For a while, with the backing of Princes Diana, landmines were a celebrity cause. However, after her death, without the weight of her profile, the issue has largely disappeared from mainstream media. To say this is a shame is an understatement, because while there have been great efforts to clear mines from many countries, they remain an part of life for those unfortunate people who live in areas still afflicted by them. Landmines are the most indiscriminate of all man’s weapons, not able to tell the difference between a soldier and a child and still capable of causing injury and death even after wars are long over.
Cambodia may be the country with the biggest existing land-mine problem. Cambodia suffered through many years of war, with landmines laid by many groups, governments (Cambodian and Vietnamese) and organizations, usually in a haphazard way with a lack of recording or warning. In the rural areas, many people have been maimed by these buried terrors. It is estimated that about 40,000 Cambodians are amputees, (about one in 475) which is one of the highest rates in the world. The devices have killed many others outright. Studies in 2002 found that about 20% of Cambodian villages still had landmines in their vicinity, with landmines a common cause of injury as well as being a major contributor to poverty. To compound matters, villagers often got a false sense of security during the dry season. They make tracks through the hard ground; tracks that can turn deadly in the rainy season when the rain loosens the soil or floodwaters bring landmines from elsewhere. Most victims are children, almost all of them boys, who are more likely to wander away into the countryside to play as well as play with uncovered but still live mines.
When we visited Siem Reap, the northern Cambodian city famous for its proximity to Angkor Wat, we spent a few hours at the landmine museum, operated by a former Khmer Rouge boy soldier turned landmine crusader called Aki Ra. He was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge when he was about 10 and was quickly put to work planting the very things he has now dedicated his life to removing. When captured by the Vietnamese, he did the same thing for them. Later, he was able to work for the UN where he was involved in demining operations; an endeavor he continued even after his time with the UN was over. Working alone, he would go where he knew he had laid mines during his time with either the Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes, villagers would approach him to ask him to clear their village of mines. Initially, his demining technique was unorthodox, using only handmade tools, knives, and sticks. He would defuse the landmines or unexploded objects (UXOs), bringing home the empty cases, which he would occasionally sell as scrap to help fund his efforts. The rest he stockpiled at his house, these empty cases marking the humble origin of the landmine museum. Over time, he discovered that tourists would pay to see the mines and hear about his operation and he could use the money to further fund his efforts. We visited the landmine museum at its original site but it has since shifted to bigger and better premises, about 40 kilometres from Siem Reap, inside the Angkor National Park.
|Defused mine and UXO cases at the land-mine museum.|
The goals of the museum are to tell Aki Ra’s story (which is a remarkable one, acknowledged by him being named one of CNN’s people of 2010), to show people the horrors of landmines and also to care for the children who live at the museum. As if Aki Ra wasn’t doing enough already, he and his wife, Hourt (who unfortunately died in 2009 aged only 28), also adopted many abandoned or orphaned children, many of whom were injured by landmines or had been orphaned by them. Over two dozen children have or still live with Aki Ra at the museum. As part of the deal when opening the new museum, Aki Ra had to agree to became a certified mine clearer and forego his self-taught but rather rustic (although highly effective), demining techniques. Now he has a team of certified deminers working with him, able to clear mines from one village after another. Aki Ra’s story is a compelling story of how one man is trying to undo the evil that he was forced to do to his countrymen. Efforts like Aki Ra’s have reduced the number of landmine injuries in Cambodia, dropping from 850 a year in the period 2000-2005 to 450 in 2006, to 350 in 2007 and 270 in 2008. It is estimated that Cambodia will be cleared of mines in 10-20 years if the current levels of funding are maintained.
Demining is difficult at the best of times but in countries like Cambodia, where they were laid in a largely haphazard method, demining is a very time consuming and expensive process. In these situations, where mines are used by guerrilla forces and/or for terrorism purposes, the mines are often not laid in defined areas that serve a defensive role. They may be placed in areas that civilians frequent, in the hope of disrupting civilian life and instilling fear. Even in countries where landmines were used in a conventional way, they can still cause havoc. For example, South Korea still has a significant land-mine problem (which is a worry for me as I like to bushwhack a little, and get off the track at times). Over one million lie clustered either in the DMZ or in areas immediately by it (North Korea is believed to have laid a similar number). Given that South Korea is both a developed country and that its landmines are mostly laid in well defined areas not used for industry or agriculture, you would think that it would be a relatively easy process to clear mines (relatively because demining is always a time-consuming and specialized task). Some of the land that had landmines was offered at a very cheap price at the conclusion of the Korean War but the hidden cost was the deaths and injuries suffered by the people who work these fields. Areas that have been called safe are often not as heavy rain can dislodge landmines, as recently shown when North Korean landmines washed to the south after torrential rain.
|Areas in South Korea that may have land-mines can be dangerous after heavy rain|
Mines are still seen as a cornerstone defense against the North, a view supported by the USA, who site the Korean DMZ as their reason to not sign the Ottawa Treaty. This is a treaty, which bans the use of landmines. 156 countries have ratified the treaty but key countries like the United States, both Koreas, China and Russia have refused to ratify it. Many in the US, including members of its military, believe that the ongoing use of landmines on the peninsula is unnecessary, a viewpoint I tend to agree, I’m sure whatever diabolical plans Kim Jong Il is hatching wouldn’t be stopped by a few, (actually) many landmines. I mean I wouldn’t be surprised in an invasion event if the North Korean gulags were emptied of political prisoners who were used as human landmine detonators ala like what Iran’s brass did during the Iran-Iraq War.
Maybe it’s a pipe dream (and it is while big players like Russia, China and the United States don’t agree) but a future without mines floats my boat. Some countries like Rwanda have been cleared completely of mines, so there is potential. And while there are people like Aki Ra, there is hope that we will one day be rid of one less indiscriminate weapon.