Eight years after venturing across the globe into turmoil-ridden Sudan, Sem Sovannrith, a skilled deminer, still has the memory of one particular day etched into his mind.
“We came one morning with the demining team to clear mines near a village where people had been fighting. When we got there, there were dead bodies, houses had been destroyed and families had been destroyed. That was hard,” he said.
Sovannrith was among the first group of Cambodian troops to don a blue beret and venture to a fractured foreign land under the United Nations umbrella in April 2006.
In the lead-up to what would become a defining life experience, Sovannrith and 134 other Cambodian troops learned that Sudan, then the largest country in Africa, was officially at peace after a bloody 21-year civil war that had claimed at least 2 million lives.
But the remnants of warfare - mines, poverty and brutal gang fighting – lived on.
“The worst thing was when the youth gangs would fight each other and people would get injured or killed,” he recalled.
Once at the receiving end of the largest and most complex UN peacekeeping mission of its time, Cambodia has since dispatched its own troops to a number of distant and dangerous lands.
Since 2006, a total of 2,165 Cambodians have been sent to Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Lebanon, Mali, Chad and Syria.
The troops have focused largely on something they have a lot of experience at: demining and unexploded ordinance disposal, said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“After the restoration of peace in Cambodia in 1991, the RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] was assigned to assist with domestic reconstruction and economic development. It developed a high degree of professional competence in demining and defusing unexploded ordnance,” he explained
Just this week, 216 of Cambodia’s blue berets embarked on a year-long mission to CAR to work on demining, constructing roads, bridges and barracks, and digging wells. While many did not know what to expect, Sovannrith – now a veteran peacekeeper – could anticipate the difficulties based on the memory of his first mission.
When they first touched down on African soil in 2006, Sovannrith was immediately hit by the remorseless heat.
“That was the hardest thing,” he recalled. “It was very difficult because we had to live in a tent for a long time and the weather was very hot,” he said, explaining that peacekeepers were required to build their own living quarters.
Sovannrith had left his wife and four children behind to head a demining team for the UN Missions in Sudan (UNMIS), based in the southern city of Malakal along the White Nile River.
While conditions were uncomfortable and life away from his native Cambodia an adjustment, some things in Sudan were just like home, Sovannrith said.
“The food was no problem because we had our own cook who knew how to make good Khmer meals,” he recalled.
He added that his Kingdom’s own legacy of war – a blanket of landmines – had provided a fruitful training ground for his time in Sudan. “I was demining; it wasn’t that different from here,” he said.
In addition to his demining activities, Sovannrith said he would help to build roads and wells, and to distribute aid.
Sudan – a country plagued by decades of violence, which, despite the peace deal, was soon to divide in two – was far from calm. But Sovannrith said he felt at ease. “It wasn’t that dangerous, the UN looked after us,” he said. “In my spare time I would sit and talk with the Sudanese people or take walks to the river or the market.”
When his one-year mission to Sudan was complete, Sovannrith returned to his family in Cambodia.
But four years later the opportunity arose to return, and the restless deminer jumped at the chance to again don his blue beret.
“If I can help in any way to solve an internal dispute, I am happy to share my skills and experiences,” he said.
Sovannrith said the second year-long operation was “a success” and, as with the first, there were no major incidents or fatalities.
The main change he can recall is that conditions were “a bit more comfortable” the second time around.
On Wednesday, Sovannrith and the 215 other blue berets set off for CAR, a country in the grips of chaos since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country in March last year, toppling President Francois Bozize.
But despite the turmoil awaiting him, Sovannrith said that he was confident that the trip would be another success.
“I expect there will be no problems … I have a lot of experience inside and outside the country so I am not worried,” he said.
At the leaving ceremony at Phnom Penh’s military airport, fellow veteran 48-year-old Sar Sareoun, who was stationed in Lebanon in 2010, shared his confidence.
“We have been trained about the situations there including the weather and living conditions,” Sareoun said. “As soldiers, everywhere in the world is the same to us; there is nothing to be afraid of or surprised by.”
The dispatching of peacekeepers is about more than just peace, Thayer said. It is intended “to increase Cambodia’s engagement and integration with the international community and raise its prestige”.
The 2006 Defence White Paper, which contained the first mention of peacekeeping in Cambodian policy, supports this assertion.
“From now on, the RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] must be more active in getting engaged in the international environment, which is an important activity for promoting its prestige,” it says.
“The coordinating committee for force deployment to UN peacekeeping missions was established as a national mechanism to coordinate and liaise with the UN as well as various national and international agencies,” it adds.
Vannarith Chheang, a lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Leeds in England, and a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (ICP), said that as well as promoting “national pride” the missions help to “increase [the] professionalism and capacity of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.”
Major General Phal Samorn, deputy director general of the National Center for Peacekeeping Forces, Mines and ERW Clearance, said that since joining the UN missions, Cambodia has enjoyed “bilateral cooperation with Australia, India, the US, France, China and Japan”.
“We gain experiences and learn lessons from all missions and enhance the knowledge of our commanders, deputy commanders and soldiers in accordance with their skills,” he said.
But, he added, the most important thing about Cambodia’s peacekeeping missions is the change they represent.
Twenty-two years ago the Kingdom received officials from the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which focused, among other things, on promoting and safeguarding human rights, and organising and monitoring national elections.
Now “Cambodia has an honorable face in the world,” Samorn said. “If we look back to 20 years ago, the UN had sent peacekeepers to Cambodia, but now Cambodia has become an active mission at the UN. This is something to be proud of.”
Among the latest dispatch of blue berets, chosen based on their skills and experience, was first-time peacekeeper, 35-year-old Chea Sokun.
Sokun, one of 53 female peacekeepers to have been dispatched by the Kingdom since 2006, will join 22 Cambodian women currently serving on UN missions.
Despite her impending venture into the unknown, Sokun said she was not afraid.
“This is my first time and I am excited to take on the role of a blue beret soldier,” she said.
“I was chosen by my boss to go and I am happy to go for the honour of my family, my company and my nation.”