Both the number of accidents and casualties caused by old landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) rose by nearly 40 percent last year, according to the latest government data, though the two figures were still the second lowest on record following years of progress in demining.
According to a year-end report from the government’s Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA), 98 mine and UXO explosions caused 157 casualties in 2014. That included 21 people who died and 38 who had limbs amputated.
Years of civil war, U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge rule have made Cambodia one of the most heavily mine-contaminated countries in the world. Mines and UXO have killed or injured 64,000 Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, according to CMAA. Though they continue to kill and maim today, annual casualty numbers have fallen steadily and hit their lowest number on record—111—in 2013.
Heng Ratana, director-general of CMAA’s Cambodian Mine Action Center, the government’s demining arm, said it was not easy to pin down specific reasons for the rise in explosions and casualties that had followed.
“It’s quite difficult to find a specific issue…but we take a good note of the increase of landmines related to heavy machinery,” he said.
Mr. Ratana said there had been a spike in the number of farmers triggering old, buried mines as they switched from manual to mechanized tools. The heavier machines, he said, were more likely to set off mines than rakes and hoes or animals.
To combat the trend, he said, the mine action center was urging farmers in high-risk areas to refrain from using heavy machinery and sending out more demining teams to focus specifically on digging up anti-tank mines, which are much more powerful than anti-personnel mines and usually buried deeper in the ground, making them harder to detect.
Mr. Ratana said the center also declared 124 square km of land mine-free in 2014, up from 80 square km in 2013.
Most of the Thai-Cambodian border, however, where mine contamination is heaviest, is still off limits to deminers for political reasons.
In April last year, just days before the Khmer New Year, Ngit Khuch, 48, was working at a hotel construction site on the outskirts of Samraong City, Oddar Meanchey province, not far from the Thai border, when he headed off to a spot the work crew often used to relieve themselves.
The laborers knew the area was mined thanks to repeated warnings from the local soldiers. But there were no signs, and Mr. Khuch believed his footsteps alone would not set off any of the mines.
On the way, however, Mr. Khuch, a husband and a father of two, stepped on a mine and lost both his legs in the explosion. He can no longer work and spends most of his time in bed.
“I never thought it would happen. Now I feel hopeless because I can no longer feed my family,” he said Monday. “The government cannot clear the area because it’s a ‘white area’ [buffer zone], but it should put up some signs.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)
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