Foreign Aid arrives in many forms: money, emergency relief, technical expertise, machinery and medicine, to name a few. Volunteers, however, are often overlooked; their contributions more difficult to quantify.
AusAID volunteer Richard Hughes is an operations adviser in the department of planning and operations at the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC), the country’s largest demining agency. Hughes if full of praise for the organisation, but as an outsider he can also offer a fresh view. “CMAC knows what they’re doing as a whole, they just need some help around the edges to make their organisation run a bit more effectively,” he explains.
Hughes has been working at CMAC for almost six months: long enough to experience how hectic the job is. “This has been a busy year for CMAC. We’ve held the international conference on land release methodology, and we had the Eleventh meeting for the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention,” he said.
Hughes hopes to address what he considers to be declining global attention to the challenge of demining. “It feels like the gloss of land mine action is gone, people don’t care about it as much, it’s hard to maintain donations and support, so I’m just trying to do my little part to drum up some support,” he said.
Despite the waning support for demining he is optimistic of Cambodia’s goals. “I think it can be done, I think the goal first is to have an accident-free Cambodia. I think that they can complete the majority of the job by 2019.”
Australia’s commitment to landmine removal has also been encouraging. He pointed out that the country is “seeking to raise its aid budget to .5 per cent of GDP by 2015. Australians are generally generous people and have a proud record of mine action and the amount of money they give to mine action”.
His interest in demining began with a curiosity about the effects of wars. “I think that too often we forget about the deadly legacy of conflict, we think only about the immediate effects of conflict, but not the long-term effects,” he said. This commitment has allowed him to work with the organisation that has destroyed over two million landmines and other unexploded ordinance.
“It’s not until you walk into a minefield and see a bounding fragmentation mine a meter away from you that you see how big the task is. And just how on a day to day level, how hard the job is, it’s hot out there, the protective gear is claustrophobic and stifling, the work is meticulous.”
CMAC has been implementing the Land Release Methodology to allow locals and villagers to reclaim and reuse land that was previously contaminated by any type of Explosive Remnant of War (ERW).
In addition to the training, surveying and demining processes involved in the gradual release of contaminated land, CMAC also provides education to local residents about the dangers of land mines and other ERWs.
But as Hughes discovered, the demining process is not just mine detection dogs and heavy machinery.
“I think mine clearance is boring at the end of the day. It’s not the rock and roll thing that people think it is, but at the same time you really can’t be slacking when it comes to clearing mines.”
Although tedious, the work can be extremely dangerous.
“The scariest thing for me so far is seeing the bounding fragmentation mines, which are the ones that when stepped on, have an initial charge that sends them into the air and then they explode. To think that someone sat there and decided that was how they were going to kill people,” said Hughes.
“All the people who work on demining, it’s not just a job for them, when you go out to the minefields you hear this from time to time ‘Every mine destroyed is a life saved’, and they are really happy to be doing the work they’re doing.”