GUEST ENTRY- ALICE JACKMAN
One of the things that can get you through the re-entry depression after months of travelling is getting the opportunity to talk about all the amazing experiences you had while you were away. If anyone so much as asks how your trip went you immediately (and no doubt, annoyingly) turn into a chattering idiot, happy to regale anyone who will listen to tales of your exploits. (My TV engineer was lucky enough to receive a detailed tour of Angkor Wat just because he made the mistake of asking what Cambodia was like. Poor chap.) While some of these discussions can degenerate into esoteric ramblings that would interest no-one but your deaf grandmother, one question I was often asked was: “What was the best thing you did while you were away?”
Well, if you’ve been in this position you may think this is a difficult question, after all everyday is filled with some kind of adventure or interesting situation that you wish you could bottle up and relive when you return home. However, for me, it was a very simple question to answer. No hesitation. The best thing I did while I was travelling was visiting a minefield. Not just any old minefield that had been removed of all danger and was now open to tourists and visitors, an actual minefield where one false move and you could in all seriousness be missing a limb – or worse. This isn’t the type of trip you can book at a tourist office or even over the internet – this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I was lucky enough to have and I’m incredibly grateful for it.
So, to put this into some kind of context – how did I find myself on a rainy October day dressed in camouflage gear sitting next to an unexploded mine?
Two months previously I had started work as a volunteer teacher at The Cambodian Landmine Museum. While the museum itself documents the horror of landmines it also works in tandem with the Cambodian Self-Help Demining team, which was started and is run by Aki-Ra, the founder of the museum and its adjoining school where I worked. There are several companies that do wonderful work within Cambodia and other countries affected by landmines and UXO’s, and each deserve recognition and support for this. Its importance cannot be trivialised. But my personal experience was with CSHD, an NGO started by Cambodians and run by Cambodians (or to use the appropriate word, Khmer). Their mission is to clear mines in “low priority” areas.
If you have visited Cambodia you cannot help but come into contact with the effect that landmines have had on the Khmer people. Just walking down a street in Siem Reap the chances are you will be approached by an amputee, maybe begging, more likely to be selling books about the history of his country. I’ve had numerous conversations with them and they are friendly and polite men who are just trying to earn a living. Even if you choose not to purchase anything from them they’ll hang around for a chat, loving the opportunity to practise their English and their smiles always feels genuine. I visited Phnom Kulen waterfall a few hours out of Siem Reap. As you walk around the area there are signs all around, reminding you not to veer from the path as undiscovered landmines are still a very real threat.
Now for the statistics!
* The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there are between 4 and 6 million mines still in existence within Cambodia, while some believe this to be a conservative estimate
* Landmines can cost as little as $3 to make but $1000 to destroy
* Thirty-eight percent of injuries result from people tampering with ordinance, usually to try to get the scrap metal to sell. Fifty-six percent of injuries occur when people are trying to earn a living; farming, carrying water, collecting wood, collecting forest products, etc.
* A third of all affected landmine victims are children and within Cambodia, 15% of people injured by landmines will travel 3 days to get to a hospital*
I think the statistics speak for themselves. It’s an important, essential but dangerous job. And for a day I would get the opportunity to see how it was done.
Aki-Ra’s demining team were working outside of Siem Reap at a field that needed clearing after being a battleground for the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese during the war and they invited me to visit. I met Aki-Ra at the headquarters of CSHD and was given a tour of the offices. The facilities were basic but included a map of Cambodia with an assortment of coloured drawing pins depicting sites that had been cleared, detected or in the process of being cleared. It made a sobering picture. The majority of pins flooded the Thai border which was to be expected but what was even more shocking was the amount that were still in areas that were familiar to me. We talked about the work that was being done around the country, the impact of the 1997 Mine Ban treaty and the response that young Cambodians were having to the demining. As Aki-Ra pointed out, it is the next generation who will have to continue to clear the land to make the country safe. It wouldn’t be completed in his life time. There were just too many.
And so the four of us western girls (I was encouraged to bring some of the other volunteers with me – this was educational after all) climbed into the truck and made the short journey to the minefield. At this point I didn’t know what to expect. I’ll be honest – despite my fascination with the country, its history and its people, I wasn’t convinced that I wouldn’t be bored. It was raining and we would be standing around outside and it was basically a field. And I was hungry.
We approached the field along a dirt track with a lake to one side and in the distance the shadow of the mountainous jungles that pepper the landscape around the country. Swollen clouds overhead signalled the ominous arrival of a downpour. I didn’t even have a coat. At the side of the road were the make shift living quarters of the team; hastily constructed coverings over hammocks and one lying a few metres away which acted as HQ. Under a plastic sheet was a table covered in maps that displayed the entire field and which areas had already been searched and cleared. Alongside these were the contracts we were asked to sign to confirm we were aware of the dangerous nature of our visit and the CSHD were not responsible for any injury we may sustain. We gulped. We looked at each other. We signed. I wondered where the toilet was. Or at least a secluded bush.
The members of the team were immediately welcoming and friendly (despite the language barrier) and quickly donated waterproofs as well as securing our protective clothing including some fetching head gear complete with visor. If we didn’t completely feel the part of deminers we were starting to look like them, at least.
It was at this point we were informed that earlier that day a mine had been discovered about 500m from where we were standing. They were in the process of preparing to detonate it safely. Apparently this isn’t an oxymoron. Would we like to go and take a look at it? That would be an affirmative.
We followed Aki Ra and members of his team through the undergrowth, dodging overhead brambles and walking through thick puddles of mud and leaves. We were given one specific task. Do not cross the red string. The land behind the red string had not yet been deemed safe. Stick to the path. Tread carefully. We were surrounded by a dense forest and my first thought was how do they even begin to search out the mines? You could barely walk one foot in front of the other without having to avoid a tree or another unfortunately placed mass of nature. Then we stopped and in front of us was a sign: Danger!! Mines!! With a rather forbidding skull and cross bone illustration. Aki Ra walked over to a small area surrounded by this threatening red string and pointed. There was the mine. He gestured for us to come over and take a closer look.
Now, for anyone who has been in my company for more than a few hours, they will know that I am clumsy. I’m completely inept at most situations that involve me just putting one foot in front of the other. I can trip over my own feet, a leaf, an ant. I can fall off a chair in a slight breeze and stairs are my nemesis. So it was rather alarming to be invited to go and sit next to a landmine. However, I gave myself a quick talking to and with cautionary steps I moved stealth-like towards the mine. Squatting down next to Aki Ra, I saw it. Still covered in mud and protruding only ever so slightly from its muddy habitat of the last 20 years, it would be easy to miss. Pol Pot called them The Perfect Soldier. I could understand why. It wasn’t very big and yet it was both menacing and provocative. One slight move on my part and it would result in an explosion that would maim and possibly kill. I was disgusted and awed at the same time.
The next job was to, well, blow it up! There was a recommended periphery boundary that was needed to ensure safety during the explosion and so we made our way back to the deminers camp while this was prepared. This was the approved and sanctioned method of destroying mines and UXO’s but I knew that in the years following the war in Cambodia, AkiRa would deactivate them on his own with his bare hands. I asked him how long it would have taken him. He shrugged, nonchalantly. 10 minutes he responded. One of his colleagues whispered when his back was turned; “He’s being modest. It would take him 3”. We had already waited 20 minutes.
Then Aki Ra returned with what looked like a bright yellow lunch box. “Who wants to blow the mine up?” he asked with a mischievous look on his face. My reflexes have never responded so quickly in my life. My arm shot up like a cross between a ninja and Hermione Granger in a Potions class. I’d looked at that mine and decided I hated everything it stood for and now I wanted to press the button that would blow it up. That perfect soldier had become my enemy now and I wanted to destroy it.
Beckoning me forward, Aki Ra opened the “yellow lunch box” to reveal a series of buttons and flashing lights. If I followed his directions and pressed the buttons he told me to, the mine would be blown up. He patiently talked me through it. I was given commands to shout out, warning the other deminers of my progress. After counting 1, 2, 3 I was told to press two buttons simultaneously. How hard could it be: 1 – 2 – 3 – press.
And then I forgot how to count to 3. Aki Ra, the Cambodian child soldier who had never been to school, reminded me how. “But do I press it ON 3 or after I’ve shouted 3??” On 3, Alice. On 3.
There was a slight delay. Not long enough to construct any particular thought but we were all achingly aware of it. Then……..BOOM! A cloud of debris shot in to the air juxtaposed with a noise so loud but satisfying that for a moment I didn’t even react. But adrenalin started to swim through me and when I turned to my friends the look on my face (captured on camera) was the most maniacal grin I’ve ever formed in my life. The word awesome is overused – but any other word would be inadequate. It. Was. Awesome. And the thought that kept spiralling round my head was: I did that.
Afterwards, when we had returned back to Siem Reap, washed ourselves clean of the minefield and reconvened at one of our favourite eateries, the four of us reflected on our day. It was all we talked about that night. All of us had been affected by the experience; understanding the deminers bravery, their dedication to absolute detail and focus, the satisfaction of discovering a mine and then the reward of seeing it blown into the air, leaving nothing but a hole to remind them of the potential devastation it contained. We were all light-headed and giddy from the experience, but also totally respectful of it. Obviously, seeing that mine exploding in the air was exhilarating but there was a bigger picture to contemplate. This wasn’t a game or a movie set and those people risked their lives every day to make their country safer. The same week that we visited the minefield, 6 farmers were killed and two were injured, after their truck drove over an anti-tank mine. There is still a lot of work to do.
When I left the Landmine Museum, the children presented me with a gift. It was a bracelet made from the remains of an old deactivated landmine and on it bears an inscription in Khmer. The translation reads: One Mine, One Life.
Every time a landmine is discovered and destroyed, a life is saved. So, its not a hard question when people ask me what the best thing I did was. It was the day I went to a minefield and, potentially, helped save a life.
*Sources: Cambodian Self Help Demining http://cambodianselfhelpdemining.org/index.html Cambodian Mine Action Centre http://www.cmac.gov.kh/ Mines Advisory Group http://www.magamerica.org/
This unique and inspirational piece was written by Alice Jackman; traveller and teacher. You can follow her on Twitter at @sassalina .