Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - When the Office is a Minefield

When the Office is a Minefield

When the Office is a Minefield

KONG PISEI, Kompong Speu-Roeun Khouch was prodding for mines around the perimeter

of a Kompong Speu army garrison in early April when his section leader called out

to check if he was wearing his protective goggles.

Khouch turned to answer while at the same time continuing to stab at the cakey-soil

in front of him.

One, two, three thrusts, remembers Than Khem, a team mate who was looking on, and

Khouch struck a PMN- 2 anti-personnel mine which exploded in his face.

Khouch was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital but died three days later. The section

commander and his deputy both lost eyes in the incident.

"He made a mistake. The section commanders had told him over and over again

not to prod so hard. He wasn't unlucky. He just wasn't careful," Khem said.

For the more than 1,000 Cambodians employed by the U.N.'s Mine Clearance Training

Unit (MCTU), "a day at the office" is a life and death struggle against

losing concentration. There is no room for mistakes and apparently little room for

compassion for those who slip up.

"The risks can be limited if you are careful, if you do it the way the UNTAC

instructors show you then there should be no problem," said Pang Sokhaeng, who

has been working with the demining unit for three months.

"The first time you clear a mine it is terrifying but it soon becomes routine,"

he said.

Since UNTAC began its first training course in April 1992, Khouch was the first Cambodian

to die in a mine clearing accident. Six other Cambodians and 12 members of the 129-man

MCTU team have also been injured in demining mishaps.

The mine clearers are for the most part former soldiers who volunteered for the job

after being demobilized. They earnan average of $100 a month, a relatively good wage

in Cambodia but still less than many secretaries and waiters earn in Phnom Penh.

Most of the deminers at Kompong Speu, however, said that the money was only a secondary

consideration in their decision to enlist with MCTU.

"We do it because it is our motherland. While UNTAC is here it has given us

the chance to join in and help clear the fields of mines so that the people can farm

their land," said Las Romony a 23-year old supervisor, who had previously served

in the CPAF army.

"In Kompong Speu there are lots of people who have been maimed or killed by

land mines left by the CPAF army. Young children get hurt all the time when they

go out to tend the cattle," he said of the danger of mines which he called "base

weapons".

Cambodian's four factions have planted more than three million mines during the thirteen

year-long civil war, a conflict the human rights group Asia Watch branded a "Cowards

War" because of the heavy reliance on the indiscriminate weapons. To date, more

than 40,000 Cambodians, mostly civilians, have been disabled by mines. Two hundred

to 300 more are wounded or killed every month.

Mine clearing experts say it will take 30-40 years to rid Cambodia of the bulk of

the mines although the country is unlikely to be ever completely free from the menace.

Many of the Kong Pisei deminers, who are mostly single men in their early twenties,

said they were prepared to carry on with this hazardous work for the rest of their

lives.

"As long as there are mines and they want me to demine I will keep on doing

this ," said Choum Thou, a 24-year old from Kampot, who did the same job for

the CPAF.

The work takes three forms, "feeling" in underbrush for booby traps, "prodding"

and using the mine detectors. The deminers alternate between the three but never

work for more than 15 minutes at a time to ensure they don't get mentally tired.

"Prodding is the worst because you don't know what you are dealing with, how

big it is, what position it is in the ground, maybe it is facing us we don't know,"

said Thou.

Even when the final whistle blows to mark the end of the day the Kompong Speu deminers

said it is hard to leave the work behind. They see mines in their sleep, and must

always be aware that when they wake up in the morning they will have to step out

into the minefields again.

"I have arranged my life so I am always ready. I don't drink during the week

and go to bed early because if I am not feeling 100 percent in the morning then the

work can be risky," Thou said.

The day after Khouch was killed, the other members of his platoon asked for a day

off but none quit.

Maj. Munir, a Bangladeshi engineer who oversees the unit said not one of his 140-man

platoon has quit since the incident.

"They needed a day to get over their fear but after that they were ready to

go back to work again," he said.

The work is additionally perilous in Cambodia because the mines have been scattered

around the countryside without maps or strategy. An area which would take 15 days

to clear in a conventional war zone, takes six to seven months to clear in Cambodia.

In areas of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey where government troops and Khmer Rouge

guerrillas still clash periodically, the United Nations, NGOs and the Red Cross have

faced resistance to their demining activities. New mines are also being planted by

farmers seeking to protect their crops and by merchants who have profited from the

presence of the mine clearing operations.

Ma j. Munir said he was confident that once the U.N. pulls out in November the Cambodians

they have trained as deminers and supervisors will able to continue to do the work

with international funding.

"They are disciplined and ready to do the job," he said.

Romony, said if he is given accommodation and a salary he will continue to work.

"When I first joined the demining group my relatives and friends were very worried

about me but I told them that if I do this job carefully it will not be so dangerous,"

he said. Romany nevertheless is not taking any chances. He wears one of his mother's

teeth around his neck, an amulet around his waist and had Pali scriptures tattooed

on his chest "too ward off the panic," he said.

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