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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Powerful portrait of mines misery

Powerful portrait of mines misery

W hen 370,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand registered for repatriation in early 1992, the single most popular district in all the country was Rattanak Mondul in the western reaches of Battambang province. The area's rich farmland and teeming forests, along with its proximity to Thailand and the lucrative gem trade in Pailin, made it a preferred destination for more than 26,000 returnees.

What many of the refugees did not know was that Rattanak Mondul had become one of the most heavily mined areas in Cambodia. Following the Vietnamese withdrawal in September 1989, the district became a battleground between Khmer Rouge guerrillas and Phnom Penh troops. By early 1991, the entire population of 14,500 had fled toward Battam-bang city, most houses and government buildings had been damaged or destroyed, and 65 percent of all cultivable land had been lost to mines or unexploded ordnance.

In the wake of a UN-brokered peace settlement in October 1991, returnees, internally displaced persons and others began to move back into Rattanak Mondul. But as Paul Davies and Nic Dunlop point out in their illustrated study, War of the Mines, the absence of any large-scale demining by the UN or other agencies forced the civilian population to make one of two stark choices in order to survive: "The first of these 'choices' was to clear the mines, either by themselves or by employing ex-soldiers. Most resorted to the second 'option', which involved entering known mine-risk areas to cut and gather wood, and other natural resources. The results often were devastating.

From 1979 to February 1993, mines killed 281 people in Rattanak Mondul, most of them in the last four years. These are just the official figures; the real death rate no doubt is much higher. One adult male in seven in the district has been killed or injured by a land mine in the last decade. One person in 90 is an amputee, more than four times the national average. Mines are the leading cause of disability and among the top three causes of death in the district. "Mines," Davies writes, "have produced a medical, social, and economic state of emergency in Rattanak Mondul."

Although reliable statistics are hard to come by for Cambodia, Davies, an overseas desk officer for the Mines Advisory Group estimates that during the first half of 1993, about 250 people survived mine accidents each month, usually at the cost of an amputee limb. But, he adds, "for every mine victim who survives an accident at least one dies, if not two, before reaching hospital."

With painful clarity and deep sensitivity, Davies' words and Dunlop's pictures detail the reverberating aftershocks a mine explosion has on its victims. In so doing, they expose the perverse logic of land mine technology: It is "the perfect weapon for a war of total social, economic, cultural and ultimately military attrition. The mine is designed to consume enemy resources, designed not to kill but to main." Mines, they argue, are designed not just to produce cripples but crippling poverty, which ultimately may be more deadly than the explosions.

"From the moment a man, woman or child stands on a mine, three or four others will be involved in the immediate evacuation and in the application of first aid. Many others will be involved in the transfer to hospital, the operation, the post operative and rehabilitative care, the provision of prostheses, the provision of benefits and pensions, etc. The financial costs of all these resources and the long-term opportunity cost of the injury are all parts of the land mine equation. All are elements in the cynical cost-benefit analysis in which designers and manufacturers engage. These calculations cannot be described as anything but criminal." There are other ways in which mines go on making victims long after the blast has echoed into silence. Amputees cannot be ordained as monks, they are unlikely candidates for marriage, and poor prospects for employment. Their injuries are life shattering. Sor Bun Tuern lived with his wife and children in Beng Ampil, a camp for internally displaced persons. In May 1992, he was out cutting twine to weave into mats when a mine detonated, costing him his right eye and his right hand. With vision in his left eye damaged by the blast, Tuern became suicidal and his wife began to reject him. "She told him that since he had ceased to be able to provide for his family he was no longer a man," Davies writes, "He had died as a man in the accident, and since he had died, the whole family was dying."

Nine months later, Tuern want to catch fish with two friends on the Sangke River. "As he rounded a corner he walked into a fine trip-wire, spread at chest height across the path and attached to a booby-trap device, possibly a bounding mine. He died instantly. His friends fled without recovering the body." Asked why he went to such a dangerous place, his widow said, "We were sick and without food. We needed the money."

One of the major contributions of War of the Mines is, despite its title, to demilitarize the mines issue, to reckon its "collateral damage" in everyday, civilian terms, and to give its victims a face and a name. The words and pictures avoid easy sensationalism. The portraits of the victims that emerge are all the more powerful for their restraint. At risk of making what sounds like criticism, War of the Mines is a good coffee-table book, something to leave lying about, to give your friends, to share with your children.

But Davies and Dunlop want to do more than promote awareness of the deadly cost of mines. They also make recommendations for action: increase international support for the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC); expand opportunities for prosthetics, rehabilitation and reintegration for Cambodian amputees; and strengthen and enforce UN protocols relating to mines. But ultimately, the authors suggest, "nothing short of a complete ban on the manufacture, export, and deployment of these weapons will do."

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