Fields of fear
Three courageous Cambodians are facing their demons by working to clear the minefields
despite personal loss and disability. Claudia Rizzi listens to their stories.
The ground gives way to the 30-centimetre steel probe with a sudden jolt. Pich Thy’s heart skips a beat. ‘Hard soil,’ she says with a nervous giggle – her voice slightly muffled under the protective headgear. Lying prone on a blue plastic sheet, this 35-year-old mother of five spends her working days prodding the ground in search of landmines.
‘If the probe hits a mine at the wrong angle or accidentally tilts it, it could detonate it,’ she explains a few minutes later, while taking a break from the midday heat under the shade of a parasol.
All around, a silent army of men and women wearing green uniforms walks slowly through a labyrinth of white pegs. ‘This is the safe zone; it has already been cleared,’ Thy says confidently.
At the far end of the field, red tape strung between red pegs demarcates the ‘no-go’ area. Beyond lie some of Cambodia’s estimated six million mines – the deadly legacy of over two decades of war.
Trained by mine-clearance specialists from the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Thy and her quiet colleagues are professional deminers. She is one of 48 women who work alongside their male counterparts in Cambodia’s minefields.
Today, Thy is working at Minefield 1871 near Sdau village, a small farming community in Battambang province – one of Cambodia’s worst affected areas. Sdau and other rural villages along Route 10 – a pot-holed dirt road leading east from Battambang to the border with Thailand –were at the frontline of fierce fighting between the army and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas as recently as February last year. Today the area is at peace for the first time in almost 30 years. But the killing goes on.
Six days a week, working in pairs, Thy and the other MAG deminers painstakingly check each square metre of land, prodding at five-centimetre intervals in the hope of finding and safely destroying hidden mines. Wearing a flak jacket and a visored helmet as the only protection against a potentially deadly blast, they first clear the thick vegetation by hand using a pair of secateurs. ‘I am constantly checking for trip wires that could detonate a hidden mine,’ Thy explains. A metal detector is then brought in to check the cleared area. If the machine detects any metal, it emits an electronic chirp. Another deminer starts prodding around the area to determine what kind of mine is buried underground. Once the mine is unearthed, a trained explosives expert places a charge next to it and detonates it in a controlled and safe environment.
‘It’s a very demanding activity, both mentally and physically,’ says Ade Ridoutt, one of MAG’s technical advisors and the regional co-ordinator for Battambang province. Paradoxically, a professional deminer in Cambodia runs a smaller risk of being injured than a farmer. In a country that offers few economic opportunities, agriculture is the main activity for over 80 per cent of the population. With 50 per cent of the territory contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance, doing the maths is terrifyingly easy. According to MAG data, last year more than 800 people were injured in Battambang province alone; 127 died.
Thy’s partner in the minefield is Sieng Penh, a 47-year-old former soldier and one of Cambodia’s estimated 30,000 amputees. Watching him walk down the white-pegged walkway carrying a metal detector, one can hardly detect a wobble. ‘I used to lay mines when I was soldier,’ he says. ‘Now I help demine.’
Sieng Penh is not shy or awkward talking about his disability. Here losing a limb has become an accepted reality. ‘When I came to work for MAG, they fitted me with a new plastic leg, so that it would not affect the metal detector’s readings,’ he explains.
Sieng Penh’s new leg was developed by the Inter-national Committee of the Red Cross’s prosthetic workshop in Battambang. He and the other 39 MAG amputee deminers were given extra training to ensure they would be comfortable performing all the tasks of an able-bodied deminer.
Sieng Penh was injured during a sea-land manoeuvre in 1984. ‘We asked people on the beach if there were any mines in the area,’ he explains. ‘When they said no, we came ashore – of 400 soldiers I was the only one to step on a mine.’
Discharged soon after without any pension, Sieng Penh went from odd job to odd job to support his wife and four children. ‘After the elections, I was trained as a carpenter by a local voluntary organization, but could not find any work,’ he says, talking about the 1993 UN-sponsored election that brought a fragile peace to Cambodia. ‘Then, I heard MAG was hiring ‘mine widows’ and amputees to train as deminers in Battambang.’ Penh was lucky; many of Cambodia’s amputee soldiers eke out an existence as beggars.
‘I did not think twice about it,’ he says. Despite knowing all too well the agony of a mine injury, he decided to face his enemy again. ‘If I step on a mine again, I’ll make sure I step on it with this,’ he says, breaking into a broad smile.
If jobs are hard to come by in Cambodia, even fewer are open to women and people with disabilities. People came from far-away provinces to apply, drawn by the prospect of earning $170 a month – enough for a family to live on.
‘At first, we were looking for amputees and women who had lost their husbands to a mine,’ explains Ridoutt of MAG. But many among the hundreds of hopeful applicants were single or married women whose relatives had been affected by a mine. MAG decided to open up its hiring policy. ‘Ultimately, I think everyone in Cambodia has a relative who has stepped on a mine.’
Thy is one of the exceptions, but hers is a common story. ‘I was making only 50,000 riel (about $20) a month working as a seamstress,’ says Thy. ‘Now on my salary, I can afford to send all my children to school.’
Thy’s husband was also a soldier. When he was drafted, he left Thy and the children at their home in Kompong Chhanang, a small town on the banks of the peaceful Tonle Sap river in central Cambodia. ‘When the war ended, he did not come home,’ she says with downcast eyes.
Like many other Cambodian women, Thy found herself the only breadwinner in the family. ‘I left the children with my sister and came to Battambang looking for news of my husband. I did not find him, but I heard that he had taken a new wife.’
The Cambodian language has no word for ‘divorced’. The term ‘widow’ is used in reference to any married woman who no longer has a husband. So when Thy heard that MAG was looking for widows she applied. ‘I took the job because it’s good money, but I’m happy to work in the field and to help demine my country,’ she says.
A whistle announces it is time for lunch at M1871. The silent concentration of the working hours is broken as jokes and gossip are exchanged over rice and fish.
Touch Sothearith sits quietly under the blue canopy of MAG team Bravo 7’s rest area. She wears the same uniform as everyone else, except for a white arm patch with a red cross in the middle. Originally from the capital Phnom Penh, she moved to a small village on Route 10 in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge leadership imposed its genocidal vision of an agrarian Utopia and forced the urban population to the countryside. Her husband, a soldier, was killed by a mine in the battlefield, leaving her to raise two young children.
At the time Sothearith was working as a nurse at Battambang’s civilian hospital, making 40,000 riel (about $16) per month. ‘I saw a lot of people hurt by landmines, but not many children – they usually die before reaching the hospital. I feared landmines 100 per cent,’ she says. ‘Even after going through training at MAG, I can cut my fear only by 50 per cent.’
Today Sothearith earns the basic $170 salary plus $10 a month for her duties as a medic. Each MAG team has at least one deminer certified in first aid and qualified to provide assistance to mine victims.
‘In January, one deminer lost his sight and two fingers in an accident,’ she recalls. Since then two deminers, both women from the injured person’s team, have quit. Sothearith has no immediate plans to leave her job. With two teenage children she needs the money. ‘But if I could find another job that paid as well, I would take it.’ In the meantime she takes pride in her work. ‘If I could get a plot of land demined by MAG, I would not be afraid of finding any mines,’ she says confidently.
‘People don’t till the land where we are working, but will often move in overnight as soon as we are finished,’ says Ridoutt, pointing at a small cluster of thatched houses on the side of the road.
Clearly visible all around are hundreds of small red signs with a white skull and crossbones. Sadly, these warning signs are often ignored by local people, who venture into these areas pushed by the economic realities of life as impoverished farmers. Children collecting wood or herding animals often pay the price. That sad cost will continue to drain Cambodian lives and livelihoods for years to come, threatening to destroy the small gains of the deminers and their modest tools.
Claudia Rizzi is a print and television freelance journalist who has been based in Phnom Penh since 1995.
Since this piece was written Cambodia’s fragile coalition government has fallen apart and a coup d’état has established Hun Sen in power. There are reports that new mines are being laid in the Battambang region where these de-miners were working.
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997
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