Well, it wasn’t exactly a vacation. I spent the better part of last July in Cambodia as a volunteer for a British charity organization called The HALO Trust that clears landmines and other “debris of war.” It is one of the largest such groups in the world, with operations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Since its founding, they have cleared over three million explosive items, almost 6,000 tons of ammunition, and more than 30 million rounds of small arms ammunitions.
My time with HALO involved working along the Cambodia/Thailand border in a strip of land called the K5 Mine Belt, the largest minefield in Cambodia. It stretches over 700 kilometers and was built in the course of a year by 100,000 conscripts in the late 1970s on orders from the Vietnamese military in an attempt to keep the Khmer Rouge from infiltrating Cambodia from guerrilla camps in Thailand. Cambodia was wracked by violence in the late ’70s and early ’80s, from civil wars to Vietnamese invasions. All sides used mines to defend villages and roads, but due to constant shifting allegiances, minefields were created throughout the country.
Approximately half of Cambodia’s mine accidents occur along the K5, but few mine clearing resources are sent there. When I arrived, HALO had just begun the job. Since relations between Thailand and Cambodia are still strained, all cleared land on the border is given to the Cambodian government. This makes aid less likely to be directed to projects in that area, since that land will not be given to poor farmers as is the usual custom.
I flew into Siem Reap, a bustling town in northwest Cambodia, for my orientation at HALO’s headquarters. My boss was Richard Boulter, a friendly British Army vet in his late 30s. He briefed me on why the mines were there and how we were going to get them out. He then spent the next hour doing what any good project manager would do: scaring me so that when I went to a minefield I would not do something stupid like wander into uncleared areas. Then he sent me to the assistant project manager, Steve, for a technical brief. Steve showed me various mines and explosives and how they worked. He also gave me a Power Point presentation, which, as with Richard’s discussion, seemed designed to scare me out of acting stupid. You don’t need to see many photos of the effect of mines on humans before you decide to take the lectures seriously.
One of my three tasks was going on EOD call outs (EOD stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal). When a farmer or villager found a UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) like a mortar, grenade or bomb, it was our job to blow it up. For my first EOD call, we had to blow up three mortars and a PG (propelled grenade). We began by collecting the ordnances. Steve checked to see if the items were safe to move, explaining that the mortars had no fuses and the PG had not been fired, so the firing mechanism would not be aligned and therefore were safe to move. Of course, we were suited up in body armor and face masks, similar to what bomb squad technicians wear.
The UXO’s are safe when handled correctly. The problem is that local villagers frequently tamper with the explosives to sell the scrap metal and fishermen covet the explosives for their fishing. Last year, 558 Cambodians were injured in UXO accidents.
After collecting the mortars, we took them to a field where we dug a pit, using the dirt to fill sandbags to put on top of the explosives to stay safe from flying fragments. After we had placed the explosives, we put two sticks of C4 in the pit, attached an electrical fuse, and unspooled a wire to the detonator that was several hundred meters away. After making sure the area was clear, we detonated the C4, which destroyed the UXO. Not as noisy, perhaps, as most Hollywood explosions, but since the noise was not on the screen but down range from us, it brought to life Richard and Steve’s warnings about the dangers of mines.
My second task was to conduct a KAP study in every household in one village (KAP stands for Knowledge, Attitude and Practices). This allows HALO to assess the villagers’ mindsets regarding nearby mine fields. I went with a fellow volunteer, Katie, and we asked: Did they know of any mine accidents in the village since they had lived there? Did they know where the minefields were? If they worked in the minefields, how much money did they make?
This task was interesting, and vital, but closer to sociology fieldwork than mine clearance. Katie and I were assigned to Mahar Srob, a town of 126 families about a five-hour drive from Siem Reap. Language and culture were challenges, even though HALO provided us with an interpreter, Supoeung, a genial man in his late 20s who had learned English from his parents who had both been teachers. His father had also been chief of a village until he was killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Katie and I planned our approach, fearing villagers might be intimidated by a long list of questions, even with Supoeung’s help. We decided we needed to get the village chief to endorse our efforts so we explained our mission to him.
We asked him to send one member from each house to our lodgings (we were paying a local farmer for a few nights under his roof), and within minutes, there was a crowd. In fact, it had formed by the time we had walked from the chief’s house to ours, a two-minute walk, leaving us mystified as to how he had such effective communications. We were thrilled by the turnout and got to work. We started with basic questions like name, job, and how long they had lived there. Once a rapport had been established, we asked about their experiences with the mines. Of the 126 families, we were able to conduct 112 interviews. Some families had left to work in Thailand - which could only be reached by crossing the minefields.
The data analysis was the final stage of the KAP process. Katie and I made the five-hour drive back to headquarters and created graphs from the data. We found the villagers had an almost total awareness of where minefields were, as well as mine awareness education, be it from HALO or another organization. Yet over two-thirds of the villagers still entered the minefields regularly to harvest bamboo and wood, gather building materials, and even to trap game. The average pay for a day of work in those dangerous surroundings was 87 cents.
Additional facts were even more disturbing: 26 out of 126 families had suffered a mine or UXO accident. Two villagers had been killed, one of them while trying to save his brother. There was a father and daughter who had each lost a leg; the father had sent his daughter into the minefield to get a saw he left by mistake. The father would have gotten it himself, but he was crippled by an earlier mine accident. HALO has worked there since 1998 and cleared more than 2,500 mines and 1,500 items of UXO from the village, but it was only last year that they were allowed by the government to tackle the really dangerous areas that separate the village from Thailand.
My third task was to travel with two HALO workers, Patrick and Dan, to the minefields in the north and northwest parts of Cambodia. We first took a small plane to Thma Puok, some hundred miles west of Siem Reap, and then went to visit a nearby minefield. I joined Patrick, also new to HALO, in assisting Dan in quality control inspections of the minefields. I was curious to learn what this kind of inspection entailed in an environment with “quality” so irrefutably dangerous. It turned out that the inspections were partially for quality control, partially for management and communications, and partially for morale.
First, Dan would talk to the field officer about the general nature of clearance operations - “the task” in HALO-speak. Then he would monitor a few de-miners and see if they were properly equipped. On average, we visited three minefields a day. In some fields the work was a bit behind schedule and some equipment was overdue for service, but there were no safety issues and it was heartening to see that none of the jobs were hindered by major problems.
Our quality control work done, we headed back to Siem Reap to complete our paper work. This gave me the luxury of a free evening in Siem Reap, a bustling place, poor by Western standards but more prosperous than most of Cambodia. Given that the options for evening entertainment were a brothel or a bar, we elected to spend the evening at a bar with Patrick, Dan and a few of Dan’s friends from out of town. We swapped stories and insights on the past few days and chatted with a few of the “adventure tourists” that found their way there, mainly college backpackers from the UK.
During most of my time working with HALO, we were very focused on the immediate task, but in the bar, the discussion turned to the mine problem on a broader level and the elusive long-term solution. Any talk of funding included gratitude to the American government for providing roughly one-third of their budget, but it was also noted that they believe their future will depend on developing stronger support from the private sector.
Another point of frustration was the amount of corruption in Cambodia, including even some of the other mine clearance agencies. The mine problem is a source of income for the Cambodian people and government. As long as it persists, people will donate money to solve it, which provides many with a steady income. Able-bodied men can be paid to clear mines, while those of higher rank can embezzle the philanthropy of others. Some have even tried to float the theory that certain organizations intentionally do an inefficient job in order to keep the “business” alive. There were even reports of one organization keeping ghost employees on their payroll.
That said, I do not want to propagate a negative impression of Cambodia. As Dan said, “Given their situation, they are the most honest people in the world.” Though I met countless individuals in poor health and dire financial straits, nothing was ever stolen from me, no one lied to me, and no one tried to trick me. The people I met were all very nice. During one of the KAP interviews, we spoke to an old man who clearly loved receiving our attention, so we humored him and asked more questions than were necessary.
“What do you think of Americans?” Steve asked. A smile spread across the his face and he said, “I love America! I want to go there some day! They are such nice people, they help get rid of mines!” This came as a surprise, since 30 years ago Cambodians were forced from their homes with threats that the Americans were going to bomb them. Even though this was never America’s plan, the Cambodian government had lied to them.
By and large, the Cambodian people did not embrace the popular practice of using America as a scapegoat for their internal problems. The former Khmer Rouge members I saw - identified by the tattoos that covered their body - were inoffensive and friendly toward people who had been their enemies 20 years before.
A few days after I finished in Siem Reap, I flew to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to discuss my work. Over a number of meals I talked with U.S. Embassy staff and businessmen who had been involved in mine clearance. The sense is that in recent years and even months, organizations have become less corrupt, which suggests that over the next few years, the mine problem could significantly improve. But since no one can really be sure where all the mines are, or where Cambodia is going, it might be a long time before the problem is 100% fixed.
No, my summer in the minefields was not exactly a holiday, but getting to understand a different culture, maybe doing a little good at the same time, and swapping stories in a bar is a good way to start the process. The next day I decided to call home to tell my parents I had finished my fieldwork and still had all my limbs. They were quite ecstatic to hear that.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2006 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.