F ifty Khmer fighters dressed in black uniforms sat in an early morning train
with their British commander as they chugged their way towards the
Carrying not guns but metal detectors the men were out to
combat land mines.
The 20 kilometer journey southwards from Pursat town
was in a three carriage nory.
A nory, as local people call it, is a
rectangle platform supported by four iron wheels and dragged by a generator with
two belts connected to the axle.
The removable platform has a speed of
about 30 kilometers an hour. It is also the best means to carry any casualty
said Robin Biddulph, Halo Trust's location manager in Pursat.
brave men's nory moved on, crossing bridges, passing mountains and trees and
rice fields it came across two other rail road vehicles belonging to some
Immediately, the villagers stopped and carried their trains
off the track to give way to the mine fighters.
Upon arrival, the
combatants hurriedly set to enjoy a breakfast of rice and fish from a large pot
while their "enemies" waited anxiously underneath the ground in front of
At half-past seven, supervisors blew whistles to mark the start of
war against the man-made creatures.
Twenty-five meters apart, the men
work in twos in lines arranged like a chess board.
One deminer feels and
prods and the other adjusts the former's work 10 to 15 meters behind. They
rotate every half an hour.
Biddulph said the idea of arranging a
minefield to be cleared like a chess board is to ensure no other casualties
occur if a deminer has an accident.
Occasionally during the day, deminers
rushed out of the field and hide themselves behind hills or trees like soldiers
preparing to ambush enemies.
"Prong Prayat," shouted Biddulph in a Khmer
tune to his Khmer work mates and nearby villagers to tell them to be careful.
The moment turned silent. The earth trembled and trees shook following a
thunder-like noise that came from an immense cloud of flame, smoke and dust
flying high up to the top of the trees.
This was the fall-out of a land
mine being destroyed.
Afterwards, the combatants returned to their
designated positions. Villagers carried on their normal business.
noon, the deminers took a thirty-minute lunch break. Some with and some without
spoons, they joyfully ate their rice and soup of pork and cabbage.
trees with a sweet-smelling breeze from golden fields of rice, the young men in
their mid-twenties took an abrupt nap before resuming feeling and prodding for
another two hours.
Deep into their tough task in a hazardous zone, the
mine fighters heard a final whistle notifying the end of the day's
The sun was beginning to hurry through silvery clouds and a dark
blue sky towards his home behind the mountains.
The deminers rode
homewards on their nory . Their faces enriched with jubilant looks as if they
were soldiers who had survived a world war.
Since it started operating in
Pursat in November 1992, Halo Trust has freed a large area of land from land
mines in O Ta Pong commune, Bakan district and Road 56 in Kravanh
The trust has also cleared areas in Koul Totung, Kravanh and
Kseth Borei communes,
Currently, it is working in Toteng Thngai village,
Thnoth Choum commune and in Krako district.
Toteng Thngai is a remote
village where people live and work on the edge of a minefield and have suffered
at least six casualties over the past three years.
Some of them are
people displaced by internal fighting and all have been gladly expanding their
back yards every day, bit by bit, to the frontier of newly cleared land.
These new settlers, especially children, are obviously exposed to a high
In many areas, people do not know where mines are. In others,
though they know there are mines, children will go into a minefield when they
are excited or scared, or when they are playing with friends chasing after them,
Taking as an instance, the Pursat Halo Trust chief spoke
of a boy who was killed and another wounded playing and running into a minefield
his group was clearing.
There are also problems with cows and herds near
" Children do not wait for their cows to come back, but
will chase after them," stressed Biddulph.
He said the trust has major
objectives such as saving lives, preventing injuries and returning land to
people, especially to displaced people who have no land.
"Now we're working step by step, taking mines and danger away from
Concerning the safety of the work, he said the most important
precaution was to carry out procedures correctly.
However, Halo Trust
Pursat had a terrible experience when one of its Khmer staff trod on a small
Chinese-made 72A mine and lost one of his feet while the group was clearing
mines on Road 56.
Biddulph said Yim Sarath, the injured supervisor, wants
to come back and work - which will be welcomed by the group - when his wound has
The decision to start demining, which is vital for
development, is critical and an agreement has to be reached before the work
The deminers have to find out if everybody wants to have the
"We can't have development without demining and we can't do
demining without peace," explained Biddulph.
Despite applying such
measures, Halo Trust Pursat have still encountered some serious problems.
In June 1993, an expatriate chief, his driver and translator were
kidnapped, and two trucks and eight detectors were robbed by the Khmer Rouge in
Kseth Borei commune.
More serious still, at the end of last year the
group had an accident caused by a few armed men, some wearing Khmer Rouge
uniform, who opened fire while the deminers were riding their nory back home
from Toteng Thngai commune.
In the incident, about six kilometers from
town, three Halo staff were seriously injured and eight others
Despite being shocked at first, Biddulph said his Khmer friends
were very keen to continue their work but would not do so until they had got the
result of an investigation by local authorities.
Or, alternatively, till
security had been confirmed by the same authorities.
A recent press
statement by Halo Trust said an initial investigation believed the attack was
motivated by robbery and was not carried out by the Khmer Rouge.
stricter measures are not taken "the problem will get worse until nobody is in
the country," said Biddulph.
Together with the above problems, the Halo
Trust Pursat manager said the organization found most difficulties lay in
finding donors to fund mine clearance in Cambodia.
"It's amazing when
everybody recognizes that mines are the main problem facing Cambodia, but they
don't do anything," he said.
However, he said he admired certain
organizations, including the European Community which are funding the project in
They have recognized the problem and have taken action. "All of
our donors are very helpful," said Biddulph.