Demining organisations in Cambodia have cleared thousands of hectares of land using state-of-the-art technology and expert training.
Vann Srey Mom, meanwhile, uses faith and a rusty vegetable knife.
Since 2000, Srey Mom, a 53-year-old with black curly hair, has manually dug up landmines surrounding her small plot in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district. Starting at dawn and averaging three to five mines per day, she puts the lethal devices into a plastic bag before transferring them into a trunk for safekeeping.
The work is slow going. With no formal training and the questionable assistance of a household implement, Srey Mom has decontaminated only one hectare.
Somehow, she’s still in one piece.
“I know it is dangerous that I still risk my life for the land,” she said in a recent interview. “Thirteen years I have lived with suffering and mines, and I always think I don’t know when my whole family will be dead, because the mines sometimes explode by themselves.”
Pursat was one of the last battlegrounds of the Khmer Rouge, and the area saw heavy fighting between government troops and rebel fighters. As a result, parts of the province remain studded with landmines. Although casualty figures have plummeted across the country largely due to successful government demining efforts, Cambodians are still at risk. Forty-three people were killed from explosions in 2012, the same as the year before.
Srey Mom moved to the area with her husband – a former Khmer Rouge soldier – and baby boy on the cusp of the new millennium, as part of a government reintegration plan to move one-time fighters back into society.
The given amount of land measured about 120 metres by 300 metres per family. Most of their neighbours come from the ranks of the Khmer Rouge.
The family’s prospects dimmed almost immediately, when Srey Mom, while out farming, heard a clink ring out from the soil.
She knelt down and brushed the dirt away from the object as carefully as an archeologist huddled over a dinosaur bone. Recognising the danger – her brother-in-law had been killed by an exploding mine in the same area, and mines blew off the limbs of two of her neighbours – she gingerly dug underneath it with her blade, hoisting the circular landmine out of the ground. With not much variation, that’s been her technique ever since.
“I’ve demined my land since my [eldest] son was two years old, and now he is 15,” she said.
The 15-year-old first picked up the training from his mother when he was growing up. Soon, he started “helping out” around the property. He also seems to have picked up his mother’s good luck, hitting a mine near their hut one day that didn’t go off.
“It’s lucky – it was an unexploded mine, if it exploded, my son would have lost both feet or his life, and I would also have been injured due to shrapnel,” Srey Mom said.
He stopped earlier this year to seek work in Thailand. Her husband also pitches in when he can, though his military post on the Cambodian-Thai border keeps him busy.
Standing outside the house on a recent afternoon in his military uniform, Srey Mom’s husband, 51-year-old Meas Yong, said his wife did what was necessary to create a home for the family.
“The reason my wife decided to demine is because we did not have a home to live in. And my wife had suggested to the village chief to request to CMAC [the Cambodian Mine Action Centre] to demine, but they did not come, so my wife demined by herself without knowing anything and having nothing besides one knife,” he said.
“If I had a different piece of land, I wouldn’t let my family live in fear, because we do not know what kinds of mines there are and when they explode,” he said.
While speaking, Yong held the famed demining/vegetable knife. He pointed to a recent find, cut out a chunk of soil and lifted it out of the ground. One more down.
Srey Mom claims that local authorities have ignored her repeated requests to come help her, so she stores the landmines in trunks at a safe distance from her house.
The chief of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in Pursat province, Pring Panharith, said any citizen who asks CMAC to help demine can receive help. The hitch for Srey Mom’s family seems to be proving that they own the land.
“There are procedures; they have to have the certificatation from village authorities to indicate that they are real landowners. And then they drop the letter at CMAC and we will demine for them,” he said.
Srey Mom says she has an original document from her land grant in 2000. But in 2010, the government granted an economic land concession of about 4,500 hectares to a company owned by tycoon Try Pheap. The concession includes her property.
It isn’t the first time that modern Cambodia has bumped up against deals negotiated in the past.
In September, represenratives for 80 families of Khmer Rouge cadres based in Kampot province’s Chhouk district told the Post that land officials were staking out the area in order to make room for developers. The moves came after the cadres, like Srey Mom, submitted ownership documents.
When youth volunteers visited Pursat earlier this year as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling program, they didn’t measure Srey Mom’s property because of the threat from land mines, Prum Gnon, chief of Thmodar commune, said.
The woman with the demining knife, however, is highly persistent.
She is holding onto her ownership document in hopes that it will save her if she is ever asked to move from the land.
Until then, she’ll keep going out at dawn and looking for more landmines.
“Although it is a land of mines, I will not let anyone come to take it from me, because I risked my life for it,” she said. “And if I do not demine by myself, I will have nothing to farm until today.”