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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

UNSUNG HEROES

A ban-the-mine group won a Nobel prize. The people clearing Cambodia earn $170 a month. A report from minefield central

By Dominic Faulder


"WELCOME TO THE DEVIL'S supermarket," says Lulu -- and he throws open the heavy, red steel doors of a windowless godown. The building, situated a few km outside the northwestern town of Siem Reap, is pocked with a tight concentration of bullet holes that look relatively fresh. Government soldiers based nearby apparently are not averse to unloading a magazine or two when it rains, or when they are drunk, or for the sheer hell of it.

The dirt floor is sectioned off and covered with mines and old unexploded ordnance of various type and origin -- Chinese, Vietnamese, Soviet, American, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian. Lulu dives fearlessly into this dark morgue -- this makeshift museum chronicling three decades of Cambodian misery. He rolls a large American bomb with his foot. It was recovered within two km of Angkor Wat, amid the fabulous complex of temples that these days lures only a few plucky tourists. Lulu hops into a bin of detonators, then grabs a Chinese mortar to demonstrate a correct detonation descent trajectory. Sticking a finger into a Soviet fragmentation grenade, he marvels at how rodents eat the core explosive but leave the detonator intact.

Retrieving devices that kill and maim thousands every year is all in a day's work for Lulu -- as everyone calls Patrick Hirard. His home is Brittany, France, and he wears his 40 years lightly. Since leaving the French military eight years ago, he has been a professional de-miner in familiar troublespots -- Algeria, Kuwait, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique. After working in West Asia and Africa, Lulu finds the Cambodians friendly but careless. "Sometimes when I am working with a metal detector," he chuckles, "soldiers and children come up with cigarettes."

Lulu's boss is Col. Jean Pierre Billault, a former paratrooper who is also the French honorary consul in Siem Reap. He heads COFRAS, a de-mining unit financed by the French government. COFRAS is due to wind up its operation early next year when its de-miners will be absorbed by the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), a government operation with foreign funding and technical assistance. All this comes at a time of unprecedented clamor against one of the most civilian-unfriendly weapons ever devised. Last month, the International Campaign to Ban Land mines won the Nobel Peace Prize. Before year's-end, nearly 100 nations -- but not the U.S., China, India, Russia, South Korea or Iraq -- are to convene in Ottawa to sign a treaty outlawing the scourge. Meantime, far from the pomp and politics, Cambodians working for France's COFRAS and other foreign de-mining groups will be on the frontlines, doing the dirty work.

COFRAS is on a wet-season offensive to de-mine Phnom Krom, a hill with a government military base at the bottom. It is a fine example of the unmapped, undisciplined minefields to be found all over Cambodia. The nearby Tonle Sap, one of the world's richest fishing areas, swells at this time of year and turns the 200-meter hill into an island. The COFRAS platoons have divided it into sections. Section 4 is at work on an open flank of hill and making good progress. Others are struggling up a steep and muddy area behind a village. Before the mine detectors can be used, dense vegetation must be cut back and burned. The process is excruciatingly slow. There may be mines in the ground or attached to trip wires above it. Or there may be none at all.

Most de-mining operators in Cambodia uncover devices, place a small charge alongside and blow them up in situ. Billault's boys do things a bit different. The French operation actually defuses the mines in the ground -- a brave maneuver -- removes them and then blows them up later. Another difference: the French-trained de-miners don't wear protective body armor -- their approach is: follow the rules and nothing will go wrong. "We have not lost even one finger," says Billault.

The French defuse-it-on-the-spot approach was partly dictated by the fact that they were de-mining the temples around Angkor Wat and didn't want to damage the centerpiece of Cambodia's cultural heritage. In four years, COFRAS has neutralized 7,000 mines and made the temples safe. "The problem is we don't know where the mines are," Billault explains. "There was no procedure, no logic when they were laid. When Cambodians give us information, it is never as they explain." Sometimes peasants even lie about the presence of mines just to get the land cleared for farming.

Hoc Chandara, 31, is busy cutting back the undergrowth and trying to keep his footing. He knows the area well. As a government soldier, he actually helped mine it. "I would have been executed if I didn't follow orders," he says. By his recollection, some 3,000 mines were seeded, but so far only 2,000 have been recovered. A possible explanation is that many have already been taken out by the Cambodian military for deployment elsewhere. Chandara recalls strict orders from his commander not to tell the nearby villagers about the mines. They could have sold them or used the explosive for fishing. Mines have also entered Cambodia's violent culture, guarding vegetable plots or surprising adulterous spouses.

At the base of the hill, platoon leader Thung Vin empties a canvas bag containing the morning's haul. There are 14 mortar detonators and five anti-tank detonators. The latter pack a bigger blast than most anti-personnel mines, but require some 200 kg of pressure to go off. Lulu places one on the ground and walks on it to prove the point. Nothing happens. Villagers and children gather round as Vin pulls out a Leatherman multipurpose tool and an adjustable spanner. He unscrews a detonator lid, clicks the charging device to a safe position and then unbolts it. He might be cracking walnuts, and in less than 10 minutes is ready for lunch.

On the two-way radio that keeps Billault in touch with the field, Lulu learns that Section 4 has found a mine. After an exhausting climb through the 1.5-meter-wide safe corridors that are used to penetrate minefields, he finds another platoon leader, named Pum Sun, waiting patiently. His colleagues have all pulled back a discreet distance. Apart from a pair of glasses, Sun, 38, wears no protection and his only tools are a long, thin rod and brush.

Whenever de-miners have determined an area is safe, they run a red tape along the perimeter. As they progress, they move the tape. Sweeping the area with his metal detector, Sun has discovered a device just beyond the safety zone. Until he came along, there was nothing to indicate the presence of a mine in the rocky, barren soil. He has found a Soviet PMD6. A primitive, rectangular wooden box designed during World War II, it contains over 100 grams of explosive. This one may have been waiting for 10 or 15 years. Lulu likes to call them "eternal sentinels." Sun hunches low over the device, loosens the surrounding earth and brushes it away with his rod. The wooden casing is badly decayed, and he might be exhuming a tiny coffin. Finally Sun lifts the device and extracts the corroded detonator. The whole process has taken no more than five minutes.

Married with four children, Sun left the Cambodian army in 1990 and started de-mining with the Dutch during the United Nations peace-keeping period. Buddhism has always been important to him. In his left breast pocket are the protective amulets he has carried since 1980. Every time he takes out a mine, says Sun, "I feel I have saved the life of a farmer."

Most Cambodian de-miners are not so idealistic and candidly admit that they are happy to have a well-paying job. The 140 de-miners working for COFRAS earn $170 a month. That is pretty much the standard for all de-miners in Cambodia and more than double what the co-prime ministers earn officially. "It is the just price," booms Billault. He explains why with military precision: each de-miner needs half a kilo of rice per day and has an average of 6.3 mouths to feed.

Former Australian defense attaché Col. Richard Warren casts a watchful eye across the pool at the Cambodiana hotel in Phnom Penh. His two small, adopted Cambodian daughters leap into the clear, blue water with happy abandon. Their little brothers and sisters upcountry do much the same in muddy rivers and canals that swell in the wet season, occasionally washing down plastic mines.

Warren has done the sums, and he knows that despite his best efforts children will continue to die and be maimed in rivers and on padi fields for a long time to come. "We should get the job done in 25 to 30 years," he says dryly. "That's a lot better than 170 years, which was once projected."

When he retired from the Australian military, Warren couldn't see himself behind a desk in Canberra. So he became project coordinator of CMAC and its 2,300 de-miners. He pulls out a map. On it is every known or suspected minefield in the country. The combustive acne is spread across Cambodia. It is particularly dense in the north and northwest. There are unbroken tracts along stretches of the Thai border. There could be four to six million devices out there. It's impossible to tell.

The problem is not just the quantity of mines, however, but the amount of land contaminated. CMAC estimates that some 3,600 square km are still affected. That's only about one-fiftieth of Cambodia's area, but the fear of a solitary mine is enough to keep a farmer out of an entire padi field or orchard. So de-mining crews judge their progress with meticulous daily records of how many square meters are mine-free.

In addition to the men working for CMAC, there are almost a thousand more de-miners belonging to COFRAS, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Halo Trust -- both British NGOs -- and specialist contract operations. At this strength, 18 square km of Cambodia can be cleared manually each year. Another 100 square km can be declared mine-free after crews have gone through and discovered no devices. With more de-miners and more funding, of course, the job would go faster.

The process is labor-intensive since no technology yet devised is superior to human beings sweeping and probing the ground with mine detectors and feeler rods. Sweden is providing a couple-dozen sniffer dogs trained to detect explosives, and next year Finland is sending a pair of flaying machines to thrash the ground. But once the perimeters of a minefield are detected, only humans can do the job. On a good day on open ground, a COFRAS de-mining platoon of 32 men can clear a thousand square meters, but only a fraction of that in scrubby or forested areas.

"I often compare it to long-term gardening," quips Phil Hammond, MAG's chief in Battambang and a highly decorated British naval veteran of the Falklands and Gulf wars. His Cambodian de-miners, sweltering in the heavy protective gear shunned by the French, are working slowly through a banana plantation surrounding a temple, probing the earth to a depth of 20 cm. Blue stakes are used to track the day's work, and yellow ones indicate where mines have been detected and blown. Two yellow markers sit next to a tree recently stripped by villagers for firewood. Had the wood-gatherers crossed the de-miners' red tape running alongside, they would have been certain casualties. Six mines have been found around a nearby tree stump that made a handy fireplace.

Elsewhere, MAG once discovered 64 mines under a single shade tree. Mines are placed anywhere a human might wander -- along paths, roads, bridges, railway tracks, canals, in weirs and riverbanks, beside and inside wells, near temples, schools, markets, government military bases.

The Khmer Rouge also build custom booby traps. Instead of explosive, these blast caustic soda, battery acid or fuel. Trip wires drop mortars out of trees on to hard ground, and the fuses on mortars and artillery shells are routinely modified for trip wires or remote detonation. Quite simply, says United Nations military observer Maj. Jan Wanderstein, "the Cambodian way of war is putting mines in the ground."

So even as de-miners extract devices from the ground -- by some estimates removing a mine cost 200 times as much as sowing one -- Cambodia's warring factions are busily putting them back. With poorly trained, underpaid, ill-disciplined fighters on all sides, it is a recipe for misery -- highly irresponsible weapons in totally irresponsible hands. The situation spotlights a harsh truth about the noble international campaign to ban mines: it isn't terribly relevant in places like Cambodia. Mines are not rocket science; just about any fool can make one. Eradicating the scourge is frustratingly complex and may be impossible.

The Khmer Rouge have concocted so-called supermines -- devices that defy normal detection techniques and are powerful enough to dislodge the gun turrets on the government's antique Soviet T-55 tanks. Three to five anti-tank mines are buried up to two meters below the surface. A smaller anti-personnel mine is placed on top to set off the big mines below. A bamboo pole leads from the small mine's pressure point to the surface, waiting for an unsuspecting child, adult, buffalo or vehicle. When one of these monsters goes off, the resulting crater is big enough to swallow a Toyota Landcruiser -- or what's left of it.

Troops loyal to ousted First Premier Norodom Ranariddh are using mines to keep Second Premier Hun Sen's troops at bay. Gen. Serey Kosal, Ranariddh's former security chief and No. 2 on Hun Sen's most-wanted list, recently boasted that his men are making 500 devices each day. "They are very efficient," he said. "One can kill 40 men."

That kind of talk makes some de-miners despair of ever ridding Cambodia of its hidden menace. Still, the government is trying to promote mine-awareness and, thanks in large part to foreign pressure, now has platoons of people who know how to clear mines. There are those who believe Cambodia may even be able to export this expertise to help other countries where mines are also killing and maiming people long after local wars have ended. Vietnam, which is still blighted from the 1960s and 1970s, could be a beneficiary. With its meager resources, Hanoi has failed to eradicate the problem and is typically slow to enlist foreign expertise. De-miners regard it as a next frontier.

At least in Cambodia, argues CMAC's Warren, there is a national institution trying to solve the problem. "That is unique," he says, "and attracts international support." Which is useful because getting money to clear mines is not easy, and de-mining operations are always looking for ways to entice donors. MAG, for example, wins points for being an equal-opportunity employer: Its squads include women, and amputees like Nget Chao Ny, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who fought under Ta Mok, the infamous KR general who himself lost a leg to a mine. Fearing a media circus, MAG scrapped plans for a clearing platoon comprised exclusively of widows of mine victims. It also flatly refused a request by a British newspaper to photograph a fake shrine to the late anti-mine campaigner Princess Diana, set up in the middle of a minefield.

CMAC currently uses up about $15 million each year in cash and in-kind contributions, such as 1968-vintage, six-wheel trucks to transport de-miners. The American trucks do the job well enough, but finding spare parts is a major headache.

Warren is hoping that donors will contribute $1.5 million in funding next year so that the respected Brussels-based organization Handicap International can conduct a detailed audit of the number of mines still littering Cambodia. Once that is done, says Warren, "the work becomes predictable and manageable. It will simply be a question of allocating resources and manpower."

Handicap International recently completed a survey of Laos, and the threat to the population does not come from mines alone. There is a parallel problem of unexploded ordnance (UXO) -- bombs, shells and mortars that failed to go off or never got used. The same is true in Cambodia. CMAC once found a huge American bomb in a field in Kompong Chhnang; the old farmer had simply plowed around it for the past 20 years. "We asked him where he wanted a pond," says Warren, "and blew him a nice, big hole." The UXO problem is particularly acute in the sparsely populated eastern provinces which were subjected to heavy bombing during the 1970s. By Warren's reckoning perhaps 15% of such bombs failed to detonate. "We're looking at maybe 300,000 tons of UXO out there," he says. "It's a wild guess -- there's no way of determining it." Another headache: quantifying the bomblets dropped by American planes along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The unarmed army of Cambodian de-miners trying to clear up this huge mess face death or dismemberment every day. CMAC has sustained 37 injuries in four years, one fatal. In its early days in Siem Reap, a full COFRAS truck was overturned by a mine on the way to work. Last year a British MAG de-miner, Christopher Howes, and his interpreter were kidnapped. No one has heard from them since. Yet for all this, de-miners are more likely to die in a road accident or by contracting AIDS.

In the Cambodian warrior tradition, a woman's place is in the kitchen. Cheam Say, 18, was playing the dutiful wife to her soldier husband of one year -- when her world was shattered. Say, a lovely woman with a flashing smile and deep brown eyes, was cooking rice over open flames where her husband's unit had struck camp. Beneath the fire, a Soviet PMN2 mine was also heating up. About 13 cm in diameter, the device is normally triggered by five kg or more of pressure. It will blow a victim's foot off and force the calf muscles and flesh up to the knee in an unrecognizable pulp around shards of shin bone. The shock can kill; amputation below the knee is the best-case scenario.

As Say stirred the pot, the mine went off. The 115-gram charge blasted earth, metal, embers and boiling water straight up her front. Wearing a sarong and long-sleeved shirt, she sits in Battambang's provincial hospital fearful of rejection by a brutalized society that has little compassion for the maimed. "I don't know if my husband will have me back," she says. "Or divorce me." The left side of Say's mouth is pulled downward from crude stitching, her neck is raw and badly scarred, her hands rest awkwardly in her lap. Most of her fingers are gone, and one thumb is an iodine-purple stump that she tries to conceal beneath a patch of gauze. In a country where one in about 230 people is a mine victim, Say is but a recent statistic of one of the most irresponsible weapon systems ever devised. The minbusters couldn't save Say, but they want to prevent the same from happening to thousands of others. n

Dominic Faulder is an Asiaweek special correspondent who covers Indochina.


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