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Tuesday, 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 population.

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 time.

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.

KJ Müller-Griffiths is a member of the ICRC Publications Division at Geneva headquarters. In particular, she reports on ICRC operations in Asia and the Pacific. She visited Cambodia in March of this year and agreed to share some of her personal observations from the mission with Red Cross,
Red Crescent.

Thursday, 9 March 1995

After talking with the people responsible for Phnom Penh’s military hospital, we were offered a guided tour. It was probably beautiful 50 years ago. Today the buildings are crumbling and the last vestiges of paint have long since flaked off. In one courtyard, Khmer soldiers drilled and the place was alive with people — women, children, but no uniformed doctors or nurses.

We visited a ward. In each small room there were at least five beds; the corridors outside were also lined with large single beds, some even with mattresses. The most afflicted patients tended to be in the rooms whereas those with less serious wounds spent the day with their families in the corridors. Apparently the hospital should cater for some 500 patients, but on that day there were over 800, of which 500 were war-wounded.

I came across a young woman who had lost both her legs when she followed her husband onto a “battlefield” in search of rice. She was there with her husband and two children, one of whom had been burnt when the mine exploded. She’d been transported to hospital where she had her legs amputated quite a way above the knee. This was about two weeks ago in Preah Vihear. She said that she felt despondent and didn’t want to live. My legs were trembling when speaking to her. I tried to control my own emotions. I told her that she had to live because her children needed her love.

I asked the interpreter what would happen to her next. He told me that her husband would probably continue to support her. If he hadn’t been in the area and hadn’t seen her suffering, he might well have divorced her and left her to fend for herself and her children.

This woman doesn’t have much of a future. Double amputees above the knee are normally confined to a wheelchair. In western society this implies a certain degree of independence but that’s not the case in Cambodia. She may be able to get about in the dry season but she’s totally immobile when it rains as the wheels get clogged in the mud. And what about her psychological needs? Who caters to them?

It is hard to come so close to such suffering and terrible injustice and remain untouched. I felt ashamed — ashamed of how wrapped up I was in my own petty trials and tribulations. Perhaps, even for a little while, I’ll be able to remember this lady and be thankful for all that I’ve got.

Missing : letters

With great regret we have had to forego our Letters page this issue, for lack of readers’ contributions. We hope to rectify this in the next issue. So, please write and tell us your views on what you have read in Red Cross, Red Crescent — or on any other subject you would like to share with our readers.

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