Making a Difference

Written by Mike Minehan on .

It’s a welcome opportunity where we can do something that actually makes a difference.

This is what happened when I first visited Cambodia. I found out that I could personally pay to have landmines destroyed, along with other explosive remnants of war. Which I did. Other Australian friends are also helping out. Associate Tony Langer explains more:

Cambodia would like to present an image to the world of a peaceful, developing country - largely to promote business and tourism. And yes, this is true, but Cambodia is still one of the countries in the world that is most contaminated by the explosive remnants of war (ERW). Afghanistan and Iraq are high up on the list, but depending on the sources, Cambodia comes in at anywhere between numbers 4 to 6.

This is because Cambodia endured nearly 30 years of international and civil war, from the 1960s until 1998.

Part of Cambodia’s western border with Thailand is still one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. This is the K5 minefield that was largely laid by Vietnamese forces after driving the Khmer Rouge into the mountains of the west. The Khmer Rouge at that time also laid landmines in front of their fortifications and along strategic routes. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces estimate that on average, there are 2,400 antipersonnel mines per kilometer of this K5 mine belt.

I recently talked to a social worker who told me that in one day, in the western province of Pailin, he met three landmine victims. Each of these victims had both lower limbs blown off by landmines. But get this. The lower legs of each victim were destroyed by different mines at different times.

The eastern half of Cambodia is also contaminated with cluster bombs. US Air Force records reveal that from 1965 to 1973 the US dropped 2,756,941 tonnes of bombs over central and eastern regions of Cambodia. This involved 230,516 bombing sorties, aimed at 113,716 different sites. The tonnage of bombs dropped over Cambodia was more than the entire tonnage of bombs dropped by the Allies in World War 11.

The rationale for this bombing campaign was to disrupt the Viet Cong supply lines to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But for various reasons, including jungle foliage and soft ground in the rainy season, up to one third of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact and they still remain in the ground, fully armed, waiting for a second chance.

Well, I obviously knew that I couldn’t go out on my own and dig up and remove this explosive stuff by myself. But I knocked on doors, and was admitted as a Volunteer Assistant to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. My job was to help shoot videos and help with CMAC publicity. But along the way, I found that I could pay for one of CMAC’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.These are 3-man teams that respond to emergency finds of explosives.

This cost 5 thousand dollars over a 3 month period, and I was funding the removal and destruction of unexploded ordnance found outside of the capital city, Phnom Penh.

It’s largely forgotten that areas around and inside Phnom Penh were the final battlefields between the Khmer Rouge and the government forces of Lon Nol in 1974-1975. The CMAC HQ in Phnom Penh is itself on a former battlefield that was cleared before construction could begin.

This fighting didn’t involve only an exchange of small arms fire and a few rocket propelled grenades. This was war with all of the mechanized might of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge was then fighting with Russian T54, T55 and T57 battle tanks. These tanks were firing 100mm rounds. Khmer Rouge rockets included the Russian and Chinese 122mm and 130mm long range variety.

On the Lon Nol side were American tanks and really big artillery that included 105 and 155mm howitzers. Not to mention US bombing support 3 times per day from F111s, Phantoms and T28 jets based in Vietnam and Thailand.

Well, the team that works to clear areas surrounding Phnom Penh is called Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team 6. During the period of my support, this team cleared 20,073 m2 of mines and UXO during 86 response calls. The actual numbers of items found and destroyed included 6 antipersonnel mines and 6 antitank mines. I pressed the button to destroy one of the antipersonnel mines, and I also saw some of the antitank mines destroyed. I watched as another one was cut in half to extract the explosives and recycle them as new demolition charges.

Along the way, the team also found and destroyed 2,520 pieces of UXO. This figure was inflated by the discovery of over 500 explosive-tipped heavy anti-aircraft rounds. But, well, those are the figures, and that’s what I paid to have destroyed.

I’m tempted to say that this was a real blast. I felt so good about paying to have all this stuff blown up and recycled, that I later signed up for a second and a third 3 month period to pay for EOD Team 6.

CMAC keeps meticulous records, and the grand total of the ERW that I funded to have removed and destroyed was 5,310 pieces of UXO, 13 antipersonnel mines and 15 antitank mines.

Watching mines being destroyed is better than watching a fireworks display. There's an enormous brutality about these explosions. Fireworks are pretty, yes, but there's something that's also monstrous and hugely destructive about watching military explosives tear the earth and the sky apart.

Also, through my contacts with Australian Vietnam Vets working in Cambodia, I was part of an operation that found and destroyed an unexploded 120mm mortar shell, and a Russian PMN-1 antipersonnel mine. The PMN-1 is also called the Black Widow, because it contains around double the amount of explosive (200 gramrs) used in most other antipersonnel mines.

Both of these remnants of war were found only a short distance away from a school in Pailin province. The school grounds themsevles had been cleared of explosives, but the surrounding area was a former battlefield. There can't be too many countries with schools in the middle of former battlefields. But, well, this is Cambodia. Before we cleared the area, you wouldn't have wanted to kick a ball over the school fence and then go running around looking for it. The PMN-1 mine was easily within the distance you could kick a ball.

I later met a 14 year old boy who had stepped on a PMN-1 mine while cutting wood to help extend his house for visiting relatives. He lost both his legs and one arm, and was lucky to survive. This kid has become a spokesman for the anti-landmine movement. He said, "Even though I've lost my legs and an arm, I still have my voice to speak out against landmines."

Well, I can’t claim to have saved a single life with my clearance work. Maybe I've just saved a few dogs and cows from the explosive stuff that I've had cleared. I’ll never know. But it doesn’t really matter because I feel so good about what I did.

If you spend time in Cambodia, you’ll meet landmine victims yourself. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of amputees per capita of population in the world.

I met a man (the brother of my car driver) who had survived the explosion of a Khmer Rouge rocket propelled grenade. He then received a blood transfusion at a jungle aid station, but the blood he received was contaminated with the AIDs virus. The compensation/assistance he's received from the government? Zero.

Another story I came across was the winner of the only ever Miss Cambodian Landmine contest. Her first prize was supposed to consist of money for a university education, and a new prosthetic leg from Norway. But the money for her education didn't turn up, and the new leg, when delivered, didn't fit.

Most Cambodians in the big cities seem to be largely indifferent to landmines and UXO and the plight of victims. Comparatively few Cambodians contribute money to mine clearance or victim relief, and there seems to be a collective mentality of waiting for overseas funds to fix the problem. Well, so be it. But just a few dollars can make a big difference.

And making a difference, as I discovered, can really be a very simple undertaking. Who knows – like me, you'll never be sure if you've saved anyone. But you're going to feel really good about helping to make at least part of the world a better place.