Cambodians flock to mine-infested border

Western Cambodia is peppered with anti-personnel mines. Source: Wikimedia

Landmine clearance teams in Cambodia say their task to make development sustainable is becoming more urgent as road construction means people are moving to areas covered with explosives.

Thousands of Cambodians are seeking homes and farmland in areas previously cut-off from development as the road runs next to the infamous K5 landmine belt.

Around two million mines were laid along the Thai frontier between the late 1970s and early 1990s by Vietnamese and later Cambodian forces, hoping to push the Khmer Rouge out of the country.

Thousands of Cambodians have been killed or maimed in the region.

Staff from the Thai Mine Action Centre are visiting Cambodian counterparts this week to develop stronger bilateral cooperation to clear mines along the border.

Wittaya Wachirakul, director of the centre, and nine of his colleagues will tour three provinces – Kampong Chnnang, Battambang and Siem Reap – to see Cambodia’s 72 mine-sniffing dogs in action and training.

Unexploded ordinance casualties for between last year and this February show five of the top six provinces for casualties are located along the Thai border.

Since 1991, the Scottish Halo Trust charity with UK and US backing has cleared more than 1,000 square km. Its 1,000 mainly Cambodian full-time staff needed to work in the country until at least 2025, it estimated.

In Chub Koki village, Oddar Meanchey province, homes are being built just metres from sites where anti-personnel mines had been uncovered.

Using ground-penetrating radar and other technology, sappers have unearthed more than 100 anti-personnel mines near Chub Koki in the last four months.

Susanna Smale, a Halo manager in the province, said villagers were waiting to move to their new homes.

“In the area which we are clearing they have plans to build houses for another 45 families and they’ve already started to cultivate some of the land where mines have been found,” Smale said.

Neighbouring Banteay Meanchey province suffers from similar problems.

Major clearance is being carried out along the route of the new roads that are set to boost the population.

Teams of sappers are working to stay ahead of the new residents but people are heading to uncleared areas of the K5 mine belt to fell trees to build homes and to collect resin for sale.

“Because they are poor families, they’ve no option but to go into the uncleared areas. It’s very dangerous”, said Nhim Rina, a Halo manager in Banteay Meanchey.

Near the village of Damnakakor, Halo has destroyed more than 7,000 anti-personnel mines, 200 pieces of unexploded ordinance and 21 anti-tank mines.

The increasing use of tractors and ploughs in farming has meant that anti-tank mines laid by the Khmer Rouge are being triggered.

Around 135 accidents involving anti-tank mines have been reported in the last five years, often in minefields that were unknown.