As part of international efforts to raise awareness around the impact of landmines, organisations working on the issue in Cambodia are turning to art, particularly photography, to illustrate the devastating legacy of unexploded ordnance that remain in the Kingdom even decades after the official end of armed conflict.
This Wednesday, a photography exhibition titled Impact Clearing Cambodia’s Deadly Legacy will launch at InterContinental Hotel to coincide with the United Nations International Day for Mine Awareness.
The show, co-presented by the Mine Advisory Group, features work by former international press photographer Sean Sutton documenting 15 visits to the Kingdom.
The shots reveal the scars, fears and in some cases, sheer determination of people living in and around impact zones, such as those in one village Sutton witnessed and photographed trying to make new rice fields in a known minefield.
“People do that because they have no choice: use the minefield at risk of death or loss of limbs or go hungry,” said the photographer. “It’s as simple and tragic as that.”
Any community growth and development is stunted by unearthed minefields, he said.
“You can’t build schools, you can’t have peace, stability and prosperity, you can’t drill water wells. You can’t do anything … until you have cleared the landmines.”
Sutton, who has photographed conflict and its wider impact in a number of other countries across the globe, said he tried to capture issues like these through his photographs, which he was asked to display as part of MAG’s work raising international awareness on the issue.
MAG is not the only organisation using photography to call attention to the issue of landmines in Cambodia.
Last week marked the closing of Fatal Footprint, a unique outdoor photo exhibition mounted on Sothearos Boulevard to commemorate Handicap International’s 30th anniversary of operation in the country.
The pictures depicted ordinary people in Cambodia and Laos going about their daily business: tilling a field, eating dinner or lying in bed. Each of them wore a prosthetic limb after suffering an encounter with an unexploded ordnance.
Attending Fatal Footprint’s closing at Meta House last week was John Rodsted, a photojournalist and part of a team that earned a 1997 Nobel peace prize for their work promoting an anti-landmine treaty.
Rodsted didn’t pull his punches when discussing the continuing impact of unexploded ordnance on Cambodian society.
In an economy dominated by agriculture, and a rush to seize up the country’s free land, the threat of dormant munitions left over from the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge still looms large, he said.
“Think about how much it costs to bomb a country,” Rodsted beseeched his audience. “Think of how much it costs to build a plane, create the bomb, train a pilot. Multiply that figure by 200,000. Now think about how much money is available to clean up the mess.
“In Cambodia, there is still the legacy of mines, still the legacy of unexploded ordnance from a war that ended 37 years ago and yet continues today. Quite simply, why should the children of this country still be suffering from a legacy left over from the ’70s?”
Handicap International’s Cambodian Director, Jeroen Stol, said the Sothearos Blvd exhibition was an ideal way of drawing attention to his organisation’s efforts in humanitarian mine action and safeguarding the rights of those who fall victim to unexploded ordnance.
Funded by foreign aid agencies of Belgium, Spain, Austria and Australia, Handicap International has worked to train teachers in supporting amputees and provided healthcare support in the rural provinces where mine injuries are most common.
Handicap International also took the opportunity last week to commend the work of Spain’s Agency for International Development Cooperation and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre.
The organisations are two of many that conduct mine and ordnance clearing operations in Cambodia’s provinces.
In 2010, the groups helped clear 5,500 mines from Kratie, Srav Vieng and Kampong Cham provinces in Cambodia’s east, rendering 2.6 million square kilometres of the country free from the threat of unexploded ordnance.
As for the upcoming exhibit at the InterCon, Sean Sutton says that despite its emotive and somewhat depressing topic, the exhibition is not intended to stir feelings of doom and gloom.
“I hope people can leave the exhibition with hope and the belief that together we can really make a difference. Anything we can do to raise awareness of this issue is important,” he said, adding that the art of photography was an incremental tool in addressing hard-hitting issues that can be difficult to talk about.
“It is important to illustrate what the problem and impact is, as well as showing what has already been achieved.”
Many of his photographs show MAG workers clearing landmines.
“So much has been achieved in Cambodia. Many communities have been saved and the difference is amazing to see. However, there is a lot more to do and we must work together for a mine-free future.”
Impact Clearing Cambodia’s Deadly Legacy runs from April 5 to 25 at The Insider Gallery, Intercontinental Hotel Phnom Penh 296 Mao Tse Toung Blvd, Phnom Penh. The exhibit is part of MAG’s Landmine Awareness Week of Action running from the March 28 to April 4.
To contact the reporters on this story: Deborah Seccombe and Sean Gleeson at [email protected]