Kompong Svay district, Kompong Thom province – After years of working on his family farm, Heng Neang has found a new, more lucrative though potentially deadly occupation.
About two months ago, Heng Neang, 25, went to Vietnam and bought a $25 metal detector. He now spends his days scouring the countryside for war-era bombs and shrapnel, which he sells to a scrap collector for about 500 riel per kilogram.
Heng Neang listens carefully to the continual sputters and hums of the detector as he waves it over the ground. When the buzzing stops, that’s when he takes out his hoe and starts digging.
He said his investment in the detector paid off quickly. Since he began scavenging, Heng Neang has unearthed hundreds of kilograms of scrap metal left by bombs. The back of his shed is filled with rice sacks full of shrapnel.
A few weeks ago, he said, he stumbled upon a jackpot in neighboring Prey Vihear province: An entire unexploded US B-52 bomb, which he sold directly to a wholesaler for $39, or 700 riel for each of the bomb’s 224 kg.
Heng Neang said he’s helped dismantle nearly a dozen B-52 bombs for scrap. It’s easy; you just saw it in half with a hand saw and take out the ammunition powder, he said, dismissing questions over the dangers of such activity.
“We heard in Preah Vihear, some people were injured dismantling a bomb,” he said. But, he added, “I’m not scared.”
According to bomb scavengers here, the price of scrap metal has more than doubled since last year, rising on the back of world steel prices. Hovering at around 650 riel per kilogram, the price of bomb scraps has lured villagers like Heng Neang into the risky business.
Bomb scavenging here is also thriving due to the abundance of war-era ordnance left scattered throughout the province.
Kompong Thom, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold and the birthplace of Pol Pot, was heavily bombed following the coup that toppled then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, when those loyal to the Prince fought intensely against Lon Nol forces, villagers here said.
Historians estimate that between February and August of 1973, US planes dropped more than half a million tons of bombs in Cambodia after resistance fighters refused to enter a cease-fire with Lon Nol’s soldiers.
Though they provide a relatively steady income for scrap metal scavengers, unexploded ordnance and land mines from the 1970s and the following decades remain deadly. According to reports from the Cambodian Red Cross and the Cambodian Mine Action Center, UXOs and land mines kill roughly 700 people each year.
Kompong Thom resident Vong Kam, 58, remembers bombs raining down on her village of Roung in Trapaing Russei commune more than three decades ago.
“I saw fighter jets drop bombs like dragonflies in the air dropping powder,” she said. “I was very scared, running around in the area.”
Vong Kam remembers the explosions tearing into the forest, setting the villagers’ houses ablaze, and people running everywhere.
“Wherever the bombs dropped, flames shot out,” she said, arms waving to illustrate the destruction.
She remarks about the irony of the bomb scavenging trade: “These bombs killed Cambodian people in the past. But because of poverty, we just do whatever possible to make a meager living.”
Relying on the memories of Vong Kam and those of an older generation who witnessed the war, scavengers often seek their advice on where best to find bomb scraps.
Just recently, Vong Kam guided her daughter Hy Mao, 21, and their scavenger neighbor Heng Neang to find an unexploded B-52 bomb along a stream bank near their house.
Tucking her infant son under her arm, Hy Mao led visitors beyond her family’s back yard to show off her latest find.
Since the price of scrap metal has fallen slightly over the past few weeks to about 500 riel per kilogram from its February highs of more than 650 riel per kilogram, Hy Mao said she has been hiding the bomb under a pile of palm fronds until the price again rises.
Painted in yellow on its side, English lettering read: “EXPLOSIVE BOMB.”
“My husband wants to keep it, but my mother is afraid of having it here,” Hy Mao said.
The market demand for scrap metal has also created an industry of middlemen who buy bomb materials from scavengers and sell them to wholesalers for a commission.
Until a few years ago, San Sophy, 28, was a gold miner in nearby Phnom Jin. But, she said, bombs turned out to be more abundant and a steadier source of income than gold.
Two large heaps of scrap metal cover her front yard, one consisting of shrapnel and the other of bicycle and car parts. Though both appeared equal in volume, the pile of dense shrapnel weighs four times more, at roughly 20 tons, compared to the 5 tons of bicycle and car parts, she said.
“The bomb scraps are very heavy. They’re worth much more and the quality is much better,” San Sophy said.
While shrapnel falls under the classification of “No 1 quality,” she said, the bicycle parts are only “No 3 quality.”
San Sophy said she used to collect ammunition powder too, which she would sell to Phnom Jin miners to bust up ore.
But she said her fellow scrap metal entrepreneurs told her to stop buying ammunition powder because it’s a “risky scrap.”
“You can’t keep it like this,” she said, gesturing toward the large scrap heaps. Most of the metal that San Sophy collects goes to Phnom Penh-based Long Nam, the largest wholesaler in Kompong Thom. He, in turn, transports it to Thailand, where it is refined and made into steel for building construction.
About 70 percent of the shrapnel and bomb scraps can be reused, Long Nam said, adding that he makes a profit of a few dollars for each ton that he transports.
Long Nam dismissed the potential dangers of the business.
“As far as I know, it doesn’t hurt people much,” he said.
Still, when asked whether he handles unexploded ordnance, he said: “I don’t buy whole bombs, because I’m afraid they will explode.”