On March 20, 2012 , Alexis Nadin and Jacqueline Lee from GlobalGiving joined HALO Trust in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a day in the field - clearing landmines.
Looking at a giant map HALO representative, Stanislav, demonstrated the areas identified as minefields, those cleared by HALO, and those cleared by other organizations. A majority of the colors are focused around the Thailand border, and many of the current minefields yet to be cleared are around villages where families and children are at risk of accidentally coming across not only a landmine but also a tank mine or even a UXO, unexploded ordinance – remnants of past war and conflict.
Stanislav shared the Baseline Survey Project, which is uniting every organization in the area clearing minefields to identify all minefields and has a goal of capturing 95% of the fields needing to be cleared.
Who informs organizations of the fields? Local villagers, former soldiers, and others who have heard stories, witnessed explosions, or themselves have lost legs and family members in unidentified minefields around the towns.
The danger is that as time goes by and the cost of living increases, villagers need to expand their fields for crops generating income. Additionally, as families grow and Cambodians repatriate to the country they need land to build homes, schools, and hospitals. As expansion and development increases in Cambodia, so does the risk of expanding into a forgotten minefield… that is until it is no longer forgotten and creating tragedy in the present.
What is stopping organizations like HALO from clearing every minefield? Stanislav explained to me that limited funding and capacity limits the number of minefields they can clear each year, therefore they have to focus on priority areas. Priority areas are high risk pieces of land next to villages with families and children as well as areas planned for development. Additionally, they target where the most accidents are happening – basically where there will be most impact.
These minefields are stopping progress of development and income generating activities for these families. In the field, I witnessed first hand the impact of the minefields. Crop fields and villages stop abruptly and as far as you can see are patches of dense untouched forest – these untouched areas are where accidents have and are occurring.
After an in depth and strict security and safety briefing by HALO, Alexis and I put on our safety gear which consisted of a helmet with plastic head and neck guard and a heavy, thick Kevlar vest protecting all vitals from an accidental detonation. We were showed a head guard and vest that had been exposed to a detonation, and although it was ripped-apart and dented on the outside, the inside was untouched like new. I felt confident in the safety of my vitals.
Going into the field was scary and exciting all at the same time. Beyond the safety zone were red sticks everywhere. These indicate un-cleared minefields – do not cross zones. As we went through the field accompanying the staff on their routine day, de-miners were working carefully and focused on discovered mines, potential mines not yet exposed, and scanning grids with high-tech metal detectors.
The de-miners had just discovered a few mines and carefully exposed the sides in order to verify and destroy them. Alexis and I were asked if we would like to destroy one of the mines – so we had the opportunity of a lifetime to press the button that would prevent a future tragedy. It was an intense 30 seconds waiting for the explosion… then BOOM, a loud jolt went off that shook even my camera while I was filming. This was a small mine – I could not imagine how it must be if accidentally detonating or even standing next to it when it accidentally goes off or even when coming across a larger tank mine.
An important lesson of the day was stated by Stanislav from HALO Trust, “Mines don’t discriminate. We don’t discriminate.” HALO is empowering communities by providing jobs and opportunity for local Cambodians. HALO hires locally to be a part of clearing local land, managing the projects, and supporting the local villages.
When clearing minefields, each landmine is a potential accident or death waiting to be exposed regardless of who or what comes across it. The sticks in the ground determining cleared mines were what I call “life sticks”, signifiers of what could have been tombstones but are now representing the lives that have been spared.
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