Landmine Toll Falls, But Problem Far From Solved

samraong district, Oddar Mean­chey province – Minh Sokphoeun has next to no memory of the blast.

She remembers boarding the makeshift tractor on the morning of Sept 5, and heading to the rice mill with her 4-month-old son, four other passengers and several sacks of grain. She remembers stopping to pick up two more people along the way, not far from where they set out from her village of Romduol Choeung Phnom. And, she re­members crossing a bridge.

The next thing the 20-year-old re­calls is her mother’s faraway scream.

“I didn’t know there was an ex­plosion,” Minh Sokphoeun said last week, speaking in a faint voice from her hospital bed in Siem Reap Prov­incial Hospital, where she lay paralyzed, covered in damp towels and bunched up sarongs.

“I remember crossing the bridge. Then I heard my mother calling…. I thought I was dead al­ready,” she said.

The anti-tank mine that exploded under the tractor did not kill Minh Sokphoeun or her infant son. But it did kill five other passengers, and broke her spine and crushed her internal organs.

Doctors were unable to say whether Minh Sokphoeun will ever walk again.

“I heard the boom and then I ran, and ran, and ran,” said Minh Sokphoeun’s mother, 42-year-old Pak Channy.

“My daughter flew 15 meters. I saw my grandson in the tree…. They had to cut down the tree to take the corpse,” she said, referring to another grandson of hers who died in the blast.

Easily 20 meters above the location where at least one, possibly two powerful anti-tank mines ex­ploded, scraps of kramas and pieces of rice sack were still entangled in the treetops last week. A crater at least two meters across, and now filled with murky rainwater, marks the spot of the explosion. Charred bits of trees are scattered on either side of the dirt road, which is flanked by dense jungle.

The presence of landmines, even the sound of them exploding, is not enough to shock residents of Chroeung Chas village, which neighbors Romduol Choeung Phnom in Konkriel commune and is where the five people died Sept 5.

One of the most fought-over areas during Cambodia’s three dec­ades of war and conflict, northern Oddar Meanchey still has an un­told number of landmines beneath its thick forest floors and village paths. The same is true of other former battlegrounds in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Preah Vihear and Pailin.

Cambodia as a whole remains one of the world’s three most affected countries when it comes to landmines, alongside Angola and Af­ghanistan. Since 1979, the Cambo­dian Mine/UXO Victim Informa­tion System has recorded more than 63,000 casualties.

In an interview last week, the government’s Mine Action Plann­ing Unit chief in Oddar Meanchey, Khut Seurk, said that somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 anti-personnel mines and hundreds of anti-tank mines remain buried in the province, and in the first half of 2008, the province saw 13 mine-related casualties.

Some of the mines in the area date back to the Khmer Rouge. Others are more recent additions from when Funcinpec forces re­treated to the nearby border town of O’Smach during the factional fighting of 1997.

Oddar Meanchey’s deputy cabinet chief Hang Meng said last week that about 27 square km have been cleared of mines in the province since 1995, though he suspected some 60 square km still need to be de-mined.

In all of Cambodia, nobody really knows how many landmines there are or were‚—though the figure most commonly used is between 4 and 6 million. And nobody knows exactly how much land was and still is contaminated.

According to the UN Development Program’s Mine Clearance program manager Steve Munroe, a survey completed in 2002 declared that 4,466 square km of Cambodia’s 181,035 square km total landmass were suspected to contain mines and UXO. This figure is likely excessive, however, and Munroe said that the number more often used by the government is about one-tenth of that-427 square km.

“The problem in Cambodia: how many mines are there? Where are they? They’re everywhere,” Munroe said.

Unlike, countries like Jordan where military maps show the meticulous plotting of mines and officials can give a precise date and time when the last mine will be found, Cambodia has no clear path to follow. Some of the mines were laid strategically at borders and crossings, some were strewn haphazardly and, in most cases, as Munroe says: “there is no record of them whatsoever.”

Munroe said he thinks it’s reasonable to strive for zero casualties by the year 2020, but that “given the extent and nature of mine contamination in Cambodia, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to say with certainty that every last mine has been found.”

Still, progress has been made.

Since 1992, 773,703 mines have been turned up over the roughly 412 square km that have been cleared-largely thanks to the Cambodian Mine Action Center, Mines Advisory Group and Halo Trust, which are all licensed to clear mines in Cambodia.

Perhaps the most tangible measure of the success, though, is that in the last few years, the number of casualties have begun to decline substantially and consistently.

Landmine and UXO casualties, which had remained constant at around 850 per year from 2000 to 2005, decreased substantially to 450 in 2006, and then again to 352 in 2007. From January through July 2008, casualties countrywide numbered 186.

The decline is likely due to a variety of factors, among them increased public awareness and the degradation of some mines that are unable to stand the test of time.

The prioritization of land to clear of mines has gotten better, too, said Munroe, though this is also now the biggest challenge-especially as funding, which has numbered in the ballpark of $25 million per year, is increasingly uncertain, and where people live and farm is changing rapidly.

According to the 2008 census, it is the country’s most remote corners that are now growing the fastest in terms of population.

As the country’s population swells and land becomes increasingly hard to come by, people are moving further and further off the beaten track-often into more dangerous zones, where remnants of Cambodia’s violent past lie waiting for them when they get there.

So is the story of Chroeung Chas.

In 2003, Lim O, originally from Kompong Thom province and now 38, quit the military and came to Konkriel with seven other families to see about forming a new village.

“I heard that in this area, people can come and claim the land,” he said. “It was all jungle. There was only one small road, called the French road, big enough for a bicycle,” he said last week in an interview at his home, seated at a solid hardwood table. Less than five years later, 165 families live in Chroeung Chas.

“They come from Prey Veng, Kompong Cham, anywhere. They face shortages there and they come here,” he said.

A similar promise brought Pak Channy all the way from Kampot four year ago.

“I didn’t have land in Kampot,” she said. “I heard people claimed land here, so I took my family and came here.”

Oddar Meanchey’s MAPU chief Khut Seurk said that villagers are competing aggressively with each other to claim land, whether it has been demined or not.

“It is difficult to stop them because in each village, villagers separate from their families to claim new land,” he said.

On the day of the Sept 5 explosion, Pak Channy had sent her son-in-law, 21-year-old Phan Sin, the husband of the now-paralyzed Minh Sokphoeun, to the neighboring district of Sampon Loun to check on land she heard might be free for the taking.

Mean Sarun, director of CMAC in Siem Reap, said Monday by telephone that mine clearance efforts hadn’t reached the “French road.”

The road was built during King Norodom Sihanouk’s reign in the 1960s, and was abandoned during years of war. It had only become frequented again in recent years as villages sprang to life along it, he said.

“People banned them from going there, but the villagers still went there,” Mean Sarun said, adding that he wasn’t sure when his team would get around the clearing the French Road, but that it was likely to be in the plan for 2009.

Large blue CMAC signs along the road designate certain areas as free of mines, but the boundaries are difficult to discern and danger signs pepper the area as well. As the road stretches further and further into the jungle, signs of any kind become rare.

On her hospital bed last week, Minh Sokphoeun said it never occurred to her to be afraid of mines on the road she traveled every day.

“We rode every day on that road…. I never thought there would be landmines,” she said.

Standing next to the crater left by the Sept 5 explosion, Chroeung Chas resident and local journalist Chan Sophea said that he had found the shredded limbs of those who had been killed in the blast.

“Everyone knows there are mines because this area was a war zone. Everyone knows, even a child,” he said.

Village chief Lim O said he knew the area was dangerous. He had personally turned up nine anti-tank mines and 12 anti-personnel mines over the last few years.

“Even me, I don’t dare to ride in a tractor,” he said.

“We tell them not to go off the road. But they usually follow each other. One goes and sees that it is safe. Then, another goes….,” he added.

“Speaking honestly, people are taking risks. They go to places to look after their rice. They have no choice. What can we do? We have to struggle.”

 

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