TAP SIAM VILLAGE (AP) - The thunderous explosion of an anti-tank mine hurled David
Salter's truck into the air and ripped the engine apart.
An old man who was nearby pulled the U.N. relief worker and a Cambodian passenger
from the wreckage.
"There were other villagers around, but they didn't dare come near because of
other mines," Salter said.
Both men were bleeding, but not seriously injured. Thousands of less fortunate people
have been maimed or killed by the countless mines that litter the country. Efforts
to remove the explosives, led by United Nations teams, have only scratched the surface.
"I planted a lot of mines, I cannot count how many," said Nhek Samon, 29,
a former government soldier. "I feel sorry that people got hurt, but it was
an order from the commanders. If you didn't do it, you were punished."
Guerrillas and the former State of Cambodia administration sowed mines liberally
during 13 years of war that preceded the 1991 peace agreement.
Now, as old mines are being removed, new ones are planted as part of continuing clashes
between the army and Khmer Rouge guerrillas, by bandits, even by people seeking personal
revenge. The one that blasted Salter's vehicle was said to have been planted by a
soldier who had argued with a truck driver.
Some villagers use mines to protect their crops, laying them in the evening and picking
them up in the morning.
Most victims have been civilians. In 1990 alone, at least 6,000 Cambodians had limbs
amputated because of injuries caused by mines, said Asia Watch, a U.S. human rights
group. Many die of their wounds because health care is primitive.
Amputees are every where. They crowd the wards of fly-infested hospitals and hobble
on crude wooden legs to beg outside restaurants. Young amputees without jobs block
roads and extort money from motorists.
None of this stops many Cambodians from entering mined areas out of simple necessity.
A woman who goes into the forest twice a week to collect wood said she feared mines,
"but I'm also afraid of not having any wood to cook with."
U.N. peacekeepers and three private organizations are training and supervising Cambodians
in mine-clearing operations. Together, they have removed more than 10,000 mines,
but that is only a tiny fraction of the total number, U.N. officials said.
In heavily mined Rattanak Mondol district of Battambang province, government authorities
don't want U.N. teams to remove the explosives because they deter Khmer Rouge infiltration.
During two months of last year, 200 residents of the district were wounded by mines,
a U.N. official said.
Experts say the country will never be free of mines, but that it is possible to clear
important residential and farm areas.
Few records were kept of where mines were planted. The Khmer Rouge has barred peacekeepers
from the roughly 10 percent of Cambodia it controls, much of it known to be mined.
The months-long rainy season has interrupted clearing efforts.
Whatever is removed is easily replaced. In several areas of three provinces visited,
guerrilla and government storehouse were stacked halfway to the ceiling with all
types of mines clearing mines also takes a lot of time.
At Tap Siam village in the western province of Banteay Meanchey, workers supervised
by Norwegian people's aid squatted under a blazing sun one morning, clipping thick
underbrush, watching for booby traps.
They pushed a prod into the ground to detect the sides of mines. Any scraps of metal
that set off the detector, from bicycle parts to spoons, must be unearthed.
A frog-green Soviet PMN-2 mine was found and destroyed. Two years ago, the army captured
Tap Siam from the Khmer Rouge, drove out its inhabitants, then burned the village
and mined the area. Sixty mines have been found in six weeks, and the clearing teams
expect to locate many more.
Gary Elmer of the Mines Advisory Group, based in Britain, said Cambodia presents
more difficulties than Kuwait, where mines were laid during the Iraqi occupation.The
Iraqis planted mines strategically, he said, but "here, all they have done is
relied on quantity. They just put them everywhere....you just don't know where they're
going to be."