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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Deminers do battle daily against legacy of warfare

Deminers do battle daily against legacy of warfare

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

battlefield.

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.

As the

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

villagers.

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

them.

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.

At

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.

Under

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

work.

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

district.

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

risk.

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,

said Biddulph.

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

dangerous zones.

" 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.

Biddulph said:

"Now we're working step by step, taking mines and danger away from

people."

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

completely healed.

The decision to start demining, which is vital for

development, is critical and an agreement has to be reached before the work

begins.

The deminers have to find out if everybody wants to have the

area cleared.

"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

hurt.

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.

If

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

Pursat.

They have recognized the problem and have taken action. "All of

our donors are very helpful," said Biddulph.

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