Ratanak Mondol district, Battambang province – Sun-weathered villagers herd emaciated cattle past the local pagoda and out into the fields. Barefoot children play next to traditional wooden stilt houses lining the path to the newly erected Chisang village school. It seems like just another pastoral scene-until you see the skull and crossbones against the bright red background: “Danger! Mines!”
Cambodia, despite massive inroads made in terms of mine clearance, remains one of the most mine-affected countries in the world and is this week hosting the Eleventh Meeting of States Parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, also known as the Ottawa Treaty.
One thousand diplomats representing over 100 countries and delegates from dozens of international organizations and NGOs are expected to attend the five-day meeting in Phnom Penh—returning to the place where the mine ban movement started almost two decades ago.
Cambodia was one of the first of 158 countries to sign the AP Mine Ban Convention, which was adopted in 1997 and decrees that states that ratify it must destroy all stockpiled anti-personnel mines, clear mined areas, and provide assistance to mine victims.
By most accounts Cambodia has succeeded on these fronts, clearing 640 million square meters of land since 1992, destroying all stockpiles of the weapons, and sending its highly skilled de-miners abroad to help in UN mine clearance operations in countries such as Lebanon and Sudan.
In September, UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Broderick praised the progress Cambodia had made, saying: “Cambodia’s recent history and achievement in mine action is a story of a heavily mine-affected country that has risen to be a leader.”
Although Cambodia was once the country most synonymous with landmines in the eyes of the world, the success of the many demining groups working to clear the country has meant that the focus of the media and international community has turned elsewhere, and demining groups working in Cambodia are feeling the pinch in terms of funding.
“It’s fair to say that MAG faces the same issues as all clearance groups in Cambodia,” Alistair Moir, country director of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), said in a recent interview. “We face challenges when it comes to long term sustained funding, which is crucial.”
“Firstly, accidents have fallen so therefore people think the problem is finished, and also there is a natural tendency for people’s attention to be drawn to the next huge international crisis,” Mr Moir said, citing Libya as the country currently at the forefront of demining efforts.
“The problem hasn’t gone away. Accident levels have decreased but the fear is that as money decreases within the mine action sector, there is the possibility accidents will start to rise again,” he said.
In Chisang village, Khon Vay, 37, sits in a thatched shack, both eyes milky white and his left arm cut off at the shoulder.
“I went into the forest to hunt animals. It was a minefield and I stepped on a Vietnamese-laid mine. This was in 1994. When the mine exploded I lost both my eyes and my arm,” Mr Vay said.
“Before the accident I was a farmer and during the war I was a soldier. Now I’m a beggar and make at most 10,000 riel [$2.50] a day.”
Mr Vay is one of 22 people who have been injured by mines in Chisang village, four fatally, before MAG started clearing the 56,858 square meters of contaminated land known as the Chisang II minefield in February. When a reporter visited the area in October, the team of de-miners had found and destroyed 11 UXO and 59 antipersonnel mines.
Chisang village saw years of fighting, first in the early 1970s between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol government, and then between 1979 and 1989 between the Khmer Rouge and government forces, according to Chea Ratha, the MAG team supervisor at Chisang II minefield.
“Some mines were laid in lines but some scattered, so it’s difficult for us to know,” Mr Ratha said. “We get minefield information from key informants like ex-soldiers and village chiefs who know where the minefields are. We don’t know exactly where the mines are, so we need to conduct full clearance.”
After finding out where the minefields were, MAG first cleared along the village’s main road and then started clearing the agricultural land.
Clearance is a painstaking, slow and very delicate procedure. The 16 de-miners employed at Chisang II, including six women and three amputees, must first use a grass-cutter to cut back any long grass before they can use the detector.
Once the detector finds something, it makes a load squeaking noise, and the de-miner places a red chip on the spot to pinpoint the signal. The de-miner then uses a set of rudimentary tools to uncover the mine, generally laid 1-2 cm under ground and covered with soft soil and leaves: a brush to remove topsoil, pliers for cutting roots, and an excavation tool like a small spade for digging underground.
The de-miner digs to the side of the colored chip because by exposing the mine from underneath it is less likely to explode. Each de-miner works his or her small patch of ground, carefully marked by a variety of colored posts and string, inching forward as each section is cleared and marked as safe. It’s laborious work, with de-miners working in heavy protective gear and helmets in the hot sun for eight hours a day.
Generally MAG destroys the mines they find in situ. However, if the weapons are found near a building, MAG prefers to disarm them to minimize risk.
Korn Visal, 48, one of MAG’s de-miners at Chisang II, lost his leg when he stepped on a mine as a soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge in 1994.
“After I lost my leg there were no jobs for me,” Mr Visal said, rolling up his trousers to reveal a skin-colored prosthesis. “I was angry about mines so I decided to work to clear them. I feel working in de-mining will let my children be free in a free Cambodia.”
Another de-miner at Chisang II, Srei Somean, 30, is a single mother with a 6-year-old daughter.
“At first I thought it was hard work for women, but I tried to do everything the same as the men. Sometimes I still feel a bit afraid, but I got good training and I can do the job the same as men,” she said proudly.
In the 19 years the organization has been in Cambodia, MAG has freed up more than 50,300 hectares of land through clearance and survey and destroyed 61,752 anti personnel mines, 942 tank mines and 181,080 UXOs, but despite the impressive figures the organization’s focus is on the development that comes after.
“It’s not about the amount of mines we pull from the ground, it’s about the impact on development,” said Mr Moir. “Minefields are categorized A1 to A4, with A1 being the worst contaminated. We will prioritize where there’s going to be more development for communities.”
While the number of landmine victims has dropped dramatically from a high of 4,300 in 1996 to 286 in 2010, according to Kerry Brinkert, director of the Implementation Support Unit of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the push for land means that accidents still occur.
In September 2010, two farmers died and six other people were injured in Battambang province after an anti-tank mine exploded during soil excavation.
“Land is a finite resource and as more land is needed there’s a pressure at both ends of the spectrum: for both small-scale farmers and large property developers,” said Mr Moir. “Farmers are willing to take a calculated risk.”
In the minefield behind Chisang village’s brightly-painted pagoda-which MAG intends to start clearing soon-villagers are cultivating small patches of rice between the numerous red warning signs marking the land as mined, one indication that, while international attention may have been re-directed to new crisis spots, for poor Cambodians, mine clearance remains just as important as it was 20 years ago.