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Explosive harvest

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Roger Hess, Golden West's inspector of field operations, looks at a Russian RBK 250 bomb at their Kampong Chhnang centre. Under his guidance, the Cambodian Golden West team have developed a method of extracting explosives from old, dangerous weapons such as this to make charges that are now being used to clear Cambodia of land mines. 

BETWEEN 1998 and 2007, Seng Doeurn could farm less than half of the hectare she owned in Klang village, located in Battambang's Bavel district.

Warned by neighbours and officials about the likely presence of land mines and explosive remnants of war - left over from the fighting between Khmer Rouge and government forces that did not end in the district until 1998 - she and her family stuck to the small portion of land they deemed safe, remaining ever mindful of where they planted their rice and where they placed their feet.

"In those years, I would just plant rice in places with no trees and no jungle," she said, "because I heard from others that those were probably the places that didn't have mines."

Like many of the 105 families in Klang village, Seng Doeurn, 51, and her husband and children thought they might be forced to perform this

type of at-risk farming indefinitely, as they had no other source of income.

Meanwhile, sporadic reminders of the threat posed by the mines cemented what she described as a pervasive fear among the villagers: In 2000, a 40-year-old man was killed when he rode his bicycle over an antipersonnel mine situated at the edge of a road, according to records provided by Ly Khchaopick, the deputy village chief. In 2007, two farmers survived explosions that occurred when they were breaking their soil with hoes.

The family's situation improved only recently, when their plot of land was included in a mine-clearance operation conducted in 2007 by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). Since then, the ability to cultivate the entire hectare, Seng Doeurn said, has allowed her family to double its rice production and purchase some long-coveted items, including a motorbike, a bicycle and a television set.

For the 30 families in the village whose land was not part of the operation, however, at-risk farming remains a frustrating and uncertain source of income. The restrictions placed on which land they can use render them less productive than their neighbours, and the attendant dangers are forgotten at their own peril: Last year, a 10-year-old boy tending cows in a field picked up - and began tossing around - a piece of metal that turned out to be an M-79 grenade, according to records provided by Ly Khchaopick. The boy survived the explosion but sustained injuries to his stomach, arms and face.

The attempt to clear land in Klang village is part of the latest focus in the effort to mitigate the damage caused by landmines in Cambodia, which remains one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

Ten years ago, Cambodia became a signatory to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, committing itself to removing all antipersonnel mines by the end of 2009. As the deadline nears, the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) is drafting a formal request to extend the deadline for another 10 years, which UNDP mine action project manager Melissa Sabatier said would provide "an opportunity to take stock of Cambodia's mine action achievements and identify a way forward".  

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Seng Doeurn.

Between 1992 and February 2009, deminers cleared 479,957 square kilometres of land for development purposes. Landmine experts estimate that fewer than 700 square kilometres of land still need to be cleared, although this figure has not been backed up by technical research, Sabatier said.

An extension of the deadline, which officials expect will be approved, would make donors more likely to fund mine clearance operations, said UNDP mine action communications officer Alex Hiniker.

The extension request, to be presented at a conference in Cartagena, Colombia, at the end of the year, is to include a plan to focus on clearance efforts in the 21 most heavily mined districts - nine of which, Bavel included, are in Battambang, the most mine-affected province.  

Noum Chhay Roum, chief of the Battambang Mine Action Planning Unit, said decisions about which sites to clear are based on factors including the wishes of development partners, how many people stand to benefit and whether plans exist to develop the land once it is mine-free.   

At present, CMAC deminers can meet less than half of clearance requests submitted by Battambang residents, said Net Nath, deputy manager for CMAC Demining Unit 2, which is based in Battambang.

I would just plant rice in places with no trees and no jungle.

"We can't meet their demands because we have a limited team and a limited budget," he said.

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Deminers clear land in half-meter increments in Bavel district, Battambang.  

Clearing M12688

On the morning of April 1, some 23 CMAC deminers, donning yellow helmets, light blue CMAC shirts, brown pants and dark blue Kevlar protection vests, began another day of work in Minefield 12688, an 11-hectare plot also in Bavel district. Standing among kapok and jambolan plum trees, they set up 1.5-metre-by-10 metre demining strips, cleared brush in half-metre increments and examined every piece of metal - or piece of debris resembling metal - they came across.

The clearance project began March 17 and was to be completed by April 24. Once cleared, the land was to be turned over to 48 families, primarily for growing rice, bananas, oranges, jackfruit, papayas and mangoes.

As of April 21, the team had found 18 anti-personnel mines, seven pieces of unexploded ordnance and no antitank mines. The team had inspected 99,488 pieces of metal.

Among the villagers who stand to benefit is Pheap Chan, 49, whose left leg was amputated below the knee following a landmine explosion that occurred while he was fighting Khmer Rouge forces in 1990. He said he hoped to plant corn, beans and bananas on a one-hectare plot of land once the CMAC team was finished.

Before the operation began, he said, "I was planting in the farmland, but I was just using half of the land."

He added that he hoped CMAC would be able to clear the land near his house, located in a neighbouring village, once the M12688 project was completed.

"I have landmines near my house," he said. "Right now I just clear them myself."

Photo by: Tracey Shelton [left and centre] and Heng Chivoan [right]

Testing disposable charges, left, on a Bouncing Betty landmine; empty shells, centre, which have had their live charges removed; A CMAC deminer at work in Battambang.


By Tracey Shelton
In a field in Kampong Chhnang province, a Golden West Humanitarian Foundation employee works in one of three modified shipping containers, cutting an antitank landmine in half.

In a process known as explosive harvesting, the mine will be steamed and separated from its casing before being melted and recast. The goal is to extract from dangerous stockpiles of unexploded ammunition disposal charges - small detonators that can be used in the clearing of landmines and explosive remnants. Golden West began work in Cambodia in 2005, the same year it developed the explosive harvesting technique now used here and in Afghanistan.

Golden West Director of Field Operations Roger Hess said the foundation had designed a system of harvesting explosives from old weapons that could be used to clear stockpiles without creating more hazardous waste. Up to 50 disposal charges can be made from one piece of ammunition. In Kampong Chhnang alone, Golden West has processed 40 tonnes of ammunition, creating 100,000 charges and 24 tonnes of clean metal. Before Golden West began explosive harvesting, deminers were dependent on explosives from abroad, said Oum Phumro, deputy director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC).

The process of procuring them, he said, was expensive and difficult.

"At one point, operators were running out of explosives to support demining operations," Oum Phumro said.

Last year, 65 percent of explosives used by CMAC were produced by Golden West, saving them at least US$100,000 on the cost of explosives from abroad. Producing charges locally makes it easier to fill special orders.

Oum Phumro said different pieces of unexploded ordnance require different techniques.

"Explosive charges can now be made for specific mines and tailored to operational needs," he said.

Back in the Kampong Chhnang field, or Elephant Range, explosive ordnance disposal specialist Thong Khean sets charges on three warheads to break open the casings and burn out the explosives before they detonate. "If the bomb is close to a village or house and we can't move it, we need low-order so when it explodes the pieces do not go far," Thong Khean said.

After the explosion, the team inspects the results. Two detonations were successful, but the third did not penetrate the casing. "This one we will try to make again, but a little bit different, and maybe we will have success," Thong Khean explains as he sets a new charge closer to the third rocket, and at a different angle.

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