It has been 20 years since the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines was adopted, but the legacy of these devastating weapons lives on. And so the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continues to educate and spread awareness of the long-lasting, catastrophic injuries that landmines create.
For decades prior to the Ottawa Treaty, landmines were used in huge numbers, all over the world, and many still remain undiscovered. Farmers and school children work and walk every day on land that may be scattered with these dangerous weapons of war.
In Cambodia, the Cambodia Mine Action Center (C-Mac) was created in 1992 to implement and coordinate demining efforts. Its painstaking efforts have freed hundreds of square kilometres of land from landmines and explosive remnants of war since then.
During our trip to Cambodia, we were given a glimpse into the work that C-Mac performs. All of us were nervous as it meant gearing up in safety vests with protective headgear and entering an active zone C-Mac was currently working on. We accompanied Team 07005A22 under the leadership of Eng Savy, which is now working on lands in the Traeng commune, Ratanak Mondol District, in the Battambang province.
The team, comprising 22 members, including two ladies, works on a 40,000ha plot of land mainly made up of rice fields, farms and mountains.
There are more than 800 villagers living here in four communes (among them seven who are landmine casualties, living with disabilities).
“We did a baseline survey way back in 2015, and discovered there could be numerous AP-mines here,” Eng Savy told us patiently in Khmer, rattling off names like TM46 and TM57, showing us maps and schematics of the work that had already taken place.
On the land that we were now standing, he explained that operations began in October this year and they had already uncovered two AP-mines, eight unexploded ordnances and 412 fragments of mines.
We were given a demonstration of what a mine blowing up looked and felt like. They detonated a “bomb” some 250m away from us, and it was frightful to watch. The ground shook, and smoke quickly filled the air.
“Even though the people know there are mines, they continue living and working here,” Eng Savy said. “They have no other choice. It is their home.”
With another 96,000sq m of land to go, the team hopes to complete the work here by the end of the year.
They work long, hard hours, Monday to Friday from 6.30am to 3.30pm under a scorching sun in cumbersome gear. They sometimes have to operate heavy machinery including a demining machine.
It is a tedious and lonely job, as each person is stationed 25m away from the other to ensure safety.
The open field is marked with sticks of different colours and lengths to note various degrees of safety and work progress.
As we inched in trepidation across the field, every so often a stray animal scooted across and I wondered if anything bad was about to happen. But we were kept safe by the able leader who led us in and out of the area with ease.
Eng Savy, 38, has worked with C-Mac for 19 years now since 1998. When he addressed us, he was professional and spoke with pride for his team and the job they perform.
He was only a teenager when he first joined, and said he was afraid of landmines but applied for the job anyway because he needed to earn a living.
“After the war ended, the land was full of mines,” he said, “even in schools, and in the pagodas.”
He remembers witnessing killing, tanks and many weapons where he lived about 50km away in Boeung Raing village.
“My life changed after I joined C-Mac. I now have enough money to buy my own plot of land and have a rice field. But I will continue working here until this village is clear of landmines.”
One of the things that immediately strikes you about Cambodia is that in the midst of great hardship, life… and love… goes on.
The medic in the team, 34-year-old Hon Chan Krisna, is married to 38-year-old Sun Sok Heng. They met on the job about a decade ago, got married and now have two children.
Their home is three hours away from this village and while at work here, they live in a makeshift tent, only going home on the weekends.
They share a happy camaraderie working together, being able to keep a watchful eye on each other. But most of all, they share a dedication to their job.
Sok Heng’s beautiful face was weather-beaten but her eyes lit up when she talked about what she does. “It is never boring for me because almost every day I find something in the ground. I feel excited when I make a find, because I know we are one step closer to creating a safe place for these villagers.”