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Volunteer spirit spurs de-mining effort

Volunteer spirit spurs de-mining effort

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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 are more difficult to quantify.

Photo Supplied/Phnom Penh Post
Searching for, and destroying, unexploded mines is both tedious and extremely dangerous, volunteer Richard Hughes says.

Richard Hughes has been deployed to Cambodia for 12 months as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development.

Hughes is an operations adviser in the department of planning and operations at the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC), the country’s largest de-mining agency.

He’s 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 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 11th meeting of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention,” he says.

Hughes hopes to address what he perceives as declining global attention to the challenge of de-mining.

“It feels like the gloss has gone off land-mine action. People don’t care about it as much, and it’s hard to maintain donations and support, so I’m just trying to do my little part to drum up some support,” he says.

Despite the waning support for demining, Hughes is optimistic about Cambodia’s goals. “I think it can be done. I think the goal first is to have an accident-free Cambodia. I think  they can complete the majority of the job by 2019,” he says.

Australia’s commitment to landmine removal is also encouraging. Hughes points out that his country is seeking to raise its aid budget to .5 per cent of GDP by 2015.

“Australians are generous people and have a proud record of mine action and the amount of money they give to mine action,” he says.

Hughes’ interest in de-mining began with 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 says.

This commitment has let him work with an organisation that has destroyed more than two million land mines and other types of unexploded ordnance.

“It’s not until you walk into a minefield and see a bounding fragmentation mine a metre away that you see how big the task is,” Hughes says.

“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 re-use land that was previously contaminated by any type of explosive remnant of war (ERW).

In addition to the training, surveying and de-mining processes involved in the gradual release of contaminated land, CMAC educates 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,’’ he says.

“It’s not the rock-and-roll thing  people think it is. But, at the same time, you really can’t be slack when it comes to clearing mines.”

Although tedious, the work can be extremely dangerous, Hughes says.

“The scariest thing for me so far was seeing bounding fragmentation mines, which are the ones that when stepped on, have an initial charge that sends them into the air, then they explode,’’ he says.

“To think someone sat there and decided that was how they were going to kill people.

“All the people who work on de-mining, it’s not just a job for them.

“When you go out to the minefields, you hear this saying from time to time: ‘Every mine destroyed is a life saved.’

“They are really happy to be doing the work they’re doing.”

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