In early December, media from Malaysia were invited by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Cambodia and record the changes that have taken place since the Ottawa Treaty, prohibiting landmine usage, was signed two decades ago.
We travelled overland from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and most populous city, located on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong River, to Battambang, capital city of the leading rice-producing province in northwestern Cambodia, and finally on to tourist haven, Siem Reap, where the famous Angkor temples stand majestically.
It was a trip filled with places and people that will leave lasting memories. And while it began on a chilling note at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which chronicles Cambodia’s dark past in gruesome photos, skulls and implements of torture, the work of the ICRC revolves around overcoming odds and of the people who work tirelessly for change.
Still suffering hardships decades after its own civil war, Cambodia is littered with remnants of destruction and despair. Even though a tourist hotspot in South-East Asia, it is plagued by socio-political problems such as poverty and corruption.
Yet, everywhere you venture here, you will notice its people are full of hope and courage, battling challenges with an unfathomable gratitude for the peace that now prevails in the country, and the relief that continues to pour into their lives.
In Phnom Penh, ICRC’s 38-year-old Roman Paramonov, whose resume includes working in Afghanistan and Iraq, is head of mission, continuing to lead the team in upholding the formidable relationship ICRC has built with the Cambodian people and its government over many years.
He said: “We are one of the few organisations that still enjoys acceptance and support of the authorities because of our reputation. People still remember us and what was done in the past (since 1975). Despite many changes, we have always provided our assistance to victims, always keeping to the principles of impartiality and neutrality.”
Paramonov explained that one of the ICRC’s key goals in Cambodia is physical rehabilitation and enabling people with disabilities, mainly landmine victims whose lives continue to be stigmatised and scarred by the wars which have long ended. He estimated there are around 650,000 people here living with disabilities.
“In a country with 15 million, that’s a very big number,” he said, but quickly added that he doesn’t like talking in numbers as they never truly represent the enormity of suffering and broken lives.
Cambodia has come a long way, he said. “It now has rapid economic growth, a stable GDP and many tourists who come here have a completely different picture of the country and its hardships.”
In truth, Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Center (C-Mac, pronounced Sea-Mac) estimates there are still four to six million mines that remain buried.
There is also a host of other kinds of unexploded ordnance (UXOs), left over from the bombs dropped on Cambodia by the United States in the late 1960s and early 70s, during the Vietnam War.
Paramonov said: “These weapons, ammunition and mines have a long lasting effect. Even now, there are landmine victims registered annually.
“The number has thankfully decreased significantly, and is below 100 victims a year.
“However, there is still a need here for our service. We provide approximately half of the needs in physical rehabilitation nationwide.”
Paramonov explained that financially, ICRC’s biggest project is physical rehabilitation costing the organisation 1mil Swiss francs (RM4.1mil) a year.
It runs two rehabilitation centres, one in Battambang, and another in Kampong Speu, catering to 11,500 clients.
“ICRC hopes to build a sustainable structure that will not fall when the time comes for us to leave.
“In Cambodia, this involves vocational training, support of micro economic initiatives with monetary grants, as well as a social inclusion programme through sport for victims of war, as well as people with disabilities.”