Towering sugar palms sway in the breeze as lean dogs scamper through overgrown fields, and voices can be heard coming from the thatched-roof houses. Located in the lush green countryside of western Cambodia an hour’s drive from the Thai border, the village of Sek Sak has spent the past 15 years trying to get back to normal. Forced to leave during their country’s bitter civil war, its people began to return after most of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1998. They carried little with them. If they were to eat, they had to farm.
Marking off fields was a simple, if brutal, process: Work back from the road until someone steps on a mine. Anything beyond that was declared too dangerous, leaving Sek Sak with just enough to get by. It wasn’t until last June that professionals working with the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) finally arrived to finish the job.
One of the “deminers” knows all too well how dangerous a land mine can be. Now 47, Yi Am was a soldier in the 1980s, and planted hundreds of them.
Then he stepped on one.
“It is very difficult for amputees to find work,” says Mr. Am, who lost his left leg below the knee. For years, he struggled as a farmer, but he decided in 1995 that he could better support his family by risking his life in minefields again.
His wife wants him to stop, but he says that, as well as the money, he does it to keep others from winding up like him. “I want to do this job forever.”
The way things are going, Mr. Am may get his wish.
In December, 1997 – mere months after the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, who had championed the issue, and just before American activist Jody Williams shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) – delegates from 122 nations gathered in Ottawa to sign a remarkable agreement designed to rid the world of such weapons.
Fifteen years later, Ms. Williams announced at December’s annual meeting of Ottawa Treaty signatories that “we are closing in on a mine-free world.” And yet more than 200 million mines are still being stockpiled, with more still in the ground, rendering at least 3,000 square kilometres of territory potentially deadly.
Almost one-third of that land, an estimated 945 square kilometres, is in Cambodia, where mines and other “explosive remnants of war” (munitions that failed to detonate or were simply left behind) have killed at least 19,660 people since 1979. As many as 40,000 more have lost limbs, giving their country what is believed to be the world’s largest population of amputees per capita.
When it signed the Ottawa Treaty, Cambodia had as many as 10 million anti-personnel mines, but declared it would be mine-free by 2009. The deadline has been shifted to 2020. At the current rate of demining, however, the task will require 25 more years.
“We cannot clear and destroy them as quickly as we want,” says H.E. Chum Bun Rong, secretary-general of the government-run Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. “We need a lot of resources.”
Alistair Moir, MAG’s director in Cambodia, agrees. His agency has destroyed more than 249,000 explosives in Cambodia since 1992 (when, frustrated with United Nations inertia on the issue, a coalition of non-governmental organizations launched the ICBL), but budget constraints and “donor fatigue” have forced it to scale back.
“We’re spending a lot of time simply trying to maintain our current capacity,” Mr. Moir says. For example, the team in Sek Sak returned to work last month after being forced to sit idle for more than two weeks.
Land mines are no longer seen as the humanitarian scourge they once were, and in no other country is the growing apathy toward removing them as readily apparent as it is in one of the movement’s former leaders: Canada.
Canadians contributed $17-million toward global mine action in 2011, a 56-per-cent decrease from 2010 and the country’s lowest contribution since 2002.