Demining in the Depths

A badge on his chest, a certificate in hand, a bow for officials. It was a proud day for deminer Tri Khun and his buddies—as he calls them—after four weeks of rigorous training to become the country’s first salvage dive unit. 

Deminers participate in scuba diving training off the coast of Koh Rong. (Nick Street)
Deminers participate in scuba diving training off the coast of Koh Rong. (Nick Street)

On Thursday, he was among the 10 staff from the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) who graduated from a program that started in January with 35 candidates to train a team of divers capable of submerging themselves in the pitch-black waters of Cambodia’s rivers to find bombs, grenades and other munitions that sunk in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I’m so happy that I can be part of this first generation of divers. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through each step of the program, some things were very difficult,” Mr. Khun said after the graduation ceremony at CMAC’s Phnom Penh offices.
The mood at CMAC’s offices was joyous, and the deminers had every reason to be proud.

Four weeks ago, they had started with basic swimming lessons, as many had never even put their face under water. Step by step, they had learned how to perform the crawl, tie knots, give underwater hand signs, complete tasks without visibility, dive, navigate under water and even locate and salvage unexploded ordnance in deep waters.

Allen Tan, general manager for Golden West Humanitarian Organization in South East Asia, the organization that conducted the training, looked back at the past four weeks and lauded the divers for their endurance and willpower.

“Myself and all instructors have been overwhelmed and really impressed by the level of dedication and professionalism that they have shown during the course. Their personal courage is exceptional,” he said.

“They are pioneers who did not have the luxury of knowing that others had done this job before them,” he added.
Many of the 35 students sent from CMAC to take on the challenge in January to become Cambodia’s first underwater demining unit did not make the cut. Medical conditions and a lack of strength and stamina forced some to give in while others could not live up to what was expected academically.

“One gave up because he was uncomfortable swimming, some got tired, and some weren’t comfortable under water. I had to drop a few for academic problems or when we saw them violating basic safety [rules],” said Robert Rice, a former U.S. navy explosive ordnance disposal [EOD] diver with more than 20 years of experience and one of the lead instructors on the project.

On February 20, the group of students–by this point cut back to 15–was sitting on a double-decker boat a few kilometers off Koh Rong island in Preah Sihanouk province as they listened to instructions for their first military dive.

In the space of three weeks they had gone from novice swimmers to certified PADI scuba divers.

“The diving was something very new for me at the beginning, but now, I feel comfortable under water,” Mr. Khun said.
Although the daily push-ups and the long swims in the Gulf of Thailand were strenuous, studying the laws of physics—knowledge needed for scuba diving—was the most difficult part, said Mr. Khun, a soft-spoken 40-year-old who helps to demine Battambang province with CMAC.

“I am very old and my memory is not so good, so the lessons in the classroom were very difficult to understand and remember. I had to study really hard, sometimes even until 11 p.m.,” Mr. Khun said.

For Gerard Leelan, director of Sihanoukville’s Scuba Nation dive center and one of the program’s diving instructors, teaching this particular group came with its own set of challenges.

Conveying the notions of density, weightlessness and pressure are complex concepts that had to be understood.

“Usually I say that diving is like being an astronaut because of the weightlessness. I’m a big guy, but if I’m under the water, that doesn’t matter,” Mr. Leelan said as an example of one of his classes.

“But then I found out that they don’t know what an astronaut is, so the translator had to explain what astronaut means first,” he laughed.

The past weeks, he said, have been exhausting for everyone.

“Everybody starts at 6.30 a.m. and the first day was so long I even dreamt about giving theory [classes],” Mr. Leelan said.
And with days ending at 11 p.m., students and instructors were pushed to their limits. Sometimes, they even conducted exercises in the middle of the night.

“But these guys, they volunteered to do this, and if they want to do it then we have to support them,” he said. “They are worth it.”

Indeed, the ordnance buried in Cambodia’s waterways is a security risk to local communities and can also be a burden for construction of bridges and irrigation systems.

The many hours spent in pools in Phnom Penh and in classrooms tying knot after knot were a necessary preparation for what awaits the divers, Mr. Tan said.

“It’s crawl-walk-run, really,” Mr. Tan said last week in Sihanoukville. “This evening we will put them into black-out masks for the first time, and their mission will be to find something under water,” he said.

“At first I was afraid of the big fish, especially sharks and other dangerous fish,” Mr. Khun said jokingly. “But now, I am ok.”
The zero-visibility training, Mr. Tan said, is also a preparation for the low- to zero-visibility of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, where thousands of tons of ordnance was sunk in the 1960s and 1970s, when the U.S. sent barges from Saigon to supply Lon Nol’s embattled army in Phnom Penh.

“We found news reports from this time that said that up to 1,000 tons sank at one time—that’s like the biggest container ship you can see in the Phnom Penh Port,” Mr. Tan said. “Once you take out the ordnance, you can do anything with it, you can sell it on the black market or use it for quarrying and even dynamite fishing, not necessarily just terrorism,” he added.
CMAC’s director-general, Heng Ratana, said that three years ago, one such ship was found in shallow water in Kompong Chhnang, and locals took away roughly half of the ammunition on board the vessel.

“They had already sold most of what they found on the ship when CMAC and the police got there,” Mr. Ratana said.
Once the diving unit receives further training from U.S. Army salvage divers, their first task will be in shallow waters, where locals are more prone to look for ordnance.

“We will pick the low-hanging fruits first because we are trying to get there before the scrapers and the scrapers are trying to do the same, so it’s like a chess game,” Mr. Tan said.

With more experience, the divers could then also demine deep and fast flowing parts of the Mekong such as in Prey Veng province’s Neak Loeung, where heavy contamination by unexploded ordnance is a problem.

Contributing to making Cambodia a safer place is the main reason for most deminers to take on this job. But becoming a deminer also offers an opportunity to make a better wage than most jobs.

“Most of them have no degree, but the basic salary that we provide is $230,” Mr. Ratana said.

Three small schoolchildren and his wife depend on his income, Mr. Khun said, adding that since they live in Preah Sihanoukville, far from his work in Battambang province, he would only see them twice or three times a year.
“I miss them, but I can also call them and talk to them,” he said.

Now, Mr. Khun has also found a second family in his dive teammates.

“Since the course started, we have lived and studied and practiced together every day, and everything we did, we did it as a team,” he said.

Salvage dive missions are always conducted in pairs, and they were trained to keep an eye on one another.

“No one goes alone according to the rules of divers, we work in pairs and rely on each other,” he said, looking on as two of his “buddies” jumped off the boat, one followed by the other.

For now, each of them will return to their old positions in CMAC units across the country. Two more training sessions are scheduled to take place before July with funding provided by the U.S.’ Department of State’s Office of Arms Removal and Abatement. Both are planned to take the divers in the waters of Cambodia’s rivers for the first time, where a strong current and zero to low-visibility await them.

“It will get more difficult, but I’m looking forward to this and I think we will be ready,” Mr. Khun said after the graduation ceremony.

“We have grown together and I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again for the next trainings.”

(Additional reporting by Sun Mesa)

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