Inside Cambodia’s painstaking search for five million decaying bombs

On a steep, slippery hill next to a quiet village in Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia, a small team works hard to clear up conflict decades ago.

It’s an arduous and laborious task, with deminers using detectors to manually map every inch of ground and a range of tools to dig up every signal they pick up.

It’s also grueling work, with each person wearing a body armor, helmet and thick visor as the scorching sun beats through the trees and humidity swirls through the air.

Red signs with a skull and crossbones and the words “Danger! Mining!’ are stuck in the dirt in areas that are untested no-go zones – some just inches from where work is taking place.

Northwestern Cambodia was littered with an estimated four to six million landmines after the Vietnamese army overthrew the brutal Khmer Rouge in 1979 and during the civil conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s.

With population expanding into once remote areas, the risk of stumbling upon an old unexploded device is a terrifying fact of modern life.

In the first six months of this year, there were 40 landmine accidents.

On the minefield, everyone works alone, several meters away, just in case there is an accidental explosion.

“At first, I was very nervous doing this job, but after the training, I gained knowledge and I’m no longer a novice,” minefield manager Oeurn Phors told the ABC.

Oeurn Phors’ job is to oversee demining efforts in Battambang Province, Cambodia.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

“I’m very happy to clear the ground, I’m happy to help the community.”

The painstaking search for five million decaying bombs

Ms Oeurn is one of almost a thousand deminers who work in Cambodia at various sites for the international demining charity The HALO Trust.

A man dressed in protective gear and wearing a helmet holds a metal detector above dirt on the ground.
Clearance efforts have been made more difficult by the frequent rains.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

Almost half of HALO Cambodia’s demining team members are women, and all come from the regions in which they work.

Cambodia’s mine action community has so far cleared more than a million mines, according to the HALO charity’s deputy program director, Claire Fearn.

“We are really committed to cleaning up Cambodia and making it free of landmines,” Ms Fearn said.

“We have seen huge transformations in the villages since the 1990s when we first arrived here – villages that were littered with landmines are now thriving with agriculture, schools and other businesses operating on these lands now.”

Minesweeper and mother of three Nem Sokea, 36, told the ABC that getting rid of remnants of war was rewarding work.

“We save people’s lives from the dangers of unexploded ordnance,” Ms Nem said.

A woman with dark hair and dressed in a green shirt and a protective vest is smiling while standing near rocks.
Nem Sokea is a mother of three who also works in mine clearance across the country.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

“On the land we have already cleared, people can grow crops and improve their livelihoods.”

It is dangerous and delicate work at the best of times, but during the monsoon season from May to November it can be even more difficult.

On the day the ABC visits the minefield with the HALO Trust team, there is a heavy downpour at lunchtime and all work must stop immediately for safety reasons.

When he resumes, the tasks are much more difficult.

“Going up the mountain is difficult because there are rocks and it is difficult to walk, [then] when it rains, it’s slippery and it’s hard to work,” Ms. Oeurn said.

Now there are fears that a changing climate could complicate their efforts.

How climate change is contributing to mine flooding

According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is intensifying around the world, leading to more frequent and intense rainfall, more extreme heat and rising sea levels. the sea.

Already, some workers in the field are noticing the effects of changing weather conditions on clearance efforts.

“Climate change is preventing us from working,” Ms Oeurn said.

The IPPC outlook has also alarmed weapons contamination experts at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

ICRC delegate in charge of arms contamination in the Mekong region, Kiona Bolt, says she is particularly concerned that more extreme rainfall could set back demining and development efforts.

A man kneels on the ground holding a detector above the dirt on a hill overlooking a building.
Organizations now have a good idea of ​​the location of many of the areas of concern.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

“We definitely see after floods and landslides that unexploded ordnance is coming in and cluster munitions are being moved through the ground,” Ms Bolt told the ABC.

“And some land that was previously cleared is recontaminated, which means that a new survey must take place, as well as possible new clearance.”

Parts of Vietnam and Laos are also littered with unexploded ordnance after heavy ground and air attacks during the Vietnam War.

Ms Bolt said a recent ICRC survey in the remote mountainous province of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam showed residents were “nervous” about the impact of climate change.

“They mentioned extreme weather and climate change as the main issues that concern them about living with weapons contamination,” she said.

Sixteen percent of respondents said they had found explosive remnants of war after floods or landslides, with the figure increasing over the past 10 years.

Ms Bolt added that some villagers in Savannakhet province in southeastern Laos, who lived in low-lying areas free of flooded mines, had no choice but to uproot themselves to even higher ground. contaminated.

“So what that means for clearance efforts is that teams then have to reprioritize some of the areas that they thought they could do later, and basically drop whatever they were doing in one place. and move on because that’s where the needs are,” she says.

Linsey Cottrell, head of environmental policy for UK charity The Conflict and Environmental Observatory, said each landmine-contaminated region of the world would be affected by climate change in different ways.

She explained that while heavy rains, flooding and landslides would increase in some areas, others could be affected by extreme heat, which could destabilize unexploded ordnance or make firefighting efforts more difficult. dangerous.

She said the international demining industry needed to prepare, consider and adapt to climate change “as a matter of urgency”.

“The guidelines are not there yet to help demining organizations and authorities know how to solve this problem,” she said.

“The International Mine Action Standards… do not directly address the risks of climate change, although they seek to review and revise them.”

In the meantime, the ICRC fears that the number of mine-related casualties could increase if previously cleared minefields are re-contaminated by floods or landslides, or if displaced people are forced to move to new communities that have not yet been cleared.

The discovery of a landmine changed their lives forever

At the ICRC-funded Battambang Rehabilitation Centre, the human cost of remnants of war is evident.

Inside a large gymnasium, people take turns walking between handrails to get used to their new prosthetic legs, while others use weights and gym equipment to build muscle.

Two people walk using handrails.
People use handrails to get used to their new prosthetic legs.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

Center director Chan Layheng said staff help more than 8,000 patients a year and about three-quarters of them have been injured by landmines.

“After being injured by landmines, they need prosthetic legs and physiotherapy and other items from the center to support their bodies,” Chan told the ABC.

“We work with them and give them incentives so that they can survive and find jobs.

“We are not abandoning them.

Sey Ha, who lost her right leg under the glade 10 years ago, came to the center to receive a new prosthetic leg.

It will be manufactured by qualified technicians in a factory next to the gymnasium.

“When I first stepped on the landmine I didn’t hear anything, but when I moved my foot I heard it explode and then I blacked out,” the youngster said. 28-year-old man at the ABC.

A man with an amputated leg rests his arms on crutches as he sits on a green bench
Sey Ha says he was knocked unconscious while standing on a landmine.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

“Later I lost hope and didn’t want to live anymore, but my mother consoled me and said ‘there are other disabled people there and they can survive, they can live’, so I have to do the same.”

Another new prosthetic recipient, farmer Ham Sophat, 59, who lost his left foot in a landmine blast, said after his accident, clearance teams found seven other unexploded ordnance in his village.

“Now I tell people ‘you have to be careful, don’t be careless if you clear the land, you have to be careful because they laid mines in the war and there is no map,'” said Mr Ham.

Much of the Mekong region has been surveyed, so authorities and mine action organizations have a good idea of ​​the location of many of the areas of concern.

But there are surprises from time to time and now climate change is throwing more uncertainty into the mix.

A close-up of a dark-skinned man wearing a white shirt sitting in front of a green wall.
Farmer Ham Sophat received a prosthetic leg after being involved in a landmine explosion.(ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

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