patch"

was the river bank in the city, where he begged, with others, from tourists.

From where we stood in the middle of this cleared patch, we looked across the small

river to a significant area, more than a kilometer wide, of flat, cultivable land

which was now covered in low shrubs and weeds because of the mines in it. This, I

later discovered, illustrated the system of priorities for clearance followed in

the planning of demining operations. First came infrastructure, roads, schools, pagodas,

health centers, followed by resettlement areas, of which this was one, then agricultural

land, which we could see over the river. The last category was land cleared for humanitarian

reasons, which I guess could have been said of all of it. Worked into all of this

was the priority given to poor areas. Hooray for that I said.

According to the information booklet they gave me, "The dog team has a big advantage

over the manual de-mining teams who are using a metal detector to locate mines. The

dog uses his sensitive nose to locate explosives, while a metal detector will find

any metal which then has to be treated as a potential mine."

It was explained to me that: a) the detector's limit is about 30 cm depth whereas

the dogs can smell explosives buried deeper than that and, b) it was possible to

walk over a deeply buried mine safely in the dry season. However, it soon became

obvious that the key word in all this was "diligence". Diligence and attention

to detail was manifested at every possible level and all the time, from the planning

of operations, the careful inching forwards of the mine detector head, to the, "Excuse

me," as the officer sitting next to me in the makeshift sun shelter at the edge

of the field said as he bent down and tied my shoe laces in a double knot. "You

might trip."

In this country you meet many of these quiet people who are "doing this for

our people, for Cambodia". You might say that in a land of such distressing

unemployment and poverty and corruption any job would be seized upon. I expect there's

an element of that everywhere, but these de-miners are an impressive lot.

* Anthony Maturin is a former New Zealand farmer, now a writer and photographer who

has been living in Cambodia for two years as a Volunteer Service Abroad support worker.

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