Undermining Hope – Cambodia Landmines
Photographs by Tom Goldner
Text by Dan Murray
Amongst the bustle of Pub Street in downtown Siem Reap, a small bicycle cart packed with books weaves its way through the traffic. The rider stretched across the bike in a front crawl position uses his arms to pedal. He has sold books on the streets since 2005, one day he hopes to save enough money to extend his cart and add sunglasses and trinkets.
Teng Dara lives in a one floor, one room concrete house in a small village. Dara sits next to his son, while his wife lies on a mattress next to their baby in the corner underneath an old fan. As he spells out the name of his birth village, P-h-a-l-o-r-k, his five year old son repeats the letters chuckling. One day very soon, his son will tower over his father, as Dara lost both of his legs above the knee.
His life changed at 24 years old, on Tuesday 9th March 1990, when camped with fellow soldiers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They were marshalling the commune lines from enemy soldiers.
“My friend and I go for water at the well for cooking at 8am. My friend trigger a mine – a pineapple mine – friend lost one leg and his stomach (full of) shrapnel – lots of shrapnel on my legs – blew me into the well”
The Mine labelled the pineapple has multitudinous ruts on the outside, which when triggered shoot out in all directions like large bullets tearing down anything within range. Dara’s friend had unwittingly walked into a trip wire activating the mine, throwing the two of them in opposite directions.
“My brother come to hospital and ask doctor cut or not cut?”
Awakening Teng Dara found himself in hospital with a concerned brother watching on. He was unable to move his toes or feel his legs and his stomach was badly punctured with shrapnel. His brother broke the news that his legs would need to be removed. He spent three months in Phnom Penh hospital where his legs were amputated from above the knee, then another year and half in the local commune hospital.
One in every 290 people in Cambodia is a landmine victim, this in a population of over 13 million people. Landmines along with UXO’s (Unexploded Ordnance) continue to wreak havoc. Each month punctuated by unsuspecting victims walking or driving over a mine, often it is children.
Bill Morse and his wife Jill moved to Cambodia from Palm Springs, USA, after a visit to learn about the effects of landmines. Bill, along with being International Project Manager of the Cambodian Self Help Demining Team runs the Landmine Relief Fund. They both work at the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Centre, which is home to 40 at-risk village children, who are cared for, and assisted in their education. Bill explains,
“These things are going to be blowing people up for a long time. We had 3 young boys of ages 8 and 9 who found a B40, which is a rocket propelled grenade, they found it in a village and they were beating the egg – the explosive round at the front of it – with a rock trying to break it open to get the metal so they could sell it for scrap to buy food. It blew up and killed all three of them. Last Sunday, we had a group of people on a tractor in Bok Un Bong province and they went down a road and went over an anti-tank mine. It killed 6 people and wounded 8. If these landmines were blowing people up in Central Park in Sydney, in Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London, we’d be clearing all the landmines in a couple of weeks.”
The scars of Cambodia’s past are patently marked on the current population; stories such as Mont Sinath’s of Kok Dong Village are common. In 1978 at the age of 13, Sinath was pitched into heated conflict with the Khmer Rouge. The commanding Vietnamese Army equipped him and his friends with grenades, guns and a rocket powered grenade launcher, but communication was an issue.
“Whoever could speak a different language was killed by the Khmer Rouge. They teach me (the Vietnamese) during that time to aim and move up, left and right. I get shot every year, I get injured I break my gall bladder at 15 by AK47”
He spent a total of 10 years in the army, but only one was spent on the battlefield – the rest in the hospital.
“I got injured by Claymore mine made in the US, my friend put it in the wrong way it had 600 ball bearings in it – it exploded – shrapnel here, here and here. Some of the ball bearings they couldn’t remove”
He points to large scars on his stomach, thighs and upper torso. His career as a soldier finally came to an end at 23 years old when patrolling a remote jungle region.
“It was September 27th 1988, 4 o clock pm, close to the Kulen Mountains about 60 kilometres from the city. Some people told me they saw a Khmer Rouge suit walking…. and footprints.”
Reliving the moment, he bows his head down, looks side to side, and places his finger over his lips.
“Shhs…….shhs. I saw the footprints and I turn the wrong way and then I step on it. I lost leg and go blind both eye.”
Mont triggered a fragmenting landmine shaped like a soup can which detonated, robbing him of his leg up to the knee joint and peppering his body with hot shrapnel. He was blind for over 6 years; doctors found bone fragments from his leg lodged in his eyes. Today like many others he ambles around on a prosthetic leg; the pain of shrapnel and infection an ever persisting torment.
The Cambodian Self Help Demining Team (CSHD), made up of widows, single mothers, single fathers, farmers and villagers, concentrate their efforts on ‘low priority areas’, working from the bottom of the list up in small villages, freeing up land for villagers to occupy and use for subsistence farming again. Kitted out in camouflage uniform, the squad wear heavy body armour and helmets with protective visors adhering to all international mine-clearing protocols.
Out on patrol the humidity is stifling, the ground ahead, unused for years, is blanketed in thick scrub making the hunt all the more difficult. The de-miners are camped forty minutes outside of Siem Reap, at a minefield on the edge of a lake. Metre by metre they cut back the scrub combing every square inch with a mine detector. It is a slow, methodical and monotonous practice but one that completely ensures a piece of land is safe for habitation once again.
Australian grandfather Gerry Lyall, dwarfs the Cambodian demining team he advises and manages. He served during the Vietnam War as a Tunnel Rat, a team of Engineer Field Troops performing underground ‘search and destroy’ missions, these days he chuckles, he’s more of a tunnel plug than a Tunnel Rat. Known as Mr Gerry, he and the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team (VVMCT) have visited Cambodia for the last decade, financially supporting and training Cambodians in the safe, effective removal of landmines.
Gerry serves as a vital link from the ground up, building relationships with the villagers. Today he brings eye drops for a village lady with an eye infection and drops off a print of a photograph he took of a family for them to keep.
“The VVMCT feeds clothes and pays the wages of the deminers. We kit them out with all equipment to do their job including their Personal Protective Equipment. We supply the Minelab detectors and training, some of their vehicles, including a number of ambulatory vehicles, the test sets and exploders; even the explosives, det cord and detonators we use to destroy the landmines with.”
Landmines are often only a couple of inches away from the surface and contain only miniscule amounts of metal making detection difficult. Only Minelab detectors are capable of detecting the mines, but they are expensive and in short supply.
Back at camp a landmine is discovered. A call goes out and all de-miners step back from what they are doing. A red arrow is placed marking the spot. Gerry walks over to inspect. Using a small bladed knife he carefully shifts the top layer of soil unmasking the dark green side of a landmine. He explains,
“They call them the perfect soldiers – they don’t get tired, lose motivation or get hungry. They lie in wait non-stop – then they attack, but they can’t tell the difference between friend or enemy.”
Everyone is instructed to retreat to a safe distance, around 30 metres, and the mine is wired up to explode. Two heavy duty protective cases, one red the other yellow, are used to control the blast by remote control. The countdown begins; the explosion registers as a large thump in the centre of the chest. As we walk back to the site the mine has left a sizeable hole in the ground.
Landmines can be broken into two categories, anti-tank which can be triggered by vehicles and anti-personnel which can be set off by nothing more than the pressure of a child’s foot. Some are designed to fragment on detonation; others are designed to shatter the lower part of the leg in the hope of causing maximum demoralisation amongst an enemy force. Gerry explains,
“Injure one soldier and two others have to take him from the battlefield, not bad for a $2.50 landmine eh!”
It is estimated that there could be as many as 5 million landmines still left in the ground in Cambodia, some planted as recently as 1998. The Cambodian people however, remain hopeful for a future path they can tread without worry and with purpose. As Bill Morse explains it is still not close enough.
“We’ll clear landmines when the people of the planet decide they want to see landmines gone. There could be as many as 100 million landmines left in the world right now. They kill 4000 people a year. We have 3500 de-miners here right now working on the ground – we probably need 10 times that to get it done in our lifetime.
The world community is complicit in what happened here. For every dollar we get it’s going to clear this junk from the ground. People think about what happened here in the past I want them to understand what will happen in the future without their help.”
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