THOUSANDS of still-lethal "bombies" - tennis ball-size bomblets dropped
by American B-52s over Cambodia in the early 1970s - are scattered along the fertile
crescent north of the Tonle Sap, according to a British NGO which has destroyed hundreds
of them in Kompong Thom province over the past 18 months.
"This is the first time we are finding bombies in such numbers," said Archie
McCarron, local director of Mines Advisory Group. "The numbers vary month-by-month,
but we estimate that between 30 to 40 percent of all Unexploded Ordinance (UXOs)
which have been reported to us and which we have destroyed are BLU-26 and BLU-63
bombies dropped by the United States Air Force in the 70s."
Large numbers of bombies are believed to litter the swathe of territory which stretches
from Siem Reap to Kompong Cham on the northern banks of the great lake. Far greater
numbers are believed to rest closer to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the northeastern
corner of Cambodia where the USAF concentrated most of its bombings.
Having stepped-up its mine awareness-raising efforts in Kompong Thom at the start
of the year, word filtered through to MAG from villages in Santuk, Stung Sen and
Kompong Svay districts about the extent of unexploded bomblets in the province.
"It's hard to put an exact figure to the number of bombies there are in Kompong
Thom alone, but we're talking thousands - not hundreds - thousands," said Phil
Hammond, a demolitions expert who has covered the province since Feb 1995.
In June, Hammond even destroyed a 500-pound bomb tucked in a tract of land which
had been carpet-bombed by the Americans.
"The field where we found it was full of craters and is situated just two kilometers
from Kompong Thom town center," he related. "The story goes that Lon Nol
soldiers were in the nearby pagoda as the B-52 were bombing the Khmer Rouge."
The bombies found in Kompong Thom are, in all probability, deadly relics to the "Arc
Light" air strikes in which the B-52s shifted their sights away from Viet Cong
encampments along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and onto "heavily populated" Khmer
Rouge strongholds in Cambodia's heartland, MAG officials said.
"It is highly unlikely that these planes had strayed off-course and dropped
their payloads off-target," McCarron said. "When you begin to find a significant
number of these, then you know they have been dropped there for a purpose."
He said these originally "experimental" bomblets, which were dropped on
Cambodia at least 23 years ago, are especially dangerous to children who are drawn
to them by their toy-like appearance.
"Laos and Cambodia were big testing grounds for these things," he added.
"This is why there are so many of them around which have not exploded - they
did not function as they were designed to function, but are still dangerous."
According to the experts, scores of cluster bomblets were contained in a steel encasement
which would break-up in flight, scattering them over an area the size of a football
The fuse would be activated as the bombie spun in the sky during its downward trajectory.
Some bombies were designed to explode upon impact, while others were designed to
explode on a time-delay.
"Unlike a land-mine which is primarily designed to maim its victim, a bombie
is designed to kill its victim with fragmentation ball-bearings," said Attie
Pot, a technical advisor with the Cambodian Mine Action Center.
"Bombies contain hair-trigger fuses which cannot be seen, but which can be triggered
even now, so many years later, by the slightest disturbance."
Bomblets are so dangerous that anyone who sets one off will be killed instantly,
while others standing around the person can easily be maimed, if not killed, by the
blast, he added.
Another danger lies in the fact, said MAG officials, that there is "a thriving
little industry" in Kompong Thom in the sale of bombie encasements for scrap-iron
and the use of their explosive contents for local fishing.
"Everyday they're picking them up there" said Hammond. They chisel them
in half, take out the fuses, sell the metal as scrap, and use the explosive for fishing."
"Chiseling these things in half is not recommended," he said.
The challenge in combing the Cambodian countryside for bomblets and bombs in the
Cambodian countryside is complicated by security factors and weather conditions,
Unlike land-mines which are relatively easy for professionals to spot, they have
no idea how to pinpoint unexploded bomblets which fell from the sky over such a wide
window, McCarron said.
Flight coordinates logged by B-52 crews in their missions over Cambodia is classified
information, he added.
MAG, which is engaged in the clearance of unexploded ordinance from B-52s in Laos,
but which has focused most of its operations here around mine-clearance and awareness-raising,
is now seeking funds to train Cambodians to be part of future Explosive Ordinance
Disposal teams which will be rapidly deployed around the country.
CMAC, MAG's local counterpart, already has 15 two-man EOD teams based in eight provinces
- Sisophon, Battambang, Kampot, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Speu, Kompong Thom, Svay
Rieng, and Takeo.
CMAC, which recently adjusted its estimated number of land-mines in Cambodia from
4-6 million - not 8-10 million as previously believed - is about to expand its UXO
data-gathering and clearance efforts to several provinces east of the Mekong.
"Beginning in September and October, we will collect information on UXOs in
Kompong Cham, Kratie, Mondulkiri, and Stung Treng," said Phan Sothy, CMAC chief
of staff. "So far, CMAC only has a minefield database, but is planning to build-up
a database on UXOs."
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh withheld comment on MAG's latest findings
in Kompong Thom, and would not say whether Special Forces would be brought here to
train locals in the clearance of UXOs, as they are doing in Laos.
"My guess is that if it took years for the US to do this in Laos, it's not going
to happen here next week," said Franklin Huffman, the embassy spokesman.