Land Mines and Sapphires
The Gem Market
Brother Number Two
We are standing in the middle of an uncleared minefield.
Adam and I are doing our best to stay on the well-worn paths,
shifting weight from foot to foot rather than taking a lot of
unnecessary steps. Our translator is especially nervous. Several
years ago, a man he was walking with stepped on a mine and exploded
right next to him. "You can step here, here, here and here,"
he explains, motioning to the dirt around a stone embedded in
the ground. "For weeks. Even months. Then one day you step here,"
he mimics stepping on the stone with his foot. "Problem."
resource-rich province was given to the Khmer Rouge as part of
a peace agreement when a faction of the movement finally defected
in 1996. The remnants of the regime still rule this area, and,
not surprisingly, this is where the movement's senior leaders
have come to live out their peaceful retirement.
Pailin is described as "semiautonomous," a fuzzy description,
the definition of which depends on who you ask.
One of Pailin's deputy governors insists that Pailin is a province
like any other in Cambodia, one totally dependent on the central
government. But no other place we visit has its own independent
checkpoint. No other region is treated with such tender care
and consideration by the Cambodian government. No other region's
citizens get special preference for jobs and community projects.
here to talk to the remnants of the Khmer Rouge army. Many of
them now struggle to make a living by digging for rubies and sapphires
in Pailin's gem-rich hills. The northwestern part of Cambodia
bordering Thailand, where we are standing now, is the most heavily
land mine-contaminated region in the country. But these fortune
seekers don't want to wait for the official demining teams to
make this area safe.
Lev Mann is a former Khmer Rouge foot soldier. With a soft voice
and a wild shock of Beatle-style black hair, he hardly looks
like someone who just a few years ago was wielding a rifle and
killing government troops. Lev says that he had no choice in
joining the Khmer Rouge -- they threatened to kill 50 people
for every one that refused. He says he doesn't even know what
communism is. And he shows no loyalty to his former army. "The
commanders, they are rich," he scoffs. "They are doing well.
But the simple soldiers like us? We are not doing well."
that the war is over, Lev desperately scrabbles for gems on this
dusty slope. He remembers laying mines nearby during the war.
"Just a few," he says. "I was afraid of getting blown up." He
works in a pit under the hot sun, scratching at the earth with
a pickax. He tells me that he "checked over this area" before
he started digging -- but it's hard for me not to flinch each
time he scrapes the ground. With every swing of the ax, Lev might
hit a mine, maybe even one that he himself once laid.
Behind us, a flatbed truck full of miners makes too wide a turn.
The front wheel veers off the dirt road into the scrub brush.
Our translator yells at them to be careful. They laugh and ignore
him, backing the truck even further off the road to turn the
vehicle around. "Oh, this is bad," the translator says, and
he hunkers down in a squat facing away from the road, holding
his head in his hands. He stays like that for a long time, until
we can't hear the truck anymore.
Most of Lev's fellow miners seem pretty nonchalant about the
possibility of imminent explosion. One dozes on the ground,
splayed out behind a pit. So much of Cambodia has yet to be
officially cleared that most people seem completely accustomed
to tripping lightly along paths that are undoubtedly bordered
by deadly traps. Farmers move into new, potentially hazardous
plots, clear the land as best they can and take their chances.
Each month in Cambodia, 60 to 70 people, most of them children,
are injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance.
admits that he's not quite as casual as he appears. "I'm afraid
because I have to dig here. I'm afraid I'll get an arm or a leg
blown off." He gives a shy, embarrassed smile. "But if I find
a big stone I might be rich."
Lev hasn't found a stone in weeks and has been forced to borrow
money just to buy rice for his family. He hauls up a big sack
full of the dirt he has excavated and drags it down to a nearby
stream. He dumps piles of the dirt into a bamboo sieve. He sits
in the water and carefully sifts for any elusive treasures.
Somehow he manages to see the faint blue sparkle in the mud
-- a small sapphire. We ask what he can get for it from the
gem traders in town. He calculates. "Four hundred Thai baht."
That's 50 cents. Lev ambles back across the river -- the day
is early yet. There are mines, but there are also gems, and
who knows what might lie under the next shovelful of dirt.
PAILIN: The Gem Market
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