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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Scrap-metal hunters pay with their lives

Scrap-metal hunters pay with their lives

Beginner's guide to the fifth hole at Sihanoukville links: sand trap on left, pond

in middle, unexploded ordnance hazard on right. Well, that's how the course profile

might read just now.

A hat, a water bottle and sandals ... the poignant mementoes of two men killed while sawing open these mortar shells dug up in a 30-year-old ordnance dump behind the new Ochheuteal golf links in Sihanoukville.

The company building a nine-hole golf course at Ochheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville,

has called in an explosives demolition team to sweep the site with metal detectors,

after two people were killed while removing fuses and detonators from buried mortar

shells only 100 metres away.

"I'm not taking any chances with the sixth-hole excavations," says Martin

Stanbury, project manager for Ariston Holdings. He has asked the Cambodian Mine Action

Centre to bring in metal detectors. CMAC, on a tight budget, will respond if somebody

pays.

The golf links' neighbor is a shallow (buried up to about 1.5 meters) ordnance dump

of indeterminate size, dating from the 1960s and 1970s, packed with shells, bombs

and ammunition of US origin, according to CMAC. The mortar shells range from 60 to

107 mm and artillery shells include 160, 81mm and 4.2 inch, and there are 40 mm anti-aircraft

cannon.

Despite frequent warnings from the army and police, for years locals have been digging

up live shells, hammering and cutting off the corroded detonation screw caps, and

selling the cases and TNT explosive material inside. Most cases are high quality

fragmentation steel which can fetch up to $2 as scrap, and the TNT (still in good

condition) is saleable for quarrying and fish bombs. Some shells are copper or brass

which is worth more.

CMAC field technical adviser Hermann Mattheus says: "Ordinarily the caps can

be screwed off, but they're corroded. They know it's dangerous, they're adults, but

they're desperate for the money." He's heard of a 250 kg aircraft bomb being

sold for $75 from this site.

An empty sack, bottom left, for collecting UXOs from the sandy hole behind it, a few meters from where four men blew themselves up, two fatally, while scavenging metal. The Emperor International Bank says it will sell you the lot ... but tread lightly.

Wednesday April 21 was no different from any other. Four Khmer men dug up some shells,

carried them across to a shady tree and proceeded to hack through them with a metal

saw, the screw threads being corroded. This time a mortar shell exploded, killing

Sor On and Mr Nouen (both 36); their two friends were seriously injured.

Their families were too poor to afford ambulance or funerals: the injured were put

on a trailer and towed to the local hospital; next day the bodies were cremated where

they lay. An observer who visited the site last week said there were still sandals

and a hat lying among the remaining shell cashings at the scene.

The dump site has a "For Sale" sign on the side, stating that the land

is being sold by the Emperor International Bank (presumably on behalf of the senior

army officers who have proclaimed ownership of most of the beach area). Attempts

to call the bank to inquire about the land were unsuccessful.

CMAC's Mattheus, a former Belgian Army warrant officer, said the munitions dump was

too big for his resources to handle and there would be no cleanup work done; so it

looks like Caveat emptor for any prospective purchaser. He says the area is safe

to walk on, unlike a minefield. The golf course won't be completed for 9 to 12 months.

CMAC is in fact fully occupied at another site some 5 km to the northeast, where

last week they blew up about 3,000 shells using C4 explosive, making a total of about

6,000 shells destroyed in two weeks. This ordnance includes mortar, artillery (75,

105) and 37mm Russian, and 40mm rifle grenades.

The CMAC explosive ordnance disposal team at Sihanoukville prepares munitions for disposal at their site east of Wat Otres. From left: Sam Onn, Tep Sokoeurn, Hermann Mattheus, Ratana Pen.

The dump is of similar vintage but Mattheus says at some time a clumsy attempt was

made to blow it up, succeeding in scattering live rounds over about a 1km radius.

"It's a mess, much more difficult to clean up than a minefield.

"In Belgium we are still finding live shells from World War I, so Cambodia will

probably still be digging up UXOs 100 years from now."

After last week's controlled blowup 50 locals swarmed into the crater scavenging

for scrap metal as soon as the smoke had cleared.

CMAC says one more sweep should clear 90 percent of the exposed shells, but this

would not happen for about two weeks as they'd run out of C4.

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