Ratanak Mondol district, Battambang province – It was a day that had started like any other in Banang, a small remote village in Sdao commune, where people sometimes feed themselves by picking mushrooms from the forests in the nearby hills.
But on September 30, when everyone was waiting for goods to be brought back from the local market, the villagers heard a deafening explosion. A few seconds later, they saw smoke billowing high into the air. As the residents ran to the scene, they knew something terrible had just occurred.
Heavy rains the week before had loosened the soil on the narrow, forested paths around Banang, and a tractor carrying eight people had detonated an anti-tank mine. Five people died instantly. Dismembered body parts were left scattered on the ground and in the branches of surrounding trees.
A sixth victim, a 17-year-old girl, died on the way to the hospital, and another woman succumbed to her injuries a week later.
Of the eight people the tractor was carrying that day, only one person survived the explosion.
“Look up there,” said 55-year-old Set Thong, a local villager, pointing to the top of a tree next to the deep crater the explosion had gouged in the earth.
“The intestines are still dangling in the tree top. We couldn’t get them down.”
As rural Cambodia develops and farmers begin to use heavier vehicles and more mechanized equipment, anti-tank mines from the civil war that have remained buried underground and undisturbed for decades are suddenly posing a new threat to farming communities.
Anti-tank mines, the massive explosive devices designed to destroy tanks and armored vehicles, once accounted for only a small percentage of deaths caused by unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. Buried deep underground, they were not disturbed by the footsteps of villagers and cattle, the only traffic that once traversed the pathways where they were buried in the former battlefields in northwestern Cambodia, particularly Battambang.
In 1990, of the 805 people killed by landmines, only four were the result of anti-tank mines, according to figures from the Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Authority (CMAA). In later, post-war years, the number of deaths by antitank mines has risen significantly. In 2001, a massive 49 people were killed by anti-tank mines; in 2004, 40 people were killed by the mines, and in 2010, the number of landmine victims was down to 39, but 29 of those killed were the result of anti-tank mines. So far this year, out of 22 people killed by landmines, antitank mines caused 20.
Mr. Thong, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the explosion in Sdao commune, said body parts were spread up to 20 meters from the crater.
“We used this road every day, and nothing ever happened,” Mr. Thong said.
Though the use of heavy machinery in rural areas is contributing to the rise in anti-tank mine explosions, risks increase enormously during the wet season, said Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC).
“Normally, an anti-tank mine is deeper down in the soil—about 1 meter—so it needs a lot of pressure to explode. During the rainy season, the soil is softer so the mine needs less pressure and it’s easier to make it explode.”
“We know that during the wet season there are more incidents [with anti-tank mines] than during the dry season,” he added.
A week after the explosion in Ratanak Mondol district, another anti-tank mine killed three people in neighboring Samlot district and severely injured two others. And in 2010, an anti-tank mine killed a group of 13 villagers in another part of Battambang province, including a 1-year-old girl.
“Because Cambodia is developing, there is more mechanized farming, and the farmers are using tractors with plows now, which allow them to plow deeper. It’s not horses or ox carts anymore,” said Alastair Moir, country director for the demining NGO Mine Action Group (MAG).
Since 1979, a total of 16,062 people have lost their lives to mines, of which 458 have been due to anti-tank mines, according to CMAA. Still, funding for demining in Cambodia has been gradually declining, partly because more and more money is going to pay for conflict zones such as Iraq and Libya.
“Every year it is getting harder and harder to maintain the same footprint,” Mr. Moir said.
CMAC’s manager of demining in Battambang, Pring Panharith, has a similar view. “The funding is a problem, because in districts where we’d like to deploy more [deminers], we have to stop the operation,” he said.
Although anti-tank mines are less common than antipersonnel mines, once they explode they cause much more damage.
“Antipersonnel mines injure only one person, and they lose a leg or an eye. But anti-tank mines, they are triggered [by] many people who travel together, maybe 20 people, and you don’t find their body parts,” Mr. Panharith said, adding that antitank mines contain about 6 kg of explosives each, and on some occasions CMAC has found up to 10 anti-tank mines buried in the same location.
The path in Banang village was cleared by CMAC the day after the explosion while 52-year-old Ouch Yeng, the only survivor of the blast, was recovering in his hospital bed in Battambang City. He lost three of his children in the explosion.
“When the mine exploded, it was so incredibly loud that my ears hurt. After that, I cannot remember anything,” he said from a hospital bed surrounded by at least half a dozen other mine victims.
“I didn’t know what had happened, but a few patients came over and told me that they saw the news on the television. They said that my three children, my two nephews, and my niece had died,” Mr. Yeng said, explaining that his wife and one other child were the only ones left in his family.
“I lost a lot of family members, but when I go home, all I can do is try to carry on,” he said.
Battambang is Cambodia’s most heavily mined province, and anti-tank mines can lie anywhere from dirt tracks to rice paddies.
Approaching the crater in Sdao commune earlier this month, Suy Vath, 58, a man with deep wrinkles covering his dark face, carried a wooden sign bearing the name of his daughter Vet Sek, who at the age of 17 was the youngest victim of the explosion and died in a hospital a week after the blast.
The first thing that the mortally wounded Vet Sek asked after waking up, Mr. Vath said, was if her friends were still alive.
“I told her they had minor injuries but were safe. I lied to her because I didn’t want her to get upset,” Mr. Sek recounted, adding that after a week at the hospital, his daughter’s heart started to beat slower and slower until it stopped.
A few meters down the path from where six of the victims were hastily buried in the forest after the explosion, 25-year-old Nak Channeth gazed at another shallow grave.
“That night, I was waiting for my sister to come home with groceries,” Mr. Channeth recalled.
But instead of welcoming her at their family’s front door, he found his sister lying in the red mud at the bottom of the crater. In an effort to save her life, he picked her up and carried her home.
“I got on my motorbike and was holding her in my arms all the way to the hospital,” he said. Looking down at the earth piled up next to him, he said that it had been too late. “She died, and we buried her here.”
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