Forty-year-old Dos Phalla emerges from the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Thailand and climbs into a small boat. He’s just finished the first 30-foot dive of his life, and he looks spent.
If this were the real deal, not just scuba practice near Koh Rong Samloem island in Preah Sihanouk province, Phalla would have emerged from a river with a dangerous catch: anything from artillery to small arms, mortars, ground-to-ground rockets and bombs dropped from warplanes.
One of nearly 40 all-volunteer recruits from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Phalla entered a rigorous, four-week diver preparation course at the tail end of January. The competitive training has winnowed the original group down to 14. Each is trying to make it through the end of the course next week. Ultimately, about 10 of them – with possible spaces for reservists – will form the country’s first underwater salvage unit, responsible for slipping into murky rivers and lakes to scrounge for the countless number of UXO, or unexploded ordnance, left over from decades of conflict in Cambodia.
“I hope that I will be a deminer that searches for UXO underwater,” said Phalla. “I have patience to do this job, and this skill is very important.”
Funding from the US State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, which supports similar programs in the Balkans, Iraq and Guinea-Bissau, among other countries, is helping the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, better known as CMAC, and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation – a charitable group dedicated to the removal of landmines and unexploded ordnance – run the course.
The sunken legacies stem from the civil war period in the 1970s and the US’s covert bombing of Cambodia as an extension of its fight in Vietnam. As such, bodies of water in Cambodia are home to hundreds of thousands of these remnants of war.
In time, Phalla could be one of the few helping to hoist them out. Besides swimming and diving, he’ll need the ability to locate unexploded ordnance by probing for them with only his hands in low- to zero-visibility waters.
His education kicked off on the morning of January 28. Phalla sat in the back of a green-carpeted classroom on the fifth floor of Build Bright University, next to row after row of recruits wearing the sky-blue government uniforms of CMAC, the main demining operation in the country.
Oum Phumro, CMAC’s deputy secretary general, addressed the recruits from a raised platform.
“There are hundreds or even thousands of sunken boats along the river that were sunk during the war. We have already located a few of them, and each one may contain up to a thousand tons of unexploded ordnance,” Phumro told the rapt audience of deminers. “We don’t need to say what kind of problems this can cause if these kinds of UXO fall into the wrong hands.”
In the early to mid-1970s, Lon Nol – after overthrowing then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a military coup – turned his attention to crushing the swelling forces of the Khmer Rouge and ordered cases of arms, munitions, rockets and mortars to beef up his military. Many of these were delivered on barges and transported on the Mekong. But frequently, the shipments would be waylaid by Khmer Rouge fighters, who shelled the deliveries, sinking the barges and sending vast stores of unexploded ordnance tumbling into the murky depths. There they sat, silently, for more than 30 years.
At their most deadly, they can kill, but according to experts, it’s more likely someone will saw the ordnance open, take out the explosives and resell them on the black market.
Pieces of unexploded ordnance – which, along with landmines, were responsible for the deaths of 43 people in Cambodia last year – are difficult to detect covered in silt on the bottom of a river. Over the decades, they have killed fishermen, disrupted construction projects, and lured entrepreneurs into diving after them to later sell the scrap metal.
An unused 82-millimetre projectile last year exploded 30 metres under a Japanese company’s bridge project near the Neak Loeung ferry crossing, halting construction.
A few years ago, a fisherman in Kampong Speu province pulled up his net only to find a rocket amid his haul of flapping fish. It exploded and killed him.
Lessons for Beginners
After Phumro’s introductory speech, the recruits went down to a shallow pool outside, where they learned the backstroke, freestyle, breast stroke, and how to float unassisted. Though bodies of water run through Cambodia, its citizens rarely have access to formal swimming training.
“Who can swim across the Mekong in one go?” asked Golden West instructor Allen Tan, who disposed bombs for the US military in an earlier career and is leading the course.
Four people raised their hands.
Instructors read out the general guidelines. Participants were advised to abstain from alcohol and were told that if they ever wanted to quit smoking cigarettes, this was about as good a time as any.
By the second week, the course had moved to the towering Rose City Condominiums, which overlook the Tonle Bassac river. Candidates wore black goggles and swim trunks and swam laps, underwent floating tests, took written exams and were tested on knot-tying and hand signals.
“What we’re looking for here, of course, is for people to pass, but also people to demonstrate their ability,” Tan said, as he took a break from swimming around the pool in flippers, monitoring the recruits in the water. “There are a lot of factors we take into account. Leadership, attention to details. It’s not just a matter of passing a swim test.”
Phalla, for one, was in better condition physically than he’d been in years. His waistline had shrunk and he needed a tighter belt to hold up his pants. Still, he was nervous about the test.
“I hope that I pass, but I’m not so sure. In the pre-test, I was wrong on two points.”
He made it, of course, and went on to the next phase of dive training taking place now in the gulf. After the course ends next week, organisers will decide who graduates, which is only the beginning.
It could be at least a year before the divers make it into the Mekong and start the recovery work. After it gets under way, the explosives can be harvested for reuse in destroying future landmines and UXO.
In the meantime, Golden West will conduct surveys of the Mekong along National Road 1 near the Vietnamese border. In March, they’ll send out boats with sonar and large detection devices to create a GPS map.
“The objective is to find the targets of interest that these students who graduate will have to investigate,” said Marcel Durocher, an earth scientist working on the project.
Surveys can solve a major obstacle presented by UXO. Len Austin, a US Marine who is the deputy director of field operations at Golden West, said they are more diffuse than landmines.
Because of Golden West’s close partnership with CMAC, Austin usually drives around in a CMAC truck, the logo of which is known across the country. So it’s no rarity for villagers to wave him down and start pointing into the fields, indicating a recent discovery.
“I drive anywhere on Highway 5 and stop, I’m gonna find some munitions.”
Austin himself is no stranger to the dangers of UXO. In January, he and three other expert American deminers were wounded during the dismantling of an unused piece of ammunition at CMAC’s research and development facility in Kampong Chhnang. He’s living proof of what can go wrong without warning.
By the time the salvage divers in training enter the water, they will be as prepared as humanly possible.
Golden West has employed divers with US Navy and Army experience. This summer, divers from the army who specialise in salvage work are expected to come to Cambodia and train the unit in more advanced recovery techniques. Salvage work, according to one of the divers on the trip, is painstaking. Since you can’t see anything, the only eyes you have are your fingers.
Phalla said he hoped to make it to the next phase and go into the field – or river, in his case – but he’s keeping modest expectations. “I’ll await the decision from the top management.
But if the top management will not use me, I’m happy to work in the same place as before, no problem.”
Like some of his fellow recruits, Phalla had his first run-ins with Cambodia’s remnants of war when he was a child, growing up in Battambang province – a notoriously mine-heavy area.
He and his friends used to saw off the tops of rifle barrels and put paper inside them, then tie a long blade of grass to each one. They poured TNT inside the caps, and voila: fireworks, Cambodia-style.
“I collected a bag, my friend collected a bag, and we waited until night, then used them as fireworks. We were happy.”
One day, he was standing in the river when a child about his own age was toying with a “big-sized UXO”. It exploded, severing the child’s arm.
“Since then, I stopped playing with what we found.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]