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Yi Am planted mines as a soldier and then lost much of a leg when he stepped on one. Now, he supports his family by making farmers’ fields safe again, a job he says he wants to do ‘forever.’ (samjam For The Globe and Mail)
Yi Am planted mines as a soldier and then lost much of a leg when he stepped on one. Now, he supports his family by making farmers’ fields safe again, a job he says he wants to do ‘forever.’ (samjam For The Globe and Mail)

Cambodia

Deminers hard at work in Cambodia – at least until the money runs out Add to ...

According to the NGO coalition Mines Action Canada (MAC), funding last year will probably end up being even lower, and now that the Canadian International Development Agency plans to end all bilateral aid to mine-affected states such as Zimbabwe and Niger, as well as Cambodia, programs in these countries are expected to be particularly hard-hit.

“We are victims of our own success,” says Paul Hannon, MAC’s executive director. “The farther we get away from the excitement of December, 1997, when the treaty was signed here in Ottawa, the harder it is to convince people to continue to support this.”

The treaty was signed a year after Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy had challenged the world to act. “The treaty was a demonstration that you could introduce a different set of norms or standards internationally, predicated on the idea that there is a thing called human security,” the former foreign affairs minister now says.

Working in tandem with non-governmental agencies, small and medium-sized states agreed to ban the use, stockpiling and trade of anti-personnel mines.

“A lot of the larger powers were not really content with the idea that we would take the kind of initiative that we had,” Mr. Axworthy recalls.

By the end of last year, 80 per cent of the world’s countries had signed the treaty, about $5-billion spent on clearance, more than 46 million stockpiled mines destroyed and the overall use of anti-personnel mines drastically reduced.

Now even nations that refuse to sign the ban rarely use mines, says Steve Goose, the Human Rights Watch official who serves as the ICBL’s chief spokesman. “When the treaty came about … mines were going into the ground much faster than they were coming out, and we’ve totally reversed that.”

But momentum is waning even though much work remains to be done. Not only do mines still kill and maim thousands every year, they can freeze a society in its tracks, MAG’s Mr. Moir says.

“People need to be fundamentally aware of the warped nature of land-mine contamination,” he explains. “It costs around a dollar to make a land mine, and then that mine can sit in the ground for, in Cambodia’s case, up to 30 years. It can stifle development from the village level right up to the national level.”

The members of MAT 7, the demining team in Sek Sak, are former farmers, market vendors and soldiers, both government and Khmer Rouge. “We have good co-operation,” the team’s supervisor says, even though many once exchanged fire along the Cambodian-Thai border.

One of Cambodia’s few female deminers, Man Malis, 41, sold T-shirts in a market before joining MAG in 1996. “Traditions in Cambodia are changing,” she says. “My colleagues treat me as an equal.”

The work is painstaking and slow. Since arriving in June, the team has focused on one 14-hectare plot. So far, it has found 43 mines plus several unexploded mortars and grenades. At least eight other minefields in Sek Sak also need to be cleared.

Sweating in their helmets and armour, the deminers methodically sweep the earth with their Swedish metal detectors. Every beep is marked with a plastic chip. In Cambodia, demining is primarily a manual affair – a process virtually unchanged since the Second World War.

When their rows are finished, the deminers dig. They work gently with hand-forged tools: rakes, shovels, and knives.

“Excavation,” says Keo Yong, 48, an ex-soldier and 18-year MAG veteran, “is the most challenging part of the job.”

Some models, like the Soviet-made PMN, are incredibly sensitive. Occasionally, mines are found planted on their sides, waiting to be triggered by a deminer’s shovel. If the area is a former battlefield, clearing a few square metres can take hours, the soil littered with relics of war: spent casings and fragments of mortars, rockets and bombs. At night, children raid the team’s camp for scrap metal.

At first glance, the risks hardly seem worth the $240 they take home each month. The deminers have seen colleagues blinded, maimed and killed, but none dwell on the danger. Their salaries, after all, are three times the country’s per capita gross domestic product – but perhaps the real rewards are less tangible.

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