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.
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.
“My mother had a land-mine accident,” Mr. Yong says. “That’s why I want to clear mines. … We make communities safer.”
Ms. Malis feels the same way: “I don’t want people I know to be injured.”
Cambodia had about 165 casualties from anti-personnel mines and other battlefield leftovers last year, which is just one-fifth the annual toll a decade ago. But greater mechanization of agriculture is causing a steady rise in incidents involving anti-vehicle mines, which are not banned by the Ottawa Treaty and since 2009 have killed more Cambodians than anti-personnel mines.
Recently, a tractor ran over such a mine not far from Sek Sak, killing six people. “Dismembered body parts were left scattered on the ground and in the branches of surrounding trees,” a local news report stated.
A hole the size of a plate has been dug into the earth, revealing the edge of an innocuous-looking plastic disc: a Soviet PMN-2 – deadly and one of the more common mines found in Cambodia.
Delicately, team supervisor Prum Sarin places a small charge below the mine. He fixes it to a cable, then retreats. Yellow pegs in the surrounding ground mark the locations of mines previously destroyed. One peg stands within centimetres of the road, and a deminer explains that, if buried deeply enough, mines can evade detection but still be lethal.
At 15, Mr. Sarin was forcefully conscripted into the Khmer Rouge’s army. He eventually deserted, but not before planting more than 1,000 anti-personnel mines. Now 46, he has cleared twice that many in his 18 years with MAG.
“In Buddhist theory, a mistake is a mistake,” he says, speaking softly in a way that suggests he has weighed these words carefully. Sighing, he adds: “I cannot make up for what I have done.”
A siren warns everyone to take cover. Mr. Sarin presses the detonator, but nothing happens. He turns it in his hands, calls for fresh batteries and presses it again. There is a crack and a plume of smoke. The concussion reverberates off a nearby cluster of low mountains.
“It’s possible to make this country mine-free,” Mr. Sarin says. “I’ll be unemployed, but at least I’ll be happy.”
Will Canada help Cambodia finish the job? “Most of the world looks at this as a great thing that Canada does, and they still look for Canadian leadership,” MAC’s Mr. Hannon says.
But he is skeptical, as is Lloyd Axworthy, even though Canada has a robust economy and Article 6 of the Ottawa Treaty states that every signatory “in a position to do so shall provide assistance.”
“It’s clearly not a priority in [the government’s] idea of what Canada should be doing,” Mr. Axworthy says. And yet, 15 years after seeing the treaty’s birth, he remains active in the campaign – and optimistic.
“Back in the parliaments in the 1990s, it was a bipartisan effort – it wasn’t a Liberal initiative,” he insists, adding: “Wouldn’t it be nice for Canada at some point to say that what we started in 1997 has now been done?”
By the numbers
Syria was the only country to use anti-personnel mines last year, although Israel, Myanmar and Libya did so so in 2011, with accusations against Yemen and Sudan unverified.
Rebels planted land mines last year in six countries: Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Yemen and Thailand.
160 states are now party to the Ottawa Treaty, with Poland declaring last month it plans to be No. 161.
35 nations have yet to sign or ratify the treaty, including the United States, China and Russia.
57 countries are heavily contaminated with mines, led by Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola.
4,286 deaths and injuries due to mines and munitions were reported around the world in 2011.
$30-million was spent on aid for the world’s 500,000 land-mine survivors in 2011, down 30 per cent from 2010.
225 million anti-personnel mines (minimum estimate) are being stored in more than 100 countries, led by China and Russia. Only 19, including Canada, have destroyed their stockpiles.
$662-million was spent on global demining in 2011. Internationals donations dropped by 3 per cent.
Sources: ICBL, the World Bank, Mines Action Canada, Handicap International
Follow us on Twitter: