Landmines in Cambodia
Words by Ben Davies. Photographs by Colin Summers.
When I entered Cambodia on 4th March 2004 I travelled straight to Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor Wat. I knew nothing about landmines. Before leaving Bangkok I looked on the internet for some information on visa requirements and transport arrangements. I found lots of stuff, including warnings about scams and hazards that the unwitting traveller might be exposed to. There were also warnings about the number of beggars on the Cambodian side of the border - mostly children and landmine victims. They were unsympathetically portrayed as merely another nuisance to be dealt with on a tough journey. I’m accustomed to having people attempt to part me from my cash, so I brushed past them with little thought for their missing limbs and pleading faces, and then got ripped off by a pickup driver.
After a day or two in Siem Reap it became clear to me that most of the beggars in the town had had an unfortunate encounter with a landmine. Most were missing a foot or a lower leg. Some had lost both legs, usually below the knee. Many were without a hand or an entire forearm. I wondered how an arm injury could have been caused by a landmine. I also wondered how many of these people were originally from the Siem Reap area, and how many had come to the town to take advantage of the many western tourists who come to visit the temples.
One evening, whilst enjoying a beer at the Temple Bar, I got chatting to an English guy named Richard. He told me how he’d been working as a volunteer at the Landmine Museum for seven months and proceeded with unbridled enthusiasm to tell me all about the museum, their work to help landmine victims and about the museum’s founder, a young Cambodian named Akira. I recalled how in my first year at university a fellow history student who’d spent many years in the Army Cadets described to me how he’d been taught to make an anti-personnel mine using a tin can, a handful of nails, some gunpowder emptied from a couple of fireworks and a battery. At the time I never thought I’d see for myself the misery and suffering that something so simple to put together and deploy could cause.
Arriving at the Landmine Museum the next afternoon I was first struck by the simplicity of the place. I’d been expecting a brick building, well-lit with exhibits neatly displayed and labeled on shelves or in cabinets. What I found was a group of three or four wooden huts, typical of rural Cambodia, the largest of which was full of piles of different types of mines, grenades, rocket shells and bombs. The walls were covered with booklets, technical information about the weapons on display, Red Cross reports on numbers of recent casualties, and paintings and anecdotes produced by Akira depicting scenes from his remarkable life.
I remained at the museum for a few hours and was shown around by Richard. (I didn’t have the chance to meet Akira, as he was out clearing mines.) I was fascinated by his technical knowledge of the weapons and equally horrified by the fact that these small simple devices had been designed by one human being with the intention of causing debilitating injury to another. I learned that most of the anti-personnel mines deployed in Cambodia are designed not to kill but to maim, and from a ruthless military point of view, that makes perfect sense. If an enemy patrol member is killed by a mine, the rest of his unit will bury him on the spot and continue with their mission. If he is severely injured but still alive, then at least two members of his unit will have to carry him back to their base. Their movement will be slow and cumbersome making them vulnerable to attack.
The most commonly deployed anti-personnel mine in Cambodia is known as the MD82B. Manufactured in Vietnam, it’s a copy of an American design, examples of which are also prolific in Cambodia. It’s made mostly from plastic, has a diameter similar to that of an average hand-basin plughole and a depth of about 5cm. It is buried with its cap level with the ground, usually covered with dust or leaves. It contains no shrapnel. When stepped upon, the ensuing blast directs itself towards the path of least resistance. A human foot offers less resistance than the packed earth beneath and around the mine. If you step on one of these mines with your toes or the ball of your foot, it will blow the forward part of your foot off. If you step on one with your heel, the force of the blast will project up your lower leg, shattering the bones, normally up to the knee. In most cases this type of injury will result in amputation at or just below the knee, assuming the victim can get to a hospital.
The landmines in Cambodia were all laid during wartime. Their targets were intended to be military and they were deployed in areas which, at the time, were under military control. However, they can remain active for up to 50 years after they are laid and remain indiscriminate as to their targets. They are seldom removed by the same army that laid them and they rarely give clues to their positions until inadvertently detonated. Armies that lay mines rarely keep a record of the number deployed or their locations.
Most of these minefields are in arable areas. When the war ended, the civilian population returned to their farms where they subsist on around US$1 a week. They have no choice but to work their potentially mine-infested land, the same land where the farmers’ children play. Children’s natural curiosity makes them particularly vulnerable as they will investigate anything they find buried in the ground. They also like to play with things they find lying around, which in Cambodia includes unexploded grenades, bombs and shells. This is how children lose their hands.
Richard told me that adults are just as likely to lose a hand or a forearm. Often, if a farmer finds a mine on his land, he might try to defuse it himself. If someone finds a bomb or shell, they can sell the explosives to miners and the casing for scrap, making as much money as might normally take them three or four months. Many people have come to grief attempting to dismantle such weapons.
Cambodia isn’t the only country with these problems. There are an estimated 3 million mines still active in the ground in Cambodia. Worldwide, there are probably more than 80 million mines in 80 different countries. They can be deployed 25 times faster than they can be cleared. Recent figures suggest that on average as many as two to three civilians are blown up in Cambodia every day. Globally, that figure works out at one every 22 minutes. One third of those are children. 80% are civilians. I was shocked to find that the figures were so high.
In 1997 the Anti-Landmine Treaty was signed in Ottawa by 141 countries. 150 countries ratified the treaty, making its terms international law. The treaty deals only with anti-personnel mines and bans their manufacture, stockpiling, distribution and deployment. Countries that failed to sign the treaty include North Korea, Iraq, Iran, China, Cuba, India, Israel and Russia. All the members of NATO signed the treaty except one - the USA.
The US military claims to be developing an alternative to conventional landmines and said they’d be ready to sign the treaty in 2006. They have since reviewed the situation and decided that they won’t sign the treaty before 2010. In the meantime, they continue to illegally make, store, sell and deploy anti-personnel landmines in a number of countries throughout the world.
In the evening, whilst walking around the Old Market area of Siem Reap, I didn’t see the annoying, dirty beggars who’d been such a nuisance before. What I saw were hard-working, honest men with families. I saw farmers who wanted to be able to work, who wanted the dignity of being able to support themselves, their wives and their children. I saw men who’d had the opportunity to lead a normal, simple life taken from them whilst they’d innocently been trying to make sure that there’d be enough food on their families’ tables.
Chances are, while you’ve been reading this, someone, somewhere, through no fault of their own, will have become just like them.
To see more photography from Colin Summers check out Colin Summers' Photography website.
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