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Mine Fields in Cambodia

December 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JONATHAN SILVERS: 11:00 A.M. at the emergency hospital in Battambang Province, Cambodia: Three patients have already passed through the operating room since the surgical team began work at dawn. This is the fourth: A farmer who, two days earlier, stepped on a landmine while clearing a neighbor’s field. The patient is more fortunate than most. He lost only a small amount of blood in the incident, and his leg, while severely damaged, remains intact. The team is hopeful that reconstructive techniques new to Cambodia will restore at least partial use of the foot. Since its opening in 1999, the hospital has been overwhelmed with landmine victims. No one is turned away. 34-year-old Sam Po is typical of the hospital patients. A rice farmer in a remote village, he suffered massive damage to his face and torso eight days ago, when his ox cart ran over an anti-tank mine.

SAM PO (Translated ): I’m very worried. I don’t know how I can support my children and my wife now. I was a strong man, and now I’ve become badly disabled. I’m worried about keeping my family safe.

DR. DALE GREEN, Surgeon: We see many more mine victims at this time of year because there’s much more activity in the fields, and people are stepping on minds more frequently than in the wet season.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Dr. Dale Green has been a volunteer surgeon with the hospital since it opened. A native of Canada, he supervises half the operations here, and trains the resident medical team in modern surgical techniques.

DR. DALE GREEN: It’s frustrating and tiring, because you’re often the only person available. So you’re on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And we’re fortunate here, though, that the local surgeons do a lot of the night work. And they’re becoming increasingly more independent and, you know, in a few years, we probably won’t be needed here at all. We really don’t want to know, I think, that other people are suffering as much as they are here. It’s of interest that often when I go back to Canada and I talk to people… ( choking up ) …

JONATHAN SILVERS: The workload has taken a toll on the staff’s emotions. Cambodia’s fields and jungles conceal upwards of four million mines and countless pieces of unexploded ordnance. These weapons have killed an estimated 80,000 Cambodians since 1970. One person in every 250 has been maimed or crippled in mine incidents. One-third of all mine incidents occur here in Battambang. The province served as a stronghold for Khmer Rouge guerillas until the movement collapsed, in 1998. The village of Tathouk has been especially hard hit. One family in ten here has suffered a mine-related injury.

HOR VOEUN (Translated): The Khmer Rouge laid mines everywhere in the village, and then fled. I believe this is one of the most heavily mined places in Cambodia.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Hor Voeun lost a leg to a mine in 1994. Two years later, a mine claimed his eldest son. He is 68 years old.

HOR VOEUN (Translated ): Now I’m getting old and I cannot walk without pain. Because of the mines people are very afraid to travel, to take their crops to market. They’re afraid to do anything.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The psychic toll on the villagers is as great as the physical. 30-year-old Yo Chat lost her left leg to a mine seven years ago. She believes her disability has made her an outcast.

YO CHAT ( Translated ): I’m an orphan. I live alone and work alone. No man will marry me because I have only one leg. This is a hard life, but now I’m used to it.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The people of Tathouk were granted a measure of relief recently. It came in the form of a demining unit from the Cambodian Mine Action Center. The C-Mac unit began by clearing the main road of mines, an act that effectively reconnected the village to the outside world. The miners proceed by inches– scanning, probing, clearing no more than a few square meters a day. C-Mac is the largest demining organization at work in Cambodia. It is supported by the United Nations Development Program Trust Fund. In less than one decade, the trust has helped transform a makeshift effort into a professional force. This transformation has been accelerated by the United States. The United States is the largest single contributor to global mine action, having launched demining programs in 38 countries. The director of the State Department’s Office of Humanitarian Demining Programs is Donald “Pat” Patierno.

DONALD “PAT” PATIERNO: The United States has been clearing landmines, or helping countries clear landmines, since 1988. What we do is approach a country that has asked us for assistance. And we say, “okay, what form of assistance would you like? You know the problem better than we do. You know the implications of the problem better than we do. How best can we help you?” And then we work with that particular country to design a specific program of assistance to meet those needs.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Despite its growing role in humanitarian demining, the United States is not a signatory to the 1997 Ottawa Convention, which bars antipersonnel mines. While 143 countries are now legally committed to the treaty, the U.S., China, and Russia, are not. The U.S. has said it will see to the Ottawa treaty if and when viable alternatives to antipersonnel mines are developed. The U.S. has signed a more limited treaty that significantly restricts the use of mines and conventional weapons. In the meantime, the U.S. has quietly emerged as a major financial supporter and demining participant, launching and expanding mine clearance and rehabilitation programs around the world.

DONALD “PAT” PATIERNO: The focus needs to turn to clearing mines from the ground. That is starting to happen. And also, we are starting to see less and less in here, less and less criticism of the United States, because people are starting to recognize that the U.S. Really is indeed a world leader in helping to landmines out of the ground.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Major Ralph Skeba of the United States army oversees demining programs funded by the Departments of State and Defense.

MAJOR RALPH SKEBA: What we would like to do is reduce the casualties to zero. That doesn’t mean that all the landmines are going to come out of ground. What that means simply is that these areas are identified, they’re marked, and they will be cleared at a later time. What’s most important is to get the areas that are populated, most heavily populated, and the areas that will be used for economic development in this country, cleared and free of landmines. It does… it does get emotional particularly for me, myself, when I see the children. I have a daughter, and I can’t imagine the pain of the parent that has children that are landmine victims. You have to put that aside, and you have to drive on with your mission.

JONATHAN SILVERS: While the density of mines is unusual, the Tathouk site is otherwise a straightforward operation. Deminers have exposed the mines which are too dangerous to move and must be destroyed where they’re found. A munitions expert sets charges around them and lights the fuse. (Explosion) Since 1993, more than 160 square kilometers have been cleared of mines, and over 400 mine fields have been surveyed and marked. Ironically, the peace and stability that have returned to the country have increased the risk of injury.

ARONLD SIERRA: In Cambodia, they have been at conflict for so long that people are eager to return to the normalcy of their lives and they’re eager to get back to their homes. And sometimes they don’t wait to get back for the deminers to do their job, and they go in and reoccupy what used to be their village, which unfortunately may or may not be mined, and in some cases they are actively mined, but they’re putting themselves at tremendous risk.

JONATHAN SILVERS: With demining organizations unable to meet surging demand for housing and cropland, a growing number of people are attempting to clear suspect land on their own. In one day, this villager cleared 13 mines from a plot he chose for his family’s home. Word of his haul reached a nearby demining unit, which responded by declaring a mining emergency. The area was evacuated, charges were placed, and the mines were destroyed. (Explosions) The experience left the villager shaken.

SAM-MEEN ( Translated ): I’m working now to clear my property. I think I’ve located all the mines, but who knows for certain? Everywhere we go we have to watch our step. I’m afraid I’ll become an amputee. Then what will happen to my family?

JONATHAN SILVERS: Owing t o their skill or luck, freelancers have cleared more land than the largest professional demining organizations. Their work, however, is unreliable. More than half of all mine incidents occur on peasant- cleared land. Each month, another 50 people are killed or maimed by mines. That’s down from over 500 just a few years ago. Nonetheless, one Cambodian in 45 is an amputee. The Research and Development Laboratory at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is thousands of miles from the nearest mine field. Geographic distance notwithstanding, the engineers of this U.S. Department of Defense facility helped clear the most hostile mine fields on earth, by developing technologies to neutralize an unprecedented array of mines and unexploded ordnance.

DONALD “PAT” PATIERNO: There’s definitely been some improvement in the last five years. And that’s just because of the experience that the international community has brought with it. There are an enormous number of commercial and non-governmental enterprises that have become very expert not only at training deminers, but also to ensure that the logistics training, as you call it, is available to continue to provide the necessary supplies and equipment.

JONATHAN SILVERS: At the end of fiscal year 2002 in September, the United States was supporting demining activities in 38 countries, as well as in the province of Kosovo and Northwest Somalia. Total U.S. funding since 1988 exceeds half a billion dollars, the largest commitment of any nation involved in humanitarian demining activity. The White House and Congress have indicated the U.S. commitment will likely grow in the years ahead. And operations are currently being expanded in Afghanistan and post-conflict regions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Once considered an all but impossible task, humanitarian demining is no longer a question of if, but when. For millions of villagers, there’s not a moment to waste.