Danger lurks underfoot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) pose a huge threat to Cambodians.

When a group of Hong Kong students checked out demining activities on a field trip, they saw the risks taken by workers who clear the deadly explosives every day.

Landmines and UXO are a lethal legacy of three decades of conflict in Cambodia. They present a daily threat to thousands of families, and remain a major obstacle to development.

Although nearly 1.6 million landmines have been located and destroyed since 1992, an estimated four million more are buried in Cambodian soil.

Between 2000 and 2004, a total of 4,194 casualties were reported, including 1,297 victims under the age of 18, most of whom were injured while tampering with UXO.

Cambodian mine clearers are paid just US$160 a month. If they suffer a crippling injury, they will be given a one-off payment of US$3,000, which they are only entitled to if they can prove they followed all the safety rules.

'Some people are killed on the spot, some require limb amputation,' said Plong Chhaya, a United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) assistant project officer.

'The method of demining is very slow, requiring severe caution. We estimate it will take 100 years to clear Cambodia fully.'

The Unicef Young Envoys from Hong Kong, who were in Cambodia for five days, toured a minefield in a thickly forested area of the northern province of Preah Vihear.

They were allowed to go as close as 50 centimetres from unexploded mines and UXO which had been located the same day. The students watched from a distance as a cluster of UXO was destroyed using dynamite.

'I'm amazed how the deminers can do this job on such a low salary,' said Miranda Chiang Hei-yin, 17. 'They are putting their lives at risk. But they have no choice. This is the most they can earn. When I heard the explosion I was shocked at how loud it was. It's horrible to think what injuries that could cause.'

Unicef Cambodia supports various projects across the country which play a vital role in preventing landmine casualties. Schools and communities conduct mine risk education and data is collected to identify hot spots.

Veterans International Cambodia runs a rehabilitation centre in Phnom Penh, which offers vital services for landmine victims. One in 350 Cambodians are amputees.

'The rehabilitation centre is a very important place for people with disabilities,' said Mr Plong. 'It provides them with a new life, and gives the young ones a chance to go back to school.'

The Hong Kong students said they were inspired by the determination shown by the deminers whom they met during the visit, as well as the victims of mines.

'Cambodian people are poor, but it doesn't mean they don't have hope,' said Alex Leung Chun-yin, 13.

'People like the deminers show that they care about their country's future.'