The dusty fields of rural Pailin can twist the strongest of ankles. Sands swirl around constantly in the dry breeze and can make the eyes as red as the rising sun peeking over the nearby Cardamom mountains. But those minor glitches don’t compare to the dangers that lie quite literally below the surface: landmines, the destructive remnants of wars long gone but not forgotten.
Many were laid by Khmer Rouge and government troops during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. Little regard was shown for future generations during the period, as cheap-yet-effective mines were laid haphazardly across the country, with mine counts spiralling to uncontrollable numbers.
The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that anywhere between 4 million and 6 million mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) were planted or dropped from 1970 to 1997. That’s an estimate of one landmine for every two rural Cambodians.
In short, it’s a major problem for the Kingdom that isn’t going away any time soon. Ongoing demining efforts by CMAC and NGOs such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) have no completion timetable in sight – there are simply too many mines left to unearth.
MAG’s efforts are focussed on clearing areas for rural development. In effect, its aim is to clear areas for the expansion of agricultural purposes and to allow communities to build schools, roads and other infrastructure that is hindered by the presence of hidden explosives.
Since operations began in 1992, they have cleared more than 3 million square metres of land containing 6,199 anti-personnel landmines, 108 anti-tank mines and 22,630 items of UXO in Cambodia as of 2009.
Pailin remains one of the most heavily mined areas in all of Cambodia. Operations in Bar Huy Tbong village, in Baryakha commune, for example, demined a 3.8-hectare area of land where 140 assorted mines have been uncovered since December last year.
Chea Sarim, the regional manager for MAG, is unsure when demining efforts will cease but doesn’t see it happening in the near future, especially as funding from foreign sources continues to be cut.
“We have recently lost about 200 deminers,” he said, after funding was cut from countries such as Japan. “We hope that Japan will still fund cluster bomb [clearance] … to support the treaty.”
Cambodia’s Millennium Development Goals state targets that include the number of casualties resulting from mines and explosive remnants of war dropping to zero by 2015. Reaching that lofty aim might be tough considering the loss of funding and invaluable deminers.
The hard road ahead
The process of demining is itself an arduous one. “During operations, the deminers need to use the protective equipment … and to ensure the metal detector is working; we need to test it first,” Chea Sarim said.
They sweep the ground methodically and pedantically, from left to right and back again. When they finish that “row”, they move forward the distance for which the detector has swept, and start anew.
When the detector finds something, a warped, hypersonic bellow tells the deminer that danger is near.
Does that sound arduous enough? When a mine is found, the deminer digs a hole 13 centimetres deep from the back of where the mine is estimated, and starts to claw the hole up. In the dry season, when the ground is hard and conditions are sweltering, this process can take up to 30 minutes.
Still not arduous enough? Chea Sarim says that mines aren’t the only things found by metal detectors in the ground, but safety measures must be taken just the same.
“Usually for every square metre, there is one piece of metal [detected],” he said. For the 3.8-hectare site near completion, about 400,000 random bits were found compared with the 140 real dangers.
Simply doing the maths in your head to calculate how long it would take to dig 400,140 holes at 30 minutes each in sweltering conditions, with the added danger of possibly detonating explosives, is nearly as labourious as the reality of actually performing it out in the field.
A visit to the newest 1.3-hectare site – located adjacent to the 3.8-hectare site that was due for completion by mid-March this year – reveals diligent de
miners working tirelessly in the relentless heat, donning not only overalls, but also a protective vest and a blast shield that is hard to breathe in at the best of times but completely necessary.
They’ve uncovered three mines this morning alone: PMD-6 mines, made in Thailand. They are small, yet extremely destructive, anti-personnel explosives. The mines are destroyed, rather than deactivated, on site. TNT is attached to the offending implements, and blown up from a safe distance. Black smoke engulfs the immediate area as the ground shakes, the loud bang a signal that the mine is no more.
The explosion itself is enough to make one quiver at the thought of ever setting foot near the fields again. But for Kheun Sokhan, the phrase “once bitten, twice shy” is not part of her lexicon.
The 29-year-old is one of three female deminers working in the province, as well as one of three workers who have suffered a disability from stepping on a buried explosive. She stepped on a mine in 2002 while farming in Pailin, immediately losing her right leg. Despite the disability and being involved with mines again, the prospect of becoming a victim for a second time doesn’t faze her. “I am not afraid,” she said. “I’ve worked with MAG for four years.”
MAG’s slogan is “Save Lives, Build Futures”, and the hiring of mine victims is a step towards fulfilling that mission. Fifty-year-old Ngin Sarean was disabled in 1990 when he was serving as a government soldier. The Khmer Rouge planted mines at their barracks, and he lost his right leg after stepping on one nearby.
“I couldn’t find any other job,” he said. “I have four sons and one daughter, and they are afraid for me to continue to work because I am already disabled,” he said.
MAG stepped in and gave him a chance to rid the world of the very devices that stopped him working anywhere else. “I was afraid at first, but once
I received training from MAG I felt safe. I want to stop this from happening to anyone else.”
The effort to demine Cambodia, however, is not just about what it prevents, but also what it allows you to do. A trip to Spong village in the Sala Krau district in Pailin is a testament to that.
A brighter future
“Before demining, just two families owned cows here,” Sar Sovanny, the community liaison officer, explained. “Now, 10 families own cows because they are not afraid of losing them [to mines].”
The area was once a heavily mined and incredibly dense jungle occupied during the civil war. By 1984, the Vietnamese troops had withdrawn, and by 1993 it was named Spong village once the Khmer Rouge occupiers defected and joined the government. Just 10 families lived in the area then, and the threat of mines was still prevalent. The families were evacuated later that year, when further upheaval reared its head and more mines were planted.
When the unrest subsided, the village again began to grow despite such close proximity to the explosive remnants of war.
“When the war finished, the mines made life extremely difficult,” Sar Sovanny said. “There was a meeting between authorities, the commune chief and NGOs to gather information about which villages should be prioritised for mine clearance.”
She said the two minefields in the area spanned roughly 9 hectares. A 2-hectare area – now covered with sprawling rice paddies – once contained seven anti-tank mines and nine unexploded anti-personnel mines.
Perhaps best-placed to explain the before and after shots of the village is Chhorn Chheang, a 43-year-old volunteer teacher. He was a former Khmer Rouge soldier who defected in 1993. Amazingly, he says he was involved both in planting the mines and removing them later.
“There are now more agricultural activities like growing corn,” he said. “It is much safer to travel and farm since the end of the war.”
He is now volunteering as a teacher at the relatively new school in the village, built because the area was declared free of mines. “There are presently 122 families in the village,” Sar Sovanny said.
It now boasts not only the school, but a well donated by the UN children’s fund UNICEF, improved roads, and plans are under way to construct a pagoda.
Spong village is an example of what can be done without the threat of unseen explosives, and an example of what MAG hopes to achieve by clearing land for redevelopment elsewhere in the country.
Now the entire province is reaping the benefits. Slowly but surely, the small pocket of Cambodia bordering Thailand is growing in size, population and infrastructure. Construction trucks are a constant presence in Pailin town, as is the sight of trenches being dug to improve irrigation.
It’s a town on the up, which has been possible only because mine totals are declining. NGOs such as MAG hope development in Pailin is an example for the rest of the country as it claws its way back from the abyss of the civil war.