Tong Try remembers how, in the first years of his life, his father would polish his sky-blue moped out front of their flat in Phnom Penh. Now in his 50s, he can still hear the satisfying purr of the moped when idling, and taste the balut duck eggs his father would bring back from the market.
That happy memory is from before more than 30 years of violence in Cambodia—civil war, foreign bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, and ongoing conflict from 1979-1998, when warring factions laid an estimated 4 million to 6 million landmines around the country.
Over a million mines have been cleared by the government, and many others have exploded or been cleared unofficially. But millions more remain.
Mr. Tong, now with the Mine Action Unit of UNDP Cambodia, has dedicated his entire career as an interpreter and planner to helping free his country of mines and unexploded bombs, grenades and other so-called “explosive remnants of war.” Such explosives have maimed or killed some 64,000 Cambodians, and have turned farming or going to school in certain areas into a mortal risk.
If things go right, Mr. Tong will live to see the day when the great work is done.
THE PLATOON COMMANDER
“In the beginning, I was scared,” says Yan Sokhom, commander of demining platoon #137 of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. He had completed training in how to locate mines and then how to “neutralize” or defuse them. But training is one thing, and holding an unexploded mine in your hands is quite another.
In the 25 years since he started, Mr. Yan has neutralized about 1,000 mines.
In early 2017, platoon #137 is in Peam Ta village in the country’s northwest, called there after several families reported finding mines.
Peam Ta is in the so-called K-5 mine belt, which runs the entire 750 kilometres along the border with Thailand, and which some say is the most heavily mined area in the world.
There is no exact map of all the minefields in Cambodia. “Locating the mines is all based on local knowledge,” says Mr. Yan. “Farmers may discover mines when ploughing. Or sometimes the elders know where the danger zones are.”
Platoon #137 starts the day by singing the national anthem and checking their equipment. They consult a map of the area, and in teams they walk slowly along a grid that has been charted out, cutting vegetation and passing their mine detectors back and forth.
When a detector locates a signal, they’ll use a long prod to investigate. It’s a tense moment—this is when most accidents happen in demining. If it is a mine, they’ll call in a specialist to dig around it and carry it over to an area designated for neutralizing the device.
There are anti-tank mines and anti-personnel mines, and different types of each, including ones that operate with a tripwire, and some that explode into fragments and can injure and kill more people in a wider radius.
While in Peam Ta, the platoon found 11 mines and 118 other explosive remnants of war. That was in just one minefield in the village—32 more remained. Multiply that by the many villages left to go nationwide, and the immensity and importance of the task become clearer.
The legacy of mining is so widespread as to leave almost no Cambodian family untouched, at least indirectly. Ruon Sreyla is the only woman in the platoon. Her first job was in her home village, where she had known people who’d lost their legs to landmines.
“The first mine I found, it was so scary that it made me want to quit,” she says. But she had the inspiration of women co-workers, as well as family members who were deminers.
“If they can do it,” she told herself, “so can I.”
With the exception of some time she took off to raise her daughters, Ms. Ruon has been demining since 2007, when she was 18 years old. Now she’s lost count of the number of mines she has found. Like many other deminers, she says she does this work to help her country and support her family. The job pays US$272 per month.
It’s hard to escape the sense of danger, even while sleeping.
“Just last night I had a dream that a mine exploded and injured my face and right arm”, she says.
THE FORMER SOLDIER
“I’ve lived a hard and bitter life,” says Hang Roeung, aged 63. It’s not the present that bothers him. Life in Peam Ta village is pleasant enough, and he’s glad the platoon is removing mines.
It’s the past that sticks with him. Mr. Hang was a soldier in the Khmer Rouge army from 1972 to 1998, nearly its entire lifespan. “I fought to protect the Khmer people and our national identity against Vietnamese invasion,” he explains.
During those years, he laid many mines. He is unfazed by the thought that some of them might have hurt or killed people, maybe even children.
“I don’t regret being in the Khmer Rouge,” he says.
His compatriots have never displayed any anger towards him for being a part of the genocidal regime, he says.
A few of his neighbours seem to back up that claim. “We’re all Khmer,” they say. With so many former Khmer Rouge soldiers in these parts, you couldn’t live in peace if you didn’t accept them. But it goes deeper than just a practical level.
“This is a Buddhist country,” says Mr. Tong of UNDP, “and Buddhism teaches compassion. In a way, that man is a victim himself.” Punishment, he says, might only increase the suffering in the world. Seen in this light, demining becomes a matter not only of public safety but also of national reconciliation.
THE FARMING FAMILY
A local married couple, Chan Dom and Prak Thavy, both in their 50s, came to Peam Ta village in 2002.
“When Pol Pot was in power, it was scary,” Ms. Prak recalls. “Sometimes the Khmer Rouge would reach our home village, and there was shooting.” The incursions and the fear tapered off in the years after Pol Pot was deposed, but the danger of landmines has remained. Since marrying in 1982, the couple has made their living by farming the land and raising cows. Their fondest wish is for all their children to be educated.
At home, the family relaxes together in the shade below the house. The mother tells a long folk tale about an Old Man Mao who lived by the forest and tricked various animals—and how, in turn, the monkey got a red mouth or the elephant got a hole on the top of his head.
With each turn in the story, and each new bit of cunning by Old Man Mao, the family enjoys a carefree laugh. And it’s possible, in the abandon of that laughter, to imagine a time when they and other Cambodian families will no longer be encumbered by the threat of mines.
Cambodia is one of 161 countries that are party to the Mine Ban Treaty. The parties redoubled their efforts in 2014 and committed to free the world of mines by the year 2025.
That’s an ambitious goal for Cambodia, which has cleared only a fraction of its mines.
But the pace of demining is accelerating. The government has become more systematic in its approach. There are more deminers now than before, with 3,200 working nationwide. And signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty share innovations such as the use of trained rats.
“The day when Cambodia can declare itself mine-free will be a great day, a historic day,” says Mr. Tong. “We’ll eat and drink. We’ll sing. People around the world will share in our happiness.”
And if he makes it to that day, maybe Mr. Tong will even have balut duck eggs to celebrate, just like his father would bring home in the days before the first mines were laid here.