Fall in casualties prompts push for more land mine victim aid
Despite recent gains, experts say it remains unclear whether the
Cambodia-specific Millennium Development Goal related to demining will
be achieved by 2015.
VINH DAO/MELON ROUGE
Land mine victim Soeun Ngeo works on a container oven at Development Technology Workshop in Phnom Penh. Experts say more job opportunities for land mine victims are needed to meet Cambodia's demining MDG.
A four-part look at cambodia's mdgs
Last year marked the midway point for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, benchmarks for developing countries established in 2000 that cover everything from poverty to environmental sustainability. Last year also marked the five-year anniversary of the adoption of Cambodia's Millennium Development Goals, the localised versions of the global goals. In a four-part series, the Post looks at the progress made and the challenges that remain in achieving targets set for 2010 and 2015, drawing on government data as well as interviews with officials, NGO workers and Cambodians who stand to benefit from the effort. Part Three focuses on a goal unique to Cambodia: demining, UXO and victim assistance.
NOUN Samoeun, 44, took a roundabout route to fulfilling his boyhood dream of operating massive machines for a living.
The Prey Veng province native served as a soldier in the army until, in 1995, he stepped on a land mine in Oddar Meanchey's Anlong Veng district and lost the bottom half of his right leg in the ensuing explosion.
He spent the next three years earning US$20 per month playing guitar at various army compounds, a job he left when a friend told him about a company recruiting land mine victims in Phnom Penh.
In the 10 years since he was hired by that company - a design and engineering nonprofit called Development Technology Workshop (DTW) - Noun Samoeun has learned how to drill, weld, shape metal with a lathe and operate the three-tonne Tempest, an all-terrain land mine clearance machine designed to slash through vegetation and trip-wire.
"Yes, I like this job very much," Noun Samoeun said with a laugh during an interview Tuesday on the floor of DTW's 1,000-square-metre workshop. He now earns $200 per month, enough to support his wife and three children, and said he plans to stay at DTW "as long as possible".
Chea Sophal, DTW's production manager, said the Phnom Penh office has hired and trained at least 30 land mine victims since it opened in 1998. The company's website notes that it strives to prepare disabled employees such as Noun Samoeun to compete for a range of metalworking jobs.
In recent interviews, several land mine experts called for a concerted effort to increase the number of job training and employment opportunities for victims of land mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Cambodia's recent success in lowering the incidence of land mine and ERW injuries and fatalities, they said, means more resources should now be allocated to victim assistance.
Such an effort could help Cambodia meet the social integration component of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) pertaining to demining, they said, giving voice to the now widely held view that victim assistance must encompass more than physical rehabilitation.
"The understanding of what victim assistance means has considerably evolved since the development of the MDG" in 2003, said Hugo Hotte, a humanitarian mine action program manager for Handicap International Belgium, who argued that vocational training and psychological support are forms of assistance that should be provided. "It is now understood in a more holistic way."
The casualty drop
Between 1994 and 2005, the number of land mine and ERW casualties - a statistic that includes both fatalities and injuries - fell from 2,966 to 875, according to data provided by the Cambodian Mine/UXO Victim Information System (CMVIS).
Though this amounted to a decline of more than 70 percent, the total was still higher than the 2005 interim target of 500. Moreover, it had increased from 772 in 2003, the year Cambodia's MDGs were adopted. As a result, the Ministry of Planning, in its 2005 assessment of MDG progress, cited the statistic as one of the chief shortfalls of the entire MDG effort.
But the following year, the casualty total dropped by nearly half, from 875 to 450, marking the beginning of a trend that has continued: Only 266 casualties were recorded in 2008.
Fatality statistics provide perhaps the most dramatic indication of recent progress. Between 2000 and 2005, 962 people died in land mine or ERW explosions. Between 2006 and 2008, that number fell to 173.
Asked to explain the gains, Leng Sochea, deputy secretary general of the Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAVAA), highlighted the increased involvement of villagers in the planning of mine clearance efforts. As the result of a subdecree implemented in 2005, Mine Action Planning Units (MAPUs) appointed by provincial governors have been established to consult residents of mine-affected communities to identify those areas most in need of clearance.
The other main reason for the casualty decline, said Plong Chhaya, child protection project officer at Unicef, has been an improvement in education and awareness efforts. He said these have become more effective at targetting high-risk groups such as scrap-metal dealers and scavengers.
Plong Chhaya pointed out one example from 2006 in which police formed a UXO Working Group designed to educate scrap-metal dealers and scavengers about the Law on the Management of Weapons, Explosives and Ammunition. The law outlines clear penalties for those caught violating its restrictions on the handling of explosive material.
Hotte also said law enforcement deserved credit for its contributions to the casualty decline, but he noted that certain factors - such as the drop in the price of scrap metal, which he said has pushed its collection "more and more to the margins" - could not be directly influenced by police, government officials or civil society groups.
Because so many different factors can affect the overall casualty rate, he said, "it's really hard to make the call" as to whether Cambodia will achieve its MDG target of eliminating casualties by 2015.
Another target under the demining MDG is to clear all contaminated land. Cambodia came within less than a single percentage point of meeting the 2005 interim target of 51 percent, and Melissa Sabatier, mine action project manager for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), said clearance practices have become even more effective since then.
Between 1992 and 2008, more than 476 million square metres of land were cleared, according to statistics compiled by humanitarian demining operators and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. In that same period, 814,198 anti-personnel mines, 19,109 anti-tank mines and 1,740,831 ERWs were found and destroyed.
Lay Khim, the leader of UNDP's environment and energy cluster team, said his office has been working "to make the best use" of cleared land, which he said could aid efforts to meet some targets under Millennium Development Goal No 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. In particular, he said, his office has funnelled small grants into projects such as water sanitation, the improvement of which is a target under the goal, in heavily mined provinces such as Battambang, which experiences far more land mine and ERW casualties than any other in the Kingdom.
Help for victims
As with casualties and clearance, steps have also been taken since 2005 to meet the two targets related to victim assistance.
The first is to develop and implement a comprehensive victim assistance framework. That task has been delegated to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and to the Disability Action Council, said CMAVAA's Leng Sochea, to ensure that efforts to assist landmine and ERW victims are integrated with government strategies to assist all people with disabilities.
Last year the Council of Ministers approved the Kingdom's first law designed to promote and protect the rights of disabled people. In addition, said Hotte, a national action plan for disabled people, including survivors of land mines and ERW, was finalised last month. Leng Sochea said the plan would be presented to Prime Minister Hun Sen's office later this year.
The other assistance-related target deals with the number of land mine and ERW victims receiving an assistance package and being "integrated into the society". As of the 2005 Ministry of Planning assessment, the target had not yet been set. Chhiv Lim, project manager at CMVIS, said however, that the Cambodian Red Cross, in conjunction with CMVIS, is currently collecting information on services given to land mine survivors and plans to make that information available this year.
Ny Nhar, a spokesperson for Jesuit Service Cambodia, which advocates on behalf of land mine victims, said those providing assistance packages need to take into account the needs of individual victims.
Existing assistance packages "do not always work for victims living in the countryside", he said.
Soeun Ngeo, 38, who works with Noun Samoeun at DTW, said many mine victims in his home province of Kampong Speu have been unable to find work and have not benefited from the type of medical and other services he receives in Phnom Penh.
A former soldier, Soeun Ngeo lost part of his left leg when he stepped on a land mine in 1988 in Kampong Speu. He spent 10 years repairing motorbikes in Phnom Penh before landing a job at DTW, which pays him just enough - $170 per month - to support his wife and four daughters.
He said he enjoys the work, which on Tuesday involved the assembly of a container oven, but said he wants to learn, like Noun Samoeun has, how to operate machines.
Also like Noun Samoeun, Soeun Ngeo said he wants to stay at DTW as long as he can, adding that he knows he is lucky to have found a job that offers decent pay and the opportunity for career advancement.
An ever-present threat
As officials work toward the social integration of more land mine victims like Soeun Ngeo, several experts said they must remain mindful of the casualty rate, as the threat of an increase has not yet been eliminated.
And 2009 got off to a bad start. The monthly CMVIS-produced casualty report recorded 34 victims in January, including nine deaths and three injuries serious enough to require amputation. This was up from 22 casualties in December 2008 and 26 in January 2008. It marked the first time in at least two years that a monthly casualty total exceeded the total for the same month in the previous year.
Despite this setback, Leng Sochea said he believes further coordination of clearance efforts will lead to a continuing drop in the number of casualties. In concert with victim assistance, he said, these efforts can ultimately minimize "the impact of landmines on Cambodia's development".