7 March 1995
We drove through the town of Siem Reap with
its small shops, crumbling apartment blocks and royal palace.
Soon the only signs of civilisation were the occasional hut
and table laden with soft drinks. After travelling across
an abysmal sand track Taeong stopped the landcruiser near
the mine field and we got out to walk the rest of the way.
The road had been cleared of mines before work began on the
actual mine field. Nonetheless, I had to make a conscious
effort not to walk behind him.
Taeong is employed by Halo Trust, a humanitarian
mine clearance outfit which works on sites where mines are
unlikely to be replanted and which are important to the civilian
On arriving at the mine field, I met Urs Boegli,
head of the ICRC’s delegation in Cambodia, Robin Biddulph,
head of Halo Trust in the Siem Reap area, and the members
of a film crew shooting a documentary about mines in Cambodia.
I was feeling slightly nervous as to where I should stand
but Robin soon put me at ease. I had to wear protective glasses
so that if any explosive was “initiated” at least
I wouldn’t lose my sight. What a consoling thought.
Just the odd limb or two.
The mine field was marked by red-and-white posts.
I could walk freely around this area but was told not to walk
between white posts as this indicated land not yet cleared.
I shot a glance around the field so that I could be very sure
of where not to go.
Robin gave me some background information. Halo
Trust had spoken with local officials to find out where there
was a problem of mines. This particular mine field was on
good, arable land near a river. In addition, a handful of
returnees had settled here and the commune wanted more displaced
people to leave the overcrowded neighbouring villages.
With a shock I noticed two typical Cambodian
huts located on the site, with at least four small children
living in them. Two of the children were no older than my
three-year-old son, Benjamin. Although the huts appeared to
be on land cleared of mines, how could they be sure that the
children would not wander off into more dangerous territory?
Could they clearly distinguish the area between red-and-white
posts? The only analogy I could find was to build a small
house in the middle of a roundabout on a very busy street.
I wouldn’t do that. Why do they?
Simple. They have no choice. This was probably
where they used to live. Cambodians are very attached to their
own land. As returnees, they have nothing. They have to go
somewhere and survive somehow. Later in the day I was even
more upset to see the four children with a herd of cows heading
right across the mine field towards the river! Apparently,
the Cambodians themselves had “tested” a path
to the river and this was what the children were using. This
might be safe now but if the rainy season starts before the
area has been cleared, the remaining mines could easily drift
towards the path. Thankfully, they all came back safely. This
During the three hours or so spent at the site,
the deminer meticulously cleared a narrow path of 20 metres
or so. Nobody knows how many mines are strewn throughout the
country. With a mine costing $3 to buy and up to $1,000 to
clear, it’s understandable why poverty-stricken Cambodia
will probably never be rid of this deadly menace.