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Cambodia

Interviews

The HALO Trust is a donor-supported land mine clearance organization presently operating in nations in Africa, Europe, and Asia that have suffered in recent years from conflict and the land mine legacy these wars have left behind. The HALO Trust has been in Cambodia for ten years, assisting the country in working out the land mine problem that exists here.

Richard Boulter is the Programme Manager in Cambodia for the HALO Trust. In this interview he discusses land mine clearance in Cambodia, the problems facing the local population, the realities of the situation in respect to tourism which should alleviate any fears a tourist may have about Angkor Wat, and finally offers a few tips for the rare tourist that might wish to venture into areas that may contain mines.

Interview November 23, 2002 at the Ivy 2 Guesthouse, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Q: What is the HALO Trust mission in Cambodia?

A: HALOís mission is to get mines out of the ground, now. Fast. We are a de-mining organization, actually the biggest de-mining organization in the world. Our focus is mine clearance. We are not involved in advocacy, or lobbying, or the rehabilitation of mine victims. Land mines, thatís what we do.

Q: When will the job be finished in Cambodia?

A: The job wonít be finished for this country. HALO will remain in Cambodia until the international community or the host government decides that no more mine clearance is appropriate. The way it works is that diminishing marginal returns set in. I first worked here in 1993 and the mine fields we were clearing were significantly more concentrated than the ones weíre clearing now, but right now weíre clearing minefields to which people are living in so there may be less mines, but there is still a hell of a lot of good reasons for clearing them.

There is still ordnance turning up in Belgium and France that was fired in the First World War and some of it is still functioning, there are accidents. But obviously these countries have developed quite normally and you will get to a point in this country perhaps in ten years time when the host government will be telling people if you want to help us, help this country, donít spend the money on mine clearance, letís really improve the roads, the schools, the hospitals.

Right now theyíve got a lot of mines that need to be cleared, not least because of the changes in the military situation in recent years. Though mine clearance has been going on in Cambodia since 1992, the emphasis has moved enormously. When I first worked here it was in Mongkol Borei, Sisophon, that area, now our teams are working more than 100 kilometers from there, working right up on the Thai border, in areas where until recently have been hard to access. And they still remain hard to access. One of our mine fields, de-miners had to walk 40 kilometers just to get to the mine field where there were people living in it and tasks like that still exist. This country is far from opened up fully yet, so the work is going to continue. Weíve been here ten years now.

We can identify land mines and get on and clear them, but the needs that are identified reflect where the population is right now. Thereís a lot of road building going on and new roads are being cut through jungle areas at the moment which as of only a few months ago were of little interest to anybody. Now a road has gone through, people are now coming and living roadside despite the fact that almost arbitrary lines have been drawn for the road alignment and many of the new roads still cut through mined areas. So new tasks appear, which, before the roads had been put in, had not really been considered as warranting clearance.

Thereís also a shifting situation with the knock on effect of increased Cambodian wealth, the money flowing into Siem Reap in particular and into Phnom Penh means that the price of land is going up and people who own the land are deciding to make the most of it, not surprisingly. The consequence of this is people who have been squatting, and that means an awful lot of poor people in Cambodia, are being displaced. And they are having to find new places to settle and invariably that means settling into mined areas in far flung corners, such as up on the Thai border. Right up around OíSmach in particular, a lot of people moving in there, there are a lot of mines, because itís a border area and thatís where theyíre getting shunted off to.

Q: There are the three organizations working in Cambodia, CMAC, MAG, and HALO Trust, is there cooperation between the three or does everybody work independently?

A: Thereís a strong degree of cooperation. First of all, there is a central authority, which is the host government, Cambodia Mine Action Authority, CMAA, and they pretty much blow the whistle on whatís going on. Right now thereís little reason not to cooperate. There is more than enough work for everybody and logistically mine clearance is quite difficult so people tend to have patches which they are responsible for and they get on and clear. And we talk to the other agencies and weíll overlap. But the mine clearance units are not homogenous. HALOís basic de-mining unit is an eight-man section and that can operate independently. Iím not certain but I think a minimum deployment of CMAC is nearer forty men so they tend to work on bigger tasks. Weíve been quite good at getting people to remote areas, even if they need to walk. So that lends itself to a different approach and I know there are other agencies, notably Handicap International, who want to do some work with CMAC to try to bring about this kind of flexibility within them. So basically everyone works together and cooperates.

Q: Can you describe briefly the process of clearing mines?

A: Mine clearance is fundamentally very simple. Itís pretty much what strange men do on the beach on Sundays with metal detectors only the stakes are a bit higher. Basically, a de-miner is equipped with a relatively sophisticated metal detector which is powered off of a standard 9-volt battery and an array of basic hand tools. He works in a systematic fashion to search the ground looking for metal and he works in predefined lanes which are marked out and basically he pushes a stick around the field all day long. He has a one-meter long white marker and he will move his detector over that marker until he is sure there is no metal and he will pick up the marker, move it to the extent he has just checked, with a margin for safety, and then repeat the process.

If at any point his metal detector alarms he will then isolate with the metal detector where the metal signal is coming from and withdraw about twenty centimeters so that heís not digging down on top of the potentially pressure sensitive mine. And heíll just dig down and then scrape his way, excavate forward to reach whatever caused the detector to alarm, from the side rather than come straight downward, that way if itís a mine his first contact with it will be his trowel hitting the insensitive plastic wall of the mine rather than the pressure sensitive surface.

Invariably, itís not a mine. Every piece of metal in the ground needs to be taken out. So bullets, which there are many, general detritus, house nails, bits of motorcycle, bits of push bike, gardening implements, even silver paper from cigarette packets will cause the detector to alarm. Every bit of it needs to be removed because quality assurance process only comes about by the section commanders. The de-minerís section commander will inspect the ground and heíll basically walk up the lane with a metal detector and if the detector alarms, the de-minerís missed something. Then a field officer will inspect the ground that the section commander has checked and then the de-mining supervisor will inspect a sample of that, and the international staff will inspect a sample of that. But itís all based around the idea that there is 100% metal removal which makes the de-mining process fundamentally pretty slow. Basically if the de-miner can clear thirty square meters in a day. heís doing pretty well, heís doing very well. This year HALO will clear about four million square meters of land.

Q: How many mines will you be clearing in that space?

A: About four thousand. Mine numbers are difficult because we can start work in a mine field next week that just happens to be incredibly heavily mined. There was no great system of, plan of the deployment of military assets and it may well be that a particular commander had a lot of mines to lay. We might tap into a rich vein and pull out an awful lot of mines, but the focus really should be on whatís happening on the ground afterwards.

Thatís what guides all of the mine clearance agencies here, following land use. Itís what people want the ground cleared for. Thereís no point clearing an area, well, there is an intrinsic value to clearing mines for the sake of it, but you clear an area of waste ground that is mined to produce an area of waste ground. Yes, youíve cleared the mines but you could have done a lot more. I could have cleared the mines that were around someoneís house. And so the numbers themselves are not absolute.

But you go to the Thai border there are some very very heavy concentrations, which with present sensitivities, are really still not being cleared. But they will be in due course when both Thai and Khmer governments are a bit happier about their own border alignments. There will come a time Iím sure in the not too distant future when the number of mines cleared by every agency in the country will rise, when everyone takes on the K5 mine belt, the one that runs along the border.

Q: All the way around? Koh Kong all the way up to the Laos border or is it a more specific area?

A: No, Iím not entirely certain exactly where the K5 belt runs. Iíve only been here three weeks this time. It certainly runs through Battambang, and Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey, Preah Vihear, pretty much all the way around but, I think it runs, there arenít many records.

There will be windows in it because there are other obstacles. Mines are basically a canalizing weapon, they are deployed conventionally to control the movement of troops. Basically, you cover the ground you canít cover with your guns with mines. Anything you canít see, a conventional army until very recently would have mined. That way it forces the opposing forces to choose access routes that come straight through their line of sight. So if the mines donít get them, the guns will. And there will be areas along the border which were easily covered by guns so thereís no way that it extends from border to border, from the coast to border. But it does for most of it, thereís no doubt about it, there are a hell of a lot of mines there.

Q: How did you get involved in mine clearance?

A: I was in the army, in the British army for about nine years, nine or ten years including university. I then left the army, did an MBA and secured a job in the city (London) doing corporate finance. Managing buy-outs is what I was meant to be doing and basically I had a three to four month window between finishing my degree and starting work in the city and I had a friend who was working out here for HALO and I thought it would be a laugh so I came out and started clearing mines in May 1993 and I never really made it to the city.

I went then to Mozambique, and then back to here, back to Mozambique, on to Angola, a bit of time in Sudan, a brief period in Afghanistan and then out to the Caucasus working in Georgia and Chechnya and Nagorno Karabakh Ė an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, the home of ethnic cleansing, really, and Kosovo, and I just came from Sri Lanka. I spent six months in Sri Lanka. HALO also works in the horn of Africa, Somalia, Eritrea, but Iíve not been there. Eritrea, quite a big program, about 1000 staff in Eritrea.

Q: How long will you be in Cambodia?

A: Hopefully for two years. But I donít really have a fixed contract. Iíve been working for HALO for ten years now and it is an organization that requires its staff to be reasonably flexible and if thereís a need to go somewhere else then I go somewhere else. But hopefully Iíll be here for two years.

Q: How large is the staff here and how does that compare to some of HALOís other countries that they are in?

A: Here weíve got 950 Khmer staff and as of Wednesday weíll have two expatriates in country. Overall, we have about, I think we got about 6000 de-miners and about 45 international staff. So thereís a ratio of about 1 to 150. This is quite a large program. Our biggest program is in Afghanistan where weíve got almost 2000 local staff and three expats one of which is an accountant. Our smallest program is in Sri Lanka where weíve got 44 local staff and five expatriates right now, but that will change next year.

Wherever we go the aim is to train local staff and bring them on. Right now Sri Lanka is undergoing a fairly intensive period of training. And I would imagine there, certainly by next April, theyíll probably have 150 Sri Lankan staff and probably three international staff. But one of the expats in Sri Lanka is a Kosovan and one of our expats in Eritrea is a Chechnyan. The senior local staff tend to get moved around a bit if thereís a requirement, so the international pool of HALO is not restricted to ex-British Army officers but our own senior local staff also get into the international pool when they prove themselves.

Q: Is it dangerous work clearing mines?

A: Of course it is, potentially it is dangerous. Mines are designed to maim and kill. The closer you get to them the greater opportunity there is for something going wrong. But, itís dangerous to drive a car, dangerous crossing the road, people do it, but it doesnít mean people canít do it safely. HALO has had accidents, any agency in mine clearance will have accidents, it comes with the territory. In HALO we average about one accident for every 700 man years worked, which, according to a UK insurer makes it a better bet than working on a farm in England or indeed on a construction site. But accidents happen and will continue to happen. And probably, Iím not sure, I think the international staff probably has a significantly higher rate of accidents than the local staff.

Q: Is there anything unique about de-mining Cambodia opposed to other countries or is it pretty much the same operation around the world?

A: No, they are all different. Every program is different because the nature of the mine fields is different and the infrastructure is different. I have just been in Sri Lanka where typically a mine field is fenced, marked, ten meters wide and pretty straightforward to clear. Here, itís very difficult to identify where the mines have been laid or why, even. And here, most clearances are land use driven. People find themselves settling in mined areas and all around their houses needs to be cleared. Itís not so much, ďright, we can see this mine, well, letís go and clear it.Ē

I worked in Georgia for awhile, following a pretty intense period of ethnic cleansing. And there, thereís no scramble for land, but there is mined ground and those mines should be cleared now, before there is any massive population return, which is the best alternative - going about the problem now before it really is a problem when people start settling into mined areas - clear them before that happens.

The infrastructure here is pretty poor. There are great roads to take to the temples, but they donít actually run very far beyond the temples. And we find ourselves having to build bridges. Weíve even looked at getting proper bridging units, ex-army bridging units. We have bridge sections, we have cranes on the back of trucks to span gaps. And we will build wooden bridges just to get access to areas. Thatís pretty unique, the extent we have to go to just to get to the mined areas.

The other thing about mine clearance, itís not quite the magical transformation that a lot of people want it to be. We clear the mines around a peasant familyís home, weíve only actually taken away one of the features, one of the problems they live with, that they face. It doesnít mean that suddenly theyíve got instant wealth. They are still pretty far down the food chain in terms of winners and losers.

And even clearing the mines around peopleís houses, clearing them around the schools, clearing them around the health posts, that does not remove the threat. A rural Khmer family will survive through an agricultural small holding. Theyíll have a rice paddy. But thatís invariably not enough to support everyone and members of the family will still go scavenging in the woods for firewood, for mushrooms, hunt for animals, and lifeís every day pressures take them outside of ground that has been de-mined and they must go foraging on ground which they know to be dangerous.

This is one of those countries where the vast majority, Iím not sure of the figures, it certainly used to be over 90%, of mine victims knew they were in a mined area at the time of their accident. I donít know what the figure is now but it wonít be far different. People know they are scavenging in woods that are mined but nevertheless they need wood for fire. Thatís one of lifeís pressures. Having worked here, I then went to work in Mozambique and hadnít been there long before a local farmer had an accident in a field. I went to see him in the hospital to try to find out what had happened and I said to him, ďDid you realize you were in a mined area at the time of the accident?Ē And he looked at me and looked at his stump and looked up at me again and said, ďOf course I didnít know I was in a bloody mined area.Ē And thatís not the case here, people here will just shrug and say, ďYeah, itís part of life.Ē

Q: Whatís the accident rate here? How many locals are stepping on a land mine per day?

A: One person a day in Cambodia. Itís one too many, but itís a significant improvement. In the early 90s that figure was closer to ten every day. So, in terms of reducing the impact of mines in that fashion the mine clearance across the country has been pretty successful, itís been very successful. But people are still getting hurt and as I said earlier, there is still population movement and the trend, the status quo, is not a rock solid indicator of how things will go in the future, because as long as people continue to be displaced and find themselves forced to settle in mined areas, then accidents will continue. And right on the very perimeter, the periphery of where people are settling now, there are, as I said, some really heavily mined areas. Right now there seems to be an agreement with the Thai government that Khmer authorities understand that the people are not allowed to settle too close to the border. That will change in time and then there is a great potential for a massive upswing in the number of accidents.

Q: How many foreigners, tourist or expat, have stepped on a land mine in Cambodia?

A: Quite a few Vietnamese did during the war. But tourists, Iím not aware of any treading on mines. Iím not actually aware of any of the international staff working with mine clearance agencies here having accidents either. Iíd be very surprised if any wealthy westerner has had any scare with a land mine.

Q: Is there a threat to the tourist?

A: Of course there is, there are roads. The roads are a bloody nightmare! In HALO we got 6000 people clearing mines around the world. Weíve had more people killed in traffic accidents than by mines. And that threat extends wherever we work. Itís the driving thatís dangerous.

Q: So whatís the land mine threat to tourists? Many of them are afraid.

A: I think many of them want to be afraid. People are still coming to Cambodia for adventure tourism. I think itís peopleís livers that generally come in danger here. But Preah Vihear temple has some mines quite close to it. Weíve done some de-mining there because the locals were building a pagoda, to provide safe access to the pagoda for the local people we de-mined there.

Q: How far from Angkor Wat do you have to go to find a land mine?

A: Around Angkor Wat you really have to go for a very long way to find a mine. I donít think we have anyone de-mining less than an hourís drive from Angkor Wat. Itís not by choice, itís by necessity. Weíd actually quite like to have a mine clearance task quite close to Siem Reap, because we get a lot of visitors and representatives of the donor governments that fund us, private individuals, and our own staff. Itís not ideal to say, ďYes, we got a mine field but you have to walk forty kilometers to go and visit it.Ē Itís quite nice to be able to take people out and show them what we are doing within the locale of Siem Reap. But there arenít any mine fields left.

Q: So where do you have to go to find them?

A: Up on Kulen Mountain, there are mines there. North of Kralanh, go to Kralanh, turn right, drive north for half an hour, thereís mined territory there. But you have to go to where the roads have really died.

Q: Do tourists need to be careful up on Mt. Kulen?

A: Iíve not actually visited the temple area. Where we are, basically, leave the tar road and drive on a lumpy road. The bridges have been put in ourselves. And about an hour later you get to the dangerous area.

Thereís always a threat with the legacy of war. Mines, I think, are probably no longer a threat to tourists. But otherwise, itís mortars. Wherever there was fighting there are mortars and hand grenades get dropped. I think the biggest danger is people picking things up and moving them. We spent a lot of time training our staff about how weapons, how munitions, function. And there really is just one acid test. Whenever we see any item, people are looking to see whether the item has been fired, and basically you need to know what youíre talking about because a mortar thatís been fired looks almost exactly the same as a mortar that hasnít been fired. And if somethingís been fired, launched, projected, whatever, we liken it to a gun where the triggerís been squeezed but it hasnít gone off.

Mines are technically victim-activated weapons. They are reactive. I think, myself, and my colleagues feel a lot more comfortable digging for mines than working with unexploded ordnance. Because we understand how mines work, we understand what makes them go bang. And you have to do things in a certain sequence to make them go bang. But with unexploded ordnance being fired you just donít know why itís not gone bang. Just pointing the thing in the wrong direction can make the thing go bang. It doesnít mean that they are going to go bang all the time.

I worked in Kosovo. I was at a school, a place where the KLA had lifted about a hundred sub-munitions, NATO-dropped sub-munitions, and piled them up neatly by the school. We were called to see this stuff because the munitions in question are inherently very very unstable. Even though these guys had picked them up and taken them across there, we just took one look and said, ďTheyíve got to be destroyed where they are. Moving them is just killingly stupid.Ē And then we said, ďYeah, weíll come back and destroy them.Ē Then a British Army officer who was not properly qualified decided to have his team move the munitions again, away from the school so they could be destroyed with minimal damage. And all three of them died later that day. So thatís the story. You can pick things up and take them away, but, they had moved practically all of the munitions, but I donít know, somebody slipped, or what happened, but I do know there were bits of flesh hanging in the trees.

Q: In the guidebooks for Angkor Wat they still warn tourists, if youíre walking around Angkor Wat donít walk into the woods. Is that advice necessary?

A: I donít know. I think with all these things itís probably justified. Whenever weíre going to new areas we do sort of a maxi-min analysis. Whatís the least you are likely to gain, whatís the most you can lose doing this. Whatís really in it to walk into the woods beyond the temples? People arenít coming to Cambodia to see the woods, theyíre coming to see the temples and they are guaranteed safe so go and see the temples. The woods? Go somewhere else because there is a potential risk that thereís something there.

People make mistakes. No oneís ever trodden on a mine in HALO cleared ground, but it has happened to other agencies and will continue to happen, and I donít just mean in Cambodia but around the world.

Q: Now that Cambodia is opening up much more to tourists and there are more places you can go, do you think there might be an increased risk as tourists rent motorbikes to go to Koh Ker, Peak Khan, up to Preah Vihear, traveling through areas that may still contain mines?

A: Of course, but right now people arenít very close to the problem. There is the possibility something is in the woods near Angkor, but itís really unlikely. But again, further up to the border, thereís real danger that people will go closer to the mined areas. But the dangers, we got 950 staff, last year we had two people seriously hurt by motorcycle accidents, two people struck by lightning and one person was hurt in a mine incident, but he returned to work, he wasnít technically crippled. Those dangers exist for everyone, itís still the roads that are going to kill people.

Q: I have, to my knowledge, been in two heavily mined areas. Iíve been on the Dangrek Mountain in Anlong Veng and Iíve traveled through the Cardamom Mountains along a road that CMAC had specifically told us, ďWe have not de-mined the sides of the road yet. There are certain areas, weíre going to do it. Be careful.Ē What advice would you give somebody that says, ďOkay, I want to take a motorbike, I know there are land mines, but I want to go off in the jungle to see this temple or whatever, take this trip?Ē

A: Other than write a will? Technically stupid, I say.

Okay, stay on the well-worn path. But thereís no guarantee. We are always pulling mines out of paths. Just because theyíve been trodden on once and failed to function does not mean that they will not function a second time. But obviously youíve got less risk. The greatest risk is youíre the first person to tread on the ground. So stick to the ground thatís well used.

We are forever de-mining roads with people going up and down them, past us. Itís silly. Right up to the point where you start finding mines. It doesnít seem like a very sensible thing to do.

To my knowledge no foreigner has ever been hurt, but there is a threat. Staying on the local well trodden paths, either on bikes or on foot is obviously the best advice.

Iíve also always advised against long grass, areas that have been overgrown. If people arenít using land here, itís generally for a reason. Because there is a premium on land here, if it hasnít been used, generally it will be. If itís not being used itís a good indicator that it might be dangerous.

Q: Anlong Veng is an area that people are more curious about now. Is Dangrek safe? People want to go there.

A: I donít know. Thatís the forest up on the mountain?

Q: Yes, thatís where the (Khmer Rouge) hideouts were, Pol Potís house, etc.

A: Well, again, even up in Anlong Veng now we got some, probably about 250 staff working out of Anlong Veng. And the nearest task is about 10 kilometers away at the moment, away from the main roads, down dirt tracks, unpleasant dirt tracks.

But Dangrek? Yeah, well, no, itís not safe yet. No way. Itís going to be a lengthy clearance. Weíre talking about right up to the Thai border. No way! There are a lot of mines there.

We were talking to CMAC. They did some de-mining there recently and pulled out something like 200 mines on the path leading up to Pol Potís house, a path which would be heavily trafficked by tourists.

Q: 200? I was on that path. Well, like you said as is typical in Cambodia, had I hit a mine, I did know I was in a mined area, but 200? Right up to the edge of the path?

A: Yes.

The HALO Trust website is at: http://www.halotrust.org

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.