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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MAG deminers maimed then trained

MAG deminers maimed then trained

Photos: Darren Whiteside

N ok Ratha taps his plastic left leg, gives a bit

of a smile and begins to tell how he left the Khmer Rouge after having his foot

blown away seven years ago - and ended up as a qualified deminer working for a

British-based NGO.

Around him are colleagues from the new batch of Mines

Advisory Group [MAG] deminers: 21 fellow amputees; and six women, five of them

"mine widows". Each one knows intimately the pain caused by mines, yet next week

they will be venturing back into the minefields of northwest

Cambodia.

The experimental team was the brainchild of MAG's technical

supervisor in Battambang, Norman Stewart, who said: "This will give them a

chance to get back what land mines have taken from them."

Stewart says

"it gives these people a hell of a step up in life."

Their karma was bad,

he explains, now they have a chance to make a living, increase their status, and

get back at the mines.

The new deminers will begin work in Battambang on

Monday, June 5 "but I am not scared," said 30-year-old widow and mother of

three, Sanh Pally. Pally has teamed up with Yan Muny - also a 30-year-old widow

and mother of three - and they have become fast friends.

MAG, who like

many NGOs spend much of their time fund-raising, say this presents a powerful

image of people working to find and destroy the very weapon that shattered their

lives.

Newly-graduated Ratha, just 26, is one of three team leaders. He

was recruited into the KR as a nurse when he was 14.

1988 seems a long

time ago, when he and his friend were KR soldiers near Treng, quietly taking

supplies of rice and ammunition from a secret cache to KR forward

positions.

"I heard a click then the explosion. We were in the jungle and

had nowhere to go. I said to my friend 'Please, please give me your gun and I

will kill myself. I cannot go to the place where the doctor is'."

"But my

friend said 'No, no, no, please stay here and I will get help and take you to a

safe place'."

Ratha was rescued and taken to a safe rest area, where KR

medics spent 20 days washing and dressing his wound. By the time he got to Ou

Plenchai hospital, a KR doctor had to amputate his left leg to below the

knee.

"My commander said I would always be considered a soldier, but told

me that if I wanted to become a farmer, or live as a civilian it would be no

problem."

Ratha made himself some crude crutches (there were no

prosthetics), and made his way to Site 8 refugee camp on the Thai border.

Eventually he was repatriated to Phnom Penh, where he trained as a

carpenter.

When the word spread that MAG was looking for amputees and

widows to train as deminers, Ratha knew immediately that he could do it. "I

never had training but I know mines, and I know how to demine."

Economic

factors have clearly driven most of these people back into the minefields. At

$170 a month, their salary will be more than enough for them and their families

to live comfortably in Battambang. However, there is pride in their new uniform

and new-found expertise.

"I don't want Cambodian people to suffer like I

have," said one-legged Ry Saveth, who admitted being a bit scared about his new

job.

The MAG office was inundated with applicants, and it was a difficult

job to find bonafide widows, for instance. The women are all over 25-years of

age "because there is little respect in a job such as this for a younger woman,"

Stewart said.

The newly-recruited women have a fine role model in

Stewart's special assistant, interpreter Sorn Monny.

Monny was taught

everything the deminers learned on site so she could translate correctly. After

two years, her ability and technical knowledge is such that she can - and has -

taken over supervision of live mine sites.

She once demolished 12 mines

in three days and is treated with respect on site. "The men don't swear around

her, and if they do they apologize," Stewart said.

Leng Sokun, 25, was

awarded a prize as one of the top three students. Her husband was killed in 1991

and she has since worked as a cake seller to support her daughter.

Here

father tried talking her out of her new job. She said: "Before I joined this

unit I was afraid of land mines, but now I've been trained so I am not

afraid."

MAG assistant director Ray McGrath said at the graduation

ceremony that MAG was committed to enlarging this pilot scheme to other

countries in the world.

"I would not be being a good NGO if I didn't say

that we need the support of donors for money, not just ourselves but CMAC and

other NGOs that work in prosthetics and other mine-related work."

"This

is the message that we must send out from here and from the [land mine]

conference, that the world must support brave people such as these."

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