Visiting a landmine field – it’s not something everyone gets excited about but when this opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.
You may question my sanity – the Journo often does – but this seemed like an amazing experience to me.
It’s not the standard Cambodian tourist experience but Cambodian Self Help Demining offered this unique opportunity at a fundraising event we went to in March. Not surprisingly, there were many terms and conditions associated with the visit. It was auctioned off and I expected to be outbid, but apparently not everyone wants to risk their life in a minefield.
The fundraising event was held just a few weeks before we left Cambodia in April and there was not enough time to set it up before we went.
I didn’t get back to Cambodia until July and it took some co-ordinating to organise.
They are a small team with a serious job to do and having inexperienced people on site is obviously a burden.
The landmine field
Finally the day arrived. It was back in October – yes, it’s taken a while to get this post published.
When we left Cambodia in April the land was so dry and brown but in October, with the rice almost ready to harvest and the wet season done, everywhere is so green.
I think the end of the wet, when it isn’t too hot and the rice is still green, is the best time to be in Cambodia.
We headed about 70 kilometres out of town and I watched the green rice fields pass by until we arrived at the site, where everything got serious.
I watched these dedicated people doing their thing – clearing vegetation by hand with the prospect of working almost on top of some of these hideous devices.
The anti-personnel mines are designed to maim by tearing the flesh off bones and/or taking a limb, as this disables one person while requiring several others to carry the victim away, and even more people to look after him or her in the recovery process.
The death of a victim in the field isn’t as psychologically disturbing as listening to someone screaming their lungs out while they are carried away to be treated.
Still, many people are killed and maimed here every year.
With some estimates more than two million landmines still lie in the ground in Cambodia alone, these people who clear mines have my utmost respect for doing a job not a lot of people would put their hand up to do. They work in the heat of a Cambodian day, wearing body armour and face shields – it puts a new spin on dedication to the job.
Many of the areas are overgrown with thick vegetation and they have to cut through it before they can check the ground below is clear. It is slow, time consuming work, requiring a lot of concentration.
Strict international laws and guidelines govern how landmines should be handled and by whom.
When I visited the minefield, the de-miners stopped work whenever anyone came within about 30 metres of them, as they cannot be distracted by anyone or anything while they work.
When I arrived on site, one landmine had already been uncovered and was ready to have some explosives placed around it to be detonated. A small amount of explosive, recovered from unexploded bombs left over from the years of war, is used to blow up the landmine.
It was a big adrenaline high, just walking around the cleared area, thinking landmines could have been where I was placing my feet.
After a lot of preparation, the moment had come to explode the device. I waited in excited anticipation for the blast. And finally it went boom! It was smaller than I expected, given the added explosives, but was obviously still very effective.
But it’s sobering to think of those who witness this in reality and see the carnage and the tragedy these devices cause.
Now that more mechanical cultivating and harvesting happens, more anti-tank mines are exploding, resulting in more deaths and injuries.
Landmine facts and stats
- Noone knows how many landmines were left in Cambodia – they weren’t counted or mapped.
- Estimates on how many are left range from a few hundred thousand to several million.
- At least 75% of landmines in Cambodia come from China and Russia. The rest come from Vietnam, Cambodia, the United States, Thailand, Singapore and a few from Europe.
- Cambodia has identified ‘most’ of the nation’s minefields.
- Many groups are clearing mines in Cambodia. HALO just celebrated its 25th year here.
- Cambodian Self Help Demining operates in low priority villages, filling the gaps of other organisations working in the country.
- Cambodian Self Help Demining has cleared 122 mine fields.
- CSHD has removed more than 9000 landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordinance) from 95 landmine fields.
- The CSHD team has responded to calls in dozens of villages in eight provinces.
- The aim is to make Cambodia safe by 2025. Some estimate it will take five years, some think 100 years.
Information thanks to Bill Morse founder of The Landmine Relief Fund, which supports CSHD.
I was privileged to visit this landmine field with Cambodian Self Help Demining, an organisation dedicated to help clear Cambodia of landmines.
There were strict rules and regulations pertaining to my visit and I am thankful to Bill Morse and the team for taking me on board and showing me what happens on a daily basis. Visiting a landmine field is obviously not a tourism experience. This was a rare opportunity I was given to gain insight into the realities of life in this war-torn country and the dedication of the deminers.
These guys have my utmost respect.