What lies beneath

PHNOM PENH — Nuon Sao has laid 11,000 mines across Cambodia.

The 44-year-old, who now works for a non-profit radio station in Phnom Penh, fought for 13 years with the now-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) during the civil war that followed the fall of the communist Khmer Rouge in 1979.

But when the United Nations took control of Cambodia in 1992 to enforce a shaky peace accord, Nuon Sao defected to its demining unit and began unstitching what he had made. Thousands of other soldiers eventually joined him.

Today, this same ragtag group of militiamen still removes most of the explosives throughout the country. Since 1992, almost 1 million mines have been cleared from about 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of land. Three non-governmental organizations and Cambodia’s military divide up the work, which is administered by an oversight group funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). They estimate that less than 700 square kilometers of mined land remains in Cambodia.

Despite the makeshift start, the U.N. is impressed with the pace of Cambodian demining. In an April speech on the achievement of Cambodia’s U.N. Millennium Development Goals, Cambodia is “now regarded as a world leader in demining," said Douglas Broderick, the country's U.N. resident coordinator.

“Over the past decade, Cambodia has made a remarkable transition from infamously being one of the most mine-affected countries in the world to becoming one of the most innovative countries in addressing the problem,” UNDP Cambodia mine action project manager Melissa Sabatier told GlobalPost.

This unique expertise is now being exported overseas.

In 2007, Prime Minister Hun Sen allowed the U.N. to send 135 Cambodian troops to clear mines in southern Sudan. For three years, Cambodia has maintained troops there on a rotating schedule, with another company set to deploy in June. Of five participating countries, Cambodia has cleared the most mines — more than 2,000 — and is highest rated by the U.N. in terms of both productivity and safety, said Ker Savoeun, director of the military’s peacekeeping division and a former CPP fighter.

In January, the military trained another 400 troops for emergency peacekeeping and demining missions. With 45 days notice, the U.N. can send them anywhere in the world. Sometime this year, the U.N. will also send 20-soldier platoons to both Chad and the Central African Republic to provide airport security. These missions boost Cambodia’s reputation and soldiers’ wallets. While the average troop earns less than $400 annually, the U.N. pays its peacekeepers and deminers $1,000 per month.

Demining expertise proved even more lucrative for Srey Sangha, a former KPNLF member and the chief surveyor for Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the largest clearance NGO in Cambodia. In May 2007, a Swedish electricity company hired him to identify mined areas in southern Angola where it planned to build a power line. While he earns $800 per month as a department head at CMAC, he was paid $32,000 for four months’ work in Angola.

Along with Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia are considered the most heavily mined countries in the world. But the demining that Srey Sangha says he encountered in Angola was amateur compared to the work in his home country. Not only did Angola lack modern equipment, the maps he was given hadn’t been updated since 1880.

In CMAC’s clearance fields in Cambodia’s northwest, workers use a mixture of long-tested and high-tech methods. Up to 90 percent of demining is still carried out by individuals equipped with handheld metal detectors and prods, said Pring Panharith, the director of the organization’s Battambang unit and a former Khmer Rouge member. Pairs work in meter-wide rows divided by red yarn. They scan the land and if it’s clear, they unravel the spools 8 centimeters and scan again. If they find a mine, they either diffuse it or blow it up. This process is slow and tedious, but cheap.

In 2000, CMAC began using dogs to speed up its work. It now has the second-largest canine demining program in the world, after Bosnia, with 56 animals sniffing for TNT remnants, Pring Panharith said. For forested terrain and areas with an abundance of anti-tank mines, CMAC uses enormous, Japanese-made machines that dwarf most heavy construction equipment. The swing-type deminer, made by Hitachi, was created and tested in Cambodia.

CMAC is also training its staff to use the Handheld Standoff Mine Detection System, a state-of-the-art device that identifies whether or not a piece of metal under the ground is hollow. Deminers find millions of metal scraps that they must treat as potential explosives. Identifying the harmless fragments will speed up the clearance process immeasurably, said Heng Ratana, the CMAC director-general.

Despite advances, land mines remain a deadly problem in Cambodia. Though the number of mine-related injuries and deaths dropped from 858 in 2000 to 266 in 2008, the latter figure is still unacceptable, Heng Ratana said. The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention requires Cambodia to eradicate land mines completely by Dec. 31. Within the next few weeks, the government will request to extend the deadline to 2020.

Though a mine-free Cambodia remains distant, individual success stories are more common than ever.

Near a minefield outside Battambang where dogs named Happy and Peanut sniffed for bombs recently, Cheng Pek, 56, sat with his wife outside their bamboo hut feeding chickens. They returned from the Thai border in 1993 when the government offered refugees free plots of mine-filled land. Living in fear, they subsisted on vegetables grown on a half-hectare plot. CMAC cleared their land late last year, uncovering a 5-square-meter stockpile of explosives. This season, the couple will grow corn, mango, tapioca, and coconut across 3 hectares.

“If this land was not cleared by CMAC, we could not grow anything,” Cheng Pek said. “The mines would still be here in a thousand years.”

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