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A decade of demining

Members of demining groups, CMAC, listen to speeches celebrating a decade of demining on Mine Awareness Day in Rattanak Mondul.

T

he 30 kilometer dirt road from Battambang to Rattanak Mondul district village is

seeing more traffic today, Feb 24, than it usually sees in six months.

Clouds of dust envelop curious villagers watching the procession of vehicles from

CMAC, Unicef, Red Cross, Halo, MAG and Handicap International. Along with trucks

swollen with local villagers, Cambodia's demining and mine victim agencies are heading

to the celebration of Mine Awareness Day.

The day also marks the 10th anniversary of demining, which started formally under

the UN Transitional Authority's demining agency, now known as the Cambodian Mine

Action Center (CMAC).

The good news is that in a decade CMAC has cleared over 90 million square meters

of land, more than 141,000 mines, over 650,000 items of unexploded ordinance (UXO)

and quarter of a billion fragments. The bad news, however, is that CMAC and other

mine agencies will need to keep working for at least another ten years before the

country is relatively safe from landmines.

For today's ceremony the local school has been transformed with a helipad, a mobile

exhibition, loudspeakers and a podium. A carnival atmosphere takes over as hundreds

of villagers, deminers, monks and military personnel crane their necks to watch Prime

Minister Hun Sen's army-green helicopter land.

Cambodia has one of the most extensive demining operations in the world and the scale

of the effort becomes apparent in the anniversary celebrations. Eight hundred of

CMAC's 2,000 deminers stand to attention along with several hundred from the country's

other demining agencies while Hun Sen and his entourage make their way to the podium.

The setting for the anniversary is appropriate: it is being held in Battambang province,

one of the most heavily mined regions of Cambodia. In 2001 it accounted for 28 percent

of all mine and UXO casualties: 457 of the 1,638 incidents recorded that year.

The area was so heavily mined, Hun Sen tells the crowd, that on a trip to the north-east

in 1996, "even my mother and father were very concerned for my safety".

Cambodia's landmine scourge has taken limbs, lives and livelihoods from thousands.

Thirty-three-year-old Chham Men, a former soldier who now begs at Wat Phnom in the

capital, lost his leg to a landmine while on patrol in Preah Vihear's Choam Khsan

district when he was just 19.

"I was very angry with the Khmer Rouge," he says. "They killed ten

members of my family, so I joined the army to fight them. But I was hot-blooded and

didn't think about what could happen to me."

Men has been paying for his hot-bloodedness ever since. Unable to find work he brings

in around 5,000 riel a day. The poverty his injury induced meant that four of his

eight children died.

"Two of my children died from dengue fever, the other two from malnutrition

because we could not afford milk to feed them," says Men.

For the sake of a few thousand riel to supplement his meager pension Men puts up

with the indignities of begging.

"Every day I struggle for the sake of my children," he says.

With the end of fighting, soldiers no longer feature predominantly among those killed

and maimed by mines. Last year 95 percent of victims were civilians. Most are men

or children who are hurt while working in areas still littered with mines and UXO.

Despite education campaigns, like the one celebrated today, 37 percent of incidents

are the result of people tampering with mines and UXO.

Members of demining groups, CMAC, listen to speeches celebrating a decade of demining on Mine Awareness Day in Rattanak Mondul.

Today Hun Sen tells the people that over the past decade, mine incidents have steadily

decreased. From the end of the Khmer Rouge era until 1991 there were 27,296 mine-related

incidents, but with the beginning of mine clearance in 1992 the rate began to slow.

However, in parts of the country where conflict continued, so too did the laying

of mines. From 1992 until the end of fighting in 1998 there were 13,625 incidents,

an average of 162 a month.

With the onset of peace that number has dropped to an average of 92 a month in 1999,

70 a month in 2000, and 64 a month last year. By the time demining celebrates its

20th anniversary, says Hun Sen, the threat of mines to Cambodian should be a thing

of the past.

"On the 20th anniversary, even if all the mines have not been cleared, our victims

will be zero," Hun Sen tells the appreciative crowd.

Demining has not always gone smoothly: it was almost derailed in 1999 when a series

of financial scandals shook donor-funded CMAC. Demining was a donor favorite that

attracted millions of dollars each year. The setback was not lost on Hun Sen. He

lambasted former CMAC head Sam Sotha, who looked uncomfortable as he sat on the VIP

podium.

"If CMAC had died during that time, then 'SAM-AC' would have had to clear the

mines on his own," the Prime Minister jokes.

Sotha was ousted from CMAC after the scandal. More followed as the organization's

finances were squeezed: in 2000 CMAC laid off 1,937 employees.

Watch out! A CMAC T-shirt vividly illustrates the danger of mines.

Restructuring has meant the return of donor money and a dramatic increase in productivity.

In 2001 CMAC cleared 137 percent of its target. Some of its best results have come

from using specially trained sniffer dogs. While a metal detector will find every

metal fragment and rusty nail in a mine field, dogs sniff out only explosives which

allows deminers to rapidly clear each area.

However the primary reason for the declining casualty rate is the small army of deminers

who put themselves in harm's way to render Cambodia's fields safe for farming and

its roads safe for traveling. Today is their day.

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