On the verdant western slope of Preah Vihear mountain, a distant sound shakes the leaves on the trees: BOOM!
The riotous birds fall silent, and for a moment everything is still. Then everyone’s heartbeat settles down, and the birdsong returns to normal.
It’s just a controlled detonation of a land mine by the deminers of Halo Trust, who have been working since early February to undo the damage left by years of warfare. Hundreds of mines and unexploded ordnance have been found so far
“We find at least 10 to 20 mines a day,” says Khun Sothy, location manager for Halo Trust. “We think there may be tens of thousands of mines here, laid by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge soldiers.”
Khun Sothy, who was visiting the 18-man crew assigned to make safe a wider path up the mountain, had climbed to the mountaintop shortly after dawn to take a look at the fabled temple. He was virtually the only visitor.
Since Thai soldiers closed the border crossing on Dec 17, only a handful of people have come to Preah Vihear. Most flew in by helicopter rather than climb up the long trail from the Cambodian plain—although villagers say one foreigner was carried up in a sling.
The deminers are working on the top part of the trail, which leads from the temple complex to a small village about half a kilometer to the west, on the side of the mountain.
White stakes and white-painted rocks mark the safe part of the trail, which is used daily by the approximately 650 villagers, vendors and soldiers who live on the mountain.
Blood-red stakes mark the spots where mines have been found. “We got eight anti-personnel mines yesterday,” says Khem Seng, a 35-year-old deminer who has been at Preah Vihear since Feb 8. “Oh! There are so many land mines here!”
He earns $145 a month for his work, which he began in late 2000. Once he passed 100 mines, he lost count of how many he has found. Dangerous as the work is, he likes it; it feels good to know he is saving people from being maimed or killed.
A few meters away, co-worker Meas Sophat πgently brushes a patch of dirt. His electronic mine detector beeped furiously when he passed it over this spot; he is sure there is something here.
Another brush, and there it is: the rounded edge of a small canister, looking like a harmless old tuna fish can. He passes the detector over it again, and it screams—then picks up something else about 60 centimeters away: Another mine. Both are less than a meter from the path used every day by the mountain’s residents.
The deminers are not surprised. The path they are working along was once a road built by Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok, who would logically have set traps to defend it.
There are no maps to indicate where the mines are laid. The men must work meter-by-meter, carefully clearing the undergrowth before probing for mines. They say they have no idea how long the job will take.
Once the mountaintop is finished, they will have to clear the site for a proposed new village 1 km away from the temple entrance.
“Our first goals are to demine where they want to build the road, school, hospital and houses,” says manager Khun Sothy. “I hope…most of the mines were laid in the foothills.”