To continue with the cheery theme of my most recent blog entry, I thought I’d follow The Killing Fields with an entry on landmines and unexploded ordinance.
Hopefully I wont put people off reading, but I very much want this blog to be more than just a day by day account of my life in Cambodia – I’d like it to provide a bit of context and background as well, so that you understand more why I am here and the work that VSO are doing.
Arguably, one of the most pivotal points in Cambodia’s development was when Princess Diana started raising public awareness by visiting countries effected by landmines. This is not to suggest that the Khmer Rouge was not a major part of Cambodian history, but to recognize the fact that it was this media attention that put the issue of landmines on the world map and finally brought them into focus.
In accordance with my trusty Lonely Planet and informed by a seminar we attended in Phnom Penh, my grasp of the landmine situation is Cambodia is this: Landmines were not a big issue in Cambodia until the mid-1980s and the Vietnam War. It was then that the Vietnamese laid the 700km long K-5 landmine belt along the Thai/Cambodian boarder. After the Vietnamese withdrew, more landmines were planted by the Khmer government to make boarder crossings and supply routes inaccessible – mines were also planted by the Khmer Rouge to protect areas of land that they had taken. Sadly, in the 1980s the British sent the SAS to the Malaysian jungle to train guerilla fighters in landmine laying techniques – skills that were to be later adapted by the Khmer Rouge.
Anyway, the long and short of the situation is that today Cambodia has the world’s largest number of amputees per capita of any country, and correspondingly one of the world’s biggest landmine problems. An average of 30 people are victim to landmines every month (an improvement on the 300 people in the 1990s). And if it isn’t the landmines, it’s the unexploded ordinance bombs - particularly plague to Eastern Cambodia.
Fortunately, Cambodia is awash with groups dedicated to promoting landmine awareness and clearing mined areas, the main ones being:
CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) - www.cmac.org.kh
HALO Trust – www.haltrust.org
MAG (Mines Advisory Group) – www.mag.org.uk
What I think bothers me most about landmines is the level of intent behind them. They serve no purpose other than to maim or kill people. They are designed to harm, and unfortunately it is often children who will pick one up, simply not understanding what it is that they have found. In fact, some landmines are even specifically designed to look like children's toys. I heard a story about three children playing in a pond in a remote district of my own province. One found a landmine and threw it to the other two to catch. I’ll leave you to imagine what happened next.
Worryingly, Banteay Meanchey is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Cambodia – and I find that when I start thinking about it I suddenly have all sorts of images in my head that I really don’t want to be having. But I have not written this entry to scare people, least of myself, my parents or my boyfriend. Yes, landmines are a reality and are something that people need to be aware of. But at the same time, landmines are continuously being cleared and are now only found in remote areas of countryside.
To put people’s minds at rest, the chances of my actually encountering a landmine are tiny – Sisophon is a well developed town and the towns are clear, paths to schools are clear, and I wont be needing (or wanting) to walk over any uninhabited countryside. And I really don’t want you to get the wrong impression – Cambodia really is a wonderful place and I am very happy here and feel perfectly safe.