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Introduction

Living With Landmines was originally supposed to be a documentary film, but unfortunately, funding never became available. In early 2005, I was able to secure enough funding from the Rotary Club of Quinte-Sunrise and my alma mater – Loyalist College in Belleville Ontario – to travel to Cambodia for two weeks in March 2005 to write an investigative story and do a photo essay about landmine survivors and aid workers in that country. Please click here to see some of my photographs:
http://www.pbase.com/peterdudley/cambodia.


Living With Landmines

By Peter Dudley

 

Published in The Pioneer, Oct. 29, 2005

   Twenty kilometres outside the city of Pursat, Cambodia and off the two-lane highway is a place that does not show up on Fodor's list of must-sees. A three-hour drive northwest of the capital of Phnom Penh, the small farming community of Svay Chhrum is much like other small villages in Cambodia. The dirt road into the village is rust red and full of potholes. It has not rained in months and in the 39c heat, the earth is cracked and split open. Cattle cross the road at will, oblivious to oncoming traffic.

  There was a time when neither human nor beast could walk freely here. Landmines dictated movement. Finally, in 2002, the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) came and demined the village. The mines may be gone but the consequences remain.

  Under the thatched roof of a large open-air hut, a group of villagers converses with each other and the owner of the property, Seng Sopheap. The 37-year-old divorced mother of one sits behind her sewing machine as if holding court. When she smiles, the whole village smiles with her.

  When she talks about her landmine accident, she closes her eyes and squeezes the fabric tightly in her hands. At the age of 19, Ms. Sopheap was cutting long grass to make a roof for her family's house. She had been in the area before without incident. There were no signs warning her of the danger. She took one wrong step and her life changed in an instant. Like other victims of mine blasts, she has no recollection of the actual explosion. She woke up in the hospital, looked down, and was horrified at what she saw. She spent four months in the hospital.

 When she was well enough to leave, she went back to the village to live with her parents. She was the first person from her village to become a landmine victim.

  In 1993 she married a man who had just returned from a refugee camp in Thailand. The marriage lasted only two years, but produced a son, Seng Phirom, now 12.

  In 1996, 10 years after her accident, she spent eight months at a vocational school in Pursat, run by the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society (CWARS). That was a turning point for her.

  "It was really good," she said. "It was a good time at the centre. I liked the companionship. There were lots of amputees there. I didn't feel alone."

  When she opened her shop after graduating, she did not have a client for two months. Now she has three or four clients each day. She is self-supporting and owns the land she works on. Her goals are to replace the grass and bamboo hut with a brick one and to make sure her son gets a good education.

  Because doctors were not able to save her knee, she cannot comfortably use her prosthetic. She finds it too awkward and heavy. Instead, she uses crutches provided free of charge by Handicap International. When she goes into town to do her shopping or buy fabric, she simply gets on the back of a motorcycle taxi, crutches and all.

  Like other landmine survivors, Ms. Sopheap works seven days a week. In a developing country with no safety net, you do what you have to do to put food on the table.

  Chhit Luch, 41, also knows this well. The married father of four repairs bicycles on the side of the road outside of Kampong Thom. Back in 1993 when he was in the army, Mr. Luch stepped on a mine and ended up losing both his legs above the knee. When he returned to his village, life was not easy. He stayed at home for nine years helping to raise his children while his wife Som Nang planted rice.

  "I did not get a lot of respect," Mr. Luch said. "People looked down on me. Life was very hard for us. When CWARS asked me if I wanted to go to the centre in Kampong Thom, I was not skeptical at all. I wanted to go," he said.

  Mr. Luch spent three months studying bicycle repair and maintenance. After he graduated in 2002, he opened a shop - nothing more than a wooden hut at the side of the road in front of his village. He had clients right away. Previously, villagers had to travel three kilometres to get their bikes fixed.

  It is a difficult life. He works seven days a week on the ground covered in grease and oil. His family comes to visit him during the day, but at night when they return to the house to sleep, Luch stays in this workshop. He is afraid to lose his tools to thieves in the middle of the night.

  Incredibly, like many other landmine survivors, Mr. Luch and Ms. Sopheap know nothing about the Mine Ban Treaty. Whatever agreement was signed in Ottawa in 1997 seems to have little affect on their day-to-day lives now.

  The human cost of mines is hard to fathom. Landmine Monitor reports that in the five years since the Treaty became law, 42,500 landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) casualties from 75 countries have been documented. Survivors face horrific physical, psychological and economic hardship.

  No one knows the human cost better than Dr. David Aston, the founder and executive director of CWARS.

  Mr. Aston, 73, established the first vocational school for landmine survivors in Pursat, Cambodia in 1994. He had previously spent time working with landmine survivors in a prosthetics clinic at the Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh in 1991-92.

  When asked why he chose to stay in war-ravaged Cambodia and help landmine survivors - people most of the developed world had never heard of – Mr. Aston said matter-of-factly: "How could I leave?"

  Indeed, Mr. Aston has spent much of his adult life doing humanitarian work. He studied nursing in his native United Kingdom before immigrating to Canada in 1955, where he worked with First Nations people for several years in Western Canada and the North.

  Among his accomplishments, Mr. Aston delivered more than 30 babies while working as a nurse in Canada.

  After a horseback riding accident, Mr. Aston went to see a chiropractor. That visit led to a career change. He studied for five years in the United States and worked as a chiropractor in that country for some time before returning to Alberta, where he established a practice in Didsbury. He eventually got married and had children. Another accident, this time skiing, left him with a broken femur, which never healed properly. He ended up giving up his practice and returned to nursing and public health administration. Mr. Aston worked in Angola, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan prior to coming to Cambodia.

  The road to Pursat is paved now, and the CWARS vocational school is only three hours northwest of Phnom Penh. Mr. Aston recalls that it once took nine hours to travel the distance, a trip that had to be made during daylight hours with an armed escort. Khmer Rouge holdouts were known to ambush lone cars along the route.

  The school buildings - former Khmer Rouge barracks - were donated by the Ministry of Social Affairs. However the buildings were initially in poor repair, dilapidated and termite infested. Mr. Aston could not open the facility to students until reparations were carried out. With financial support from the Cambodian community in Calgary, where Mr. Aston lived for several years, the Canada-Cambodia Development Fund, the Government of Ontario and the Canadian Embassy in Phnom Penh, CWARS was able to open its doors in 1995.

  "We had 39 men and four women students in the first course," Mr. Aston recalls. "The training courses consisted of bicycle repair, small appliance repair, sewing and tailoring. Not everyone completed the course due to psychological problems due to their amputations, lack of education or alcoholism."

  Landmine survivors, many who were living in squalor and battling depression, started coming to CWARS vocational centre looking for a second chance and a better future. One reason for the vocational centre's success is the fact that everything is provided for students: tuition, room and board, training and tools to start a business with. All these costs are covered by donors, who include the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Kadoorie Charitable Foundation, Hong Kong, Terre des Hommes, Germany and the Netherlands.

  CWARS now has 170 employees - 40 per cent are women and 30 per cent are landmine survivors. Aston is the only ex-patriate on the payroll.

  According to Landmine Monitor, there may be as many as 300,000 landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) survivors in the world. Every one of them has a compelling story to tell.

  Mine action is a term that encompasses many activities: surveying, mapping, mine risk education, clearance, stockpile destruction and perhaps most importantly, victim assistance.

  Helping landmine survivors and others who are disabled literally get back on their feet is what Veterans International Cambodia (VIC) does. The program was initiated by the American NGO Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) in 1991. Since then, 13,000 people have been through their doors at the Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. More than 50 per cent are landmine survivors.

  Hang Channarith, 42, is the Country Director of VIC. He is responsible for Kien Khleang and the other two clinics operated by VIC. Cheerful, knowledgeable, bilingual and committed, Rith, as he is called, is happy to take people on tours of Kien Khleang. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Rith has worked for VIC for almost 10 years. Like CWARS, VIC trains as many locals as possible. This reduces costs and provides good employment opportunities for Cambodians who want to work in the centre.

  "We see about six patients a day for casting and about another 10 for check-ups. Some come in to have their prosthetic adjusted. It's not comfortable or whatever," said Rith.

  Many return every two years for replacement prosthetics, which are often made by employees who are landmine survivors themselves.

  Prak Cheat, 28, a slight young man with short dark hair and dark eyes, stares at his stump as the medical staff examine it. He is waiting for his second prosthetic.

  Mr. Cheat was working as a labourer on a farm near the Thai border in 2003. One day while clearing land, he stepped on a mine and blew his left leg off below the knee. He spent a month in a hospital in Thailand, and another month in a hospital in the Cambodian city of Battambang doing rehabilitation, before he finally he ended up at VIC in Phnom Penh.

  Despite his situation, Mr. Cheat holds no grudges. "I blame myself," he says stoically. "I should not have stepped on that mine."  Mr. Cheat was able to get trained to use a sewing machine and found employment in a souvenir shop in Phnom Penh.  Signing the Mine Ban Treaty was an important step for Cambodia, but the problem does not go away with the stroke of a pen.

  "It's a bit of a stretch to say the decrease in mine victims is just because of the Treaty," said Larrie Warren, from Vietnam Veterans of America. "In Cambodia for instance, I think it's safe to say that for the last five years there has not been any significant laying of mines. Combine that with the fact that there have been clearance activities going on all of these years, albeit very slow. The biggest issue of course is the fact that these devices (prosthetics) do have to be replaced every couple of years and the population of landmine victims out there (is fairly young)," said Mr. Warren.

  Paul Hannon is executive director of Mines Action Canada, an Ottawa-based NGO tasked with making sure Canada fulfills its Treaty obligations, as well as the organization that is taking the lead in writing the 2005 Landmine Monitor.  Mr. Hannon is very supportive of the Treaty.

  "I think it's been one of the unprecedented successes in the last several decades in terms of international activities. It's often cited as one of the best if not the best example of multilateralism today and I would concur with that. I think we've made tremendous strides. We have an awful long way to go. This is a global crisis and global crises don't go away very quickly," said Mr. Hannon.

  Mr. Hannon argues that not enough is being done for victim assistance.

  "It's the toughest part in and of the Treaty because survivors are going to stay around for a long time, " said Mr. Hannon.

  "If they can't work the land then their family gets poor, everybody gets malnourished or poorly nourished and it's just a never-ending cycle. We've got an awful lot of work left in victim assistance," said Mr. Hannon.

  "Someone has let them down," said Tom Haythornthwaite, 42, a Canadian geographer who spent 10 months in Afghanistan working on the Landmine Impact Survey.

  "Victim assistance is one element of mine action, and it is one thing that signatories to the Treaty must commit to," said Mr. Haythornthwaite.

  There are other problems with the Treaty, according to Dennis Barlow, director of the Mine Action Information Centre at James Madison University in Virginia.

  "There are a lot of gaps in the Treaty," said Mr. Barlow. "It allows for anti-handling devices around anti-vehicle landmines to keep people from digging up anti-vehicle mines. These handling devices amount to an anti-personnel landmine. So if you put an anti-personnel landmine within close proximity to an anti-vehicle mine, it's not considered to be an anti-personnel landmine," said Mr. Barlow.

  "The other problem is a lot of people using landmines nowadays are not nations," said Mr. Barlow. "They are non-state actors, factional leaders, terrorists and so forth. Non-state actors are a tough nut to crack," said Mr. Barlow.

  Despite his concerns, Mr. Barlow is convinced progress is being made.

  "Still, I think is has been worthwhile. It has caused a chill on the manufacture of landmines, which by itself would have been a major success. It has caused a stigma to be attached to organizations who use landmines, and that's a great plus," said Mr. Barlow.

  Canada, as host of the 1997 landmine conference, was the first country to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. It was ratified into law in March 1999.  

  Still, others feel Canada could be doing more, especially when it comes to foreign aid.

  "What do we do with foreign aid?" asks federal Progressive Conservative defence critic Gordon O'Connor. "We disperse it to so many countries that it doesn't amount to a hill of beans."

  "When Bono said: 'The world needs more Canada' he was right," said Richard Clarke of Rotarians for Mine Action. "But we need to do more than just talk. Canada made a commitment a long time ago to put 0.7 per cent of GDP towards foreign aid. We are nowhere near that," said Mr. Clarke.

  Canada currently devotes less than 0.3 per cent of GDP to foreign aid each year.

  Canada is one of 147 countries that have signed and ratified the Treaty. This constitutes 75 per cent of the world's nations.

  Still, there is a long way to go.

  Forty countries have not signed the Treaty and they continue to stockpile an estimated 185 million anti-personnel landmines, according to Landmine Monitor.

Getting these countries to sign the Treaty is one of the major challenges the International Campaign to Ban Landmines has.  

  Signing a treaty to get rid of landmines is one thing. Finding landmines is quite another.

  "I get called about once a month by people who have invented a new way to lift mines more efficiently and unfortunately when you say, 'How does it work in a forest?' they say 'It does not work in a forest, we need an open field,'" said retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie. "That's the frustrating part; one solution is not going to fix all. It ends up being very manpower intensive, which, if nothing else, ends up providing some really good employment for people in countries like Cambodia, but that's a sort of a sick way to provide employment," said Mr. Mackenzie.

  After Canada signed the Treaty, one of the first projects funded by the Canadian Landmine Fund was the Canadian Centre for Mine Action Technologies (CCMAT). Located in Suffield, Alberta, engineers develop and test a wide range of landmine detection and neutralization equipment for humanitarian demining.

  "The biggest part of my job is the testing and evaluation of mechanical systems, or simply put - machines that might get rid of landmines," said Geoff Coley, 40, a landmine neutralization engineer with CCMAT. "What we do is run them through a whole set of tests to see if they do what they are supposed to do. That job may be just cutting vegetation, getting it out of the way so the deminers can do their job, or it may be the case of a machine that chews up and detonates mines. We look at things like the serviceability of the machine. Has it been set up in such a way that when you do need to service the thing, it's not a four-day affair to change the air cleaner?" said Mr. Coley.

  Dr. John McFee, 54 is a defence scientist at CCMAT who works on landmine detection.

  "We developed a multi-sensor vehicle system that was deployed by the Canadian Forces on their last rotation in Afghanistan. Having said that, it works on roads. It is intended for peacekeeping. It is not applicable in a number of areas where you would be doing humanitarian demining," said Mr. McFee.

  There are other mine-detection methods employed as well, such as the use of dogs to sniff out the explosive content in mines. The Nova Scotia based NGO Canadian International Demining Corp (CIDC) has trained more than 80 dogs - mostly German Shepherds - for demining operations in Bosnia.

  "The dogs are particularly good at finding the limits of minefields - where minefields end," said David Horton, the executive director of CIDC. "It takes seven to nine months to train a dog. I would say that our success rate nowadays is about 90 per cent," said Mr. Horton. "We use dogs in combination with other methods such as manual prodding," he added.

  "The old-fashioned technologies - you're talking about a guy with a pointy stick," said Mr. Coley. "It is the gold standard. It is as effective as anything else and more effective than many other things, but it is just so darn slow and that is the main problem," said Mr. Coley.

  Down the road from CWARS vocational training school in Pursat, platoon number five of the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) is hard at work pulling landmines out of a field. The Cambodian government mined this rice-producing area back in 1985 to protect the village from Khmer Rouge attacks.

  The squawking sound of the metal detectors is everywhere. A dozen men wearing protective clothing and face shields lie on their stomachs and gently prod the barren, rock-hard earth, trying to locate the mines. It is 39 C. There is no margin for error.

  Khun Deebunay has been a deminer for 11 years. After getting out of the army he was looking for work and demining seemed like a good fit.

  "I like clearing mines," he said with a smile. "It feels good to make the land free for the people once more."

  Deebunay is married and has a child.

  "My wife has gotten used to what I do," he said. "I just have to stay focused."

  After five months CMAC destroyed 13,320 anti-personnel mines and 28 anti-tank mines. They turned the field back over to the villagers in a special ceremony in May.

  Given the fact that 45 per cent of Cambodian villages still have a landmine problem, according to Heng Ratana, deputy director-general of CMAC, Deebunay and other deminers are not likely to be unemployed anytime soon.

  Perhaps the biggest problem right now is maintaining momentum.

  For many NGOs, donor fatigue is a major concern. And there are a host of other worthwhile causes to spend money on. It is important to put the landmine problem in perspective. According to the World Health Organization, more than one million people die of malaria each year.

  Another problem is simply visibility. First world countries don't have a landmine problem to worry about.

  "One of the worst legacies of the 20th Century was littering the world with landmines," said Richard Clarke. "Those of us of the 20 th Century and still around in the 21st Century have a responsibility to make the world safe to walk on again. That is our challenge," said Mr. Clarke.

 

peterdudley @ sympatico.ca.

 

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