Cambodia's landmine legacy
Decades after the end of war, landmines still devastate lives.
(View my documentary images).

Wedged between Viêt Nam, Laos, Thailand and the Gulf of Thailand in South East Asia, Cambodia is the third most intensely mined country in the world after Columbia and Afghanistan. The legacy of Cambodia's civil war, an estimated 2 - 6 million landmines threatened and destroyed human lives while rendering 35% of its land unusable. With roughly 40,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio of landmine victims per capita in the world.

In the late 1960's, the American war on Viêt
Nam crossed the border into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos to the north. Massive American aerial bombing of the countryside destabilized the Lon Nol government in Cambodia, causing hundreds of thousands of Cambodians to seek shelter in the capitol, Phnom Penh. The insurgent guerilla forces of the communist Khmer Rouge were able to gather strength during this period of instability and eventually seized power in April 1975.

In the four short years between 1975 and 1979, an estimated four million Cambodians died under the brutal agrarian policies of Pol Pot and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. The country was cast into the dark ages, cut off from the rest of the world as the genocide that tortured
Cambodia began with year zero.

During these terrible years, the Khmer Rouge regularly launched raids into southern Viêt
Nam - an area they claimed as part of the Khmer empire - causing the deaths of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. Eventually, at the end of December 1978, Viêt Nam invaded Cambodia to protect itself, and in only two weeks liberated Phnom Penh from Khmer Rouge control - installing a new government led by two defected Khmer Rouge officers. The Khmer Rouge then launched a civil war of attrition from rebel camps near the Thai border that frequently targeted civilians, and besieged Cambodia as it attempted to recover from the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.

The Vietnamese withdrew their occupying forces in 1989, but
Cambodia's civil war continued until the death of their leader - Pol Pot - in 1998, and the ensuing mass defections of Khmer Rouge combatants to the government side. During almost twenty years of civil war, millions of unmapped landmines were laid, which still hold the land and people hostage.

Landmines continue to kill long after a conflict has ended, resulting in great human suffering and profound economic damage. While half of all landmine victims are believed to die within minutes of the explosive’s detonation, most civilian victims who survive never receive medical care.

Secondary effects of land mine contamination such as reduced access to farmland, irrigation channels, trails and roads mean that those displaced during armed conflict may not be able to return to their homes. Simply gathering firewood becomes a perilous activity. Yet, motivated to feed their families and return as much as possible to a normal life, many people do return as subsistence farmers despite the dangers, given the alternative choice of a life as a refugee and possible starvation. After returning home, people frequently make individual attempts to clear the mines themselves, usually resulting in further tragedy and suffering. The presence of landmines also impedes important construction and rebuilding of rural communities after a conflict has ended. The indiscriminate nature of landmines means that they target civilians, making them a violation of international humanitarian law.

The vast majority of mine-infested countries are third world, devastated by war and unable to afford effective mine clearance programs and medical facilities to provide prosthesis and rehabilitation to victims. The cost of a prosthetic limb and proper fitting are beyond the financial means of the victim, making international relief the only way that victims receive the artificial limbs and rehabilitative care they need.

Every stump is unique and changes shape and size as it ages, thus requiring long term care - even an illness and the amputees diet will have an effect. A child amputee needs to have their prosthesis changed every six months to accommodate their changing body, and an adult every three to five years - while prosthetic rubber feet need to be changed as often as a pair of shoes.

Certainly today - through the efforts of a great many people and worthy organizations - the issues surrounding antipersonnel land mines have come to the forefront of public consciousness. By March 2013, the Mine Ban Treaty (the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction), had been signed and ratified by 160 countries, while one country has signed the accord but not ratified it. Notable countries that have not signed or ratified the treaty include the
USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan North Korea and South Korea.

While it is vital that all nations ratify the treaty, if every country in the world signed the treaty today, landmines, unexploded ordinance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) are still an issue that must not become a noble cause of yesterday. If no landmines were ever planted again, those that already exist in the ground will continue to maim and kill indiscriminately until they are all removed - which could theoretically take hundreds of years.

Considering that most countries plagued by landmines are devastated by war and have impoverished, third world economies, it is vital that humanitarian values continue to support the international relief efforts that provide prosthetic limbs, rehabilitative care and mine clearance programs and technology to countries like Cambodia.

Progress has been made globally since the treaty to ban landmines was signed in 1997, and through intensive demining. While by 2014, many of the major interior minefields of
Cambodia have been cleared, and casualty numbers have decreased from 875 in 2005, to 211 in 2011, much work is still to be done. Landmines, UXO’s and ERW’s still exist as major obstacles to Cambodian social and economic development decades after the end of war.

978 words.
Copyright Protected by British, documentary photographer, Adrian Brown.
A version of my original this article was featured in the Toronto Star, beside six images on 29/12/2001.

Informative websites.
The International Committee for the Red Cross
The Cambodia Trust

The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation
MAG International
The American Red Cross
International Campaign to Ban Landmines
The Halo Trust