Cambodia’s hidden legacy: landmines still a threat

Ang Nua farms to make a living, despite losing his leg in a landmine accident. © Heather Stilwell 2011.

INTRO: During nearly 3 decades of armed conflict, the Khmer Rouge, as well as the Vietnamese and Cambodian Armed Forces, laid an estimated 4 to 6 million landmines throughout Cambodia.

The country is now at peace but the casualties continue.

In 2010 alone, landmines in Cambodia injured a reported 215 civilians. 71 were killed.

The mines are concentrated in the rural and mainly poor Northwest of the country, and are a violent barrier to farming.

Heather Stilwell reports from Chisang Village in Battambang Province.

It should have been like any other day. Ang Nua left his home one morning in Chisang Village, Battambang Province, and he walked into the forest.

But Nua stepped on a landmine. It exploded, and destroyed his leg from the knee down. Villagers carried him from the forest as blood poured from his body. He survived, but today he lives as an amputee.

“Now that I’ve lost my leg, life is very different. It’s so hard to go places and there’s so much I can’t do. Before I could support my family, but now I must rely on my wife.”

Nua’s story is not uncommon. In Chisang Village of less than 300 families, 14 people are amputees because of landmine accidents.

The group Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been demining this area since 1997. They have removed more than 1000 anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnances in the area.

Horn Ruom is the Village Chief.

“Before the clearance began, the people living in Chisang village were unhappy. They couldn’t do so many things because the village was so contaminated. After MAG came to clear the mines, the people feel free and happier, but they are still concerned because mine clearance is not finished yet.”

Overlooking a field behind the village pagoda, a red sign reads, “Danger! Mines!” This area has not been cleared, but villagers continue to harvest their crops here, despite the risk. They are desperate to make a living.

MAG Country Director, Alistair Moir, says that demining is crucial to community development.

“When it comes to landmine clearance it really is the first step in the rest of the lives of the community who are then going to move on to the land.”

Once a piece of land is cleared, it can be used safely for agriculture and much-needed community projects like microfinance or water and sanitation.

When the team finds a mine, they dig the explosives out on their hands and knees, so it can be defused or safely destroyed. For Cambodian deminer, Koyn Visal, this work is especially difficult, because Koyn is also an amputee. He lost his leg as a soldier in the Cambodian Armed Forces in 1994. He wears a specially designed metal-free prosthetic so it won’t interfere with mine detection. Despite difficulties, Koyn says the work is worth it.

“I was so angry about the landmines. I don’t want to see other people have accidents like me. I want to work until Cambodia is fully cleared.”

MAG’s Alistair Moir says that the job is far from finished.

“The difficulty we face in Cambodia is that some of these landmines were laid over 20 years ago, so there is a vast amount of vegetation on the land because, literally, nature has had 20 years to take root. Before we can even go in and clear one land mine we have to do a massive amount of scrub cutting, which is a very technical, slow, time consuming and ultimately costly exercise.”

More than 20 million dollars has already been spent on demining Camodia. But according to a survey that’s being carried out jointly by MAG there is still 700 square kilometers of mine-contaminated land in Cambodia. The figure is expected to rise as the survey continues next year.

But landmines are not just a Cambodian problem. The Antipersonnel Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, is an international agreement that aims to eliminate the use of landmines worldwide. Cambodia ratified in 2009, but the United States, Russia, and China have not signed the Treaty. Mines produced in each of these three countries are still being unearthed in Cambodia.

Originally aired on Asia Calling, December 24, 2011

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