For the past three years, Cambodian soldiers have worked as deminers on the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan. Sam Rith looks at one company of deminers three months into their tour of duty.
Life is good for RetuRned deminers
As the soldiers of Company 405 were packing their bags for Sudan, troops from RCAF Company 315 were preparing to come home after serving as UN deminers in Sudan for one year. Mey Sophea, the commander of Company 315, said that thanks to their generous pay, most of the men in his company came home to better lives than they had before they left. After enjoying a month of
vacation time following their return, the soldiers returned to their military duties in Cambodia in mid-July. Khun Sophal, one of 139 members of Company 315, said that going to Sudan had made a significant difference in his life at home.“I used the money I earned during my mission to Sudan to repair my house and buy a new motorbike,” he said. “My family has been living much better since I returned.”
It has been almost three months since the troops of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) company 405 left for a one-year United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan, but company members say that homesickness and rough conditions are not enough to deter them from their humanitarian effort.
Speaking by phone from southern Sudan, near the Nile River, Company 405 Commander Taing Bunkry told the Post last week that his troops were doing well and had been making progress on their mission.
"We are all safe and healthy here, and have succeeded in some of our work," he said.
Since 2006, the Kingdom has sent 468 peacekeepers to Sudan. With so many unexploded mines still lurking in Cambodia, RCAF troops have over the years developed internationally sought-after demining expertise.
After arriving in Sudan, the troops received six weeks of demining training from the UN before taking an exam to secure their demining licences. So far, Taing Bunkry said, the company has focused on unexploded ordnance, clearing about 10 to date, as well as on educating the local population about the demining process. They will begin demining in earnest in October, after the east African rainy season ends.
The main area that the deminers will focus on during the dry season lies about 200 kilometres from their barracks, so they have yet to visit it.
"We have been studying the mined area only by flying over it in helicopters - we can't travel there by land because there are no roads and the area is covered in foliage during the rainy season," Taing Bunkry said.
During the rainy season, evening temperatures in Sudan average around 18 degrees centigrade, with daytime temperatures between 42 and 45 degrees; during the dry season, midday temperatures can hit 50 degrees.
Despite the inhospitable climate, the RCAF soldiers say they are happy to fulfill their mission.
"When I first came, I got a cold due to the weather, but now I'm fine," said 28-year-old Im Srim, a member of the 52-soldier contingent. "I'm very proud because [we] are representing the whole Cambodian nation as we fulfill our peacekeeping mission."
Although conditions were challenging at first, Im Srim said, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in Sudan.
"I really value my work, and this is the first time I've ever participated in an overseas mission," he said, adding that he was very pleased with his monthly salary of US$1,020.
Seang Kunthea, 31, another deminer from company 405, said that when he first arrived in Sudan, he and his fellow soldiers felt homesick for Cambodia, but that they now feel more comfortable because they have been contacting their families frequently by phone.
"We've gotten used to being far away from our families, and we will see them again when we complete our work," he said, adding that he has a wife and a 5-year-old son at home in Cambodia.
Seang Kunthea's wife, 26-year-old San Socheata of Phnom Penh, said that she and her son were patiently awaiting her husband's return.
"I wish my husband was at home, but it is his obligation to support the family and serve his country," she said.