In pitch-black waters, with only their hands to guide them, Cambodia’s first batch of salvage divers will soon start to recover the thousands of tons of unexploded artillery shells and bullets that lie at the bottom of the country’s lakes and rivers.
But before they begin their perilous underwater operations, the 40 staff members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) will first learn to swim.
“We will start with 40 people, and most have never put their face under the water,” said Allen Tan, general manager for the Golden West Humanitarian Organization, an American non-profit entity that specializes in mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance.
“Recreational swimming is not really big here,” he said.
The first steps toward becoming professional ordnance salvage divers will take place in a 1.2-meter-deep swimming pool in Phnom Penh, Mr. Tan said.
“We will have a licensed Australian swimming instructor who will teach them how to swim in the first two weeks,” Mr. Tan said of the intensive program, which is scheduled to start next week and last for a month. At the end of the two-week period, the 20 divers who show the most promise will learn how to scuba dive off the coast of Sihanoukville.
Eventually, Golden West hopes to select four fully trained salvage divers whose job it will be to recover U.S. ordnance that was lost while trying to supply the Lon Nol military government in Phnom Penh. Tens of thousands of tons of munitions were sunk with the boats and barges ambushed by Khmer Rouge forces on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap River and lake during the civil war from 1970 to 1975.
According to Heng Ratana, CMAC’s general director, the stockpiles of ammunition, shells and other unexploded ordnance in Cambodia’s waterways continue to pose a major threat to civilians diving in shallow waters.
“If people find the [boats], they will try to collect the UXOs for the metal” in order to sell them, he said.
Although experts are unsure exactly how many vessels were sunk by Khmer Rouge forces, newspapers in the 1970s often reported that resupply barges from ports in then-South Vietnam were attacked regularly with rockets and small arms fire in Cambodian waters. Those vessels are now lying on the riverbed, some of them with as much as 1,000 tons of explosives on board.
In March 1974, British journalist Jon Swain was onboard the Bonanza Three, one of five cargo ships hired by the U.S. military to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh with supplies. Shortly before docking in Phnom Penh, the convoy was attacked by the Khmer Rouge.
“The ambush came quickly, with a rocket attack on the lead ship…just 12 miles [about 20 km] from Phnom Penh,” Mr. Swain wrote at the time for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. All five vessels were attacked and shot at that day, but managed to arrive safely in Phnom Penh. Two of the five vessels were transporting ammunition, and had the Khmer Rouge aimed better, they would be among the ships that CMAC is now set to look for.
Selected to teach the 20 CMAC staff once they arrive in Sihanoukville is former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal diver Robert Rice. He will share his more than 20 years of experience with the Cambodian recruits and, according to Mr. Rice, they’ll need it.
“It can be extremely scary. In the Tonle Sap, there will be zero visibility—everything’s done by touch,” Mr. Rice said, adding that in the Mekong, divers will be able to see up to 20 cm in front of them by using a special underwater torch which costs a princely $1,000.
On top of the darkness, strong river currents in the Mekong River will make conditions even harder, he said.
“There’s a constant current that’s pulling you back, and there are a lot of things that can happen.”
For example, divers might get caught up in a fishing net or unexpectedly bump into something. Even if it is just a fish, not being able to see and know what is happening around you requires a high level of self-control and the ability to stay calm under any circumstance.
“And that’s really what I’m looking for: Can they be taught, and can they stay calm?” Mr. Rice said.