Xmas Day in a Minefield
Jan 11, 2004
Disclaimer: My laptop died, which means that I am unable to properly edit this journal entry or post photos. Fortunately, there is a good Mac shop in Bangkok. I should be able to get the laptop fixed next week when I return there.
Side note: I'm starting my career as a journalist by writing another version of this journal entry. That version will be much more focused on the people of Cambodia rather than on my adventure and I will submit it for publication.
I'm cycling to the landmine museum to teach the morning English class. I see Colin cycling towards me. "Turn around", he says. "We need to pack up for a trip." He continues on and explains that HALO Trust (a de-mining NGO) was in a village de-mining. Yesterday, the supervisor's legs were blown off. They left, so we're going in.
I'm trying to convince myself not to go. In previous journal entries I've said that it's hard to get killed in a war zone (Aceh, Nepal) unless you go looking for trouble. Well, in this case I seem to be looking for trouble. Danger was a solid reason not to go, but my desire for a career in journalism seemed to outweigh the danger (in this case). If I want to be a writer then I should go. Tailing along on a de-mining expedition is something out of the ordinary. Someone should want to publish it.
It's a full day of travel to Malai. The village, on the Thai border, is one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds where the Khmer Rouge continued fighting government forces until 1998. Along the way, we're told the story of the of the farmer we're going to help. It might be a slightly tall tale, but the story goes that he has been blown up by mines six times! First he lost a foot. Later the entire leg. Most recently, only 3 days ago, he stepped on another mine. This time he blew his prosthetic leg to pieces. The Cambodians joke that he is a very lucky man. Every time he blew up his right leg!
On the way we also get a revised version of the HALO Trust story. Apparently, a year ago HALO trust was de-mining Malai. One de-miner was killed and the supervisor had both his legs blown off. No one has gone back since. This version of the story did nothing to reassure me.
Breakfast is chicken soup while watching a Chinese Kung Fu movie. The combination actually took my mind off the fact that I was about to walk into a minefield. Some shopping, then a few errands and we arrive at the minefield early in the afternoon. A quick correction: "The minefield" presents an image that there is only one minefield near this village. The entire village is surrounded by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of mines. Early in the afternoon we arrive at the particular farmer's land where we will remove some mines.
The first time that you enter a minefield and someone tells you "step only in my footsteps" you take that more seriously than you have ever taken anything in your life. We walk 50 feet into the jungle when Akira rushes off, telling us to wait. Half an hour of waiting later, I decide that if there is one time where a cigarette to calm your nerves is not only justifiable, but perhaps necessary, it is when you are waiting in a minefield. I borrow a cigarette and get half way through it before Akira calls for us.
We start by walking down a path that the villagers had previously "cleared". The path was made up of planks which we could safely step on in addition to tree roots and the trunks of fallen trees. Throughout this worse case scenarios are running through my head. "I'm going to fall off this log and be blown up!" The second half of the path Akira has just cleared. He dug small holes, a foot across and a few inches deep which we could safely step in.
After that initial terror, being in a minefield isn't as scary as I'd imagined. You take one step and don't blow up. Then another. And another. The fear dissipates and the danger starts seeming less real. Fear is replaced with a very serious caution.
We round a corner and there is a pile of mines that have just been dug up and disarmed. Akira yells "Here's another one" and Colin and I rush off to see.
NGOs de-mine using body armor, metal detectors, robots, and tractors. The technique that Akira uses only involves a machete and a shovel. Mines are designed to be set off by downward pressure. If you hit on sideways, then you'll probably be okay. Akira, strikes the ground with a shovel at a shallow angle. If it's clear then he digs a foot sized hole there and continues forward. If he finds a mine then he carefully uncovers it and disarms it.
What we're finding here are German mines laid by the Khmer Rouge about a dozen years ago. To disarm them you cut away the rubber sealant ring which has gotten gummed up over the years. Then unscrew the top half from the bottom and pull them apart. Then pop out the detonator. Now the mine is relatively safe. TNT without the detonator is quite stable. The detanator by itself is still highly volatile, but it only has enough explosives to take off a finger.
Following, dangerously close, two steps behind I watch and photograph as Akira finds and disarms two mines. After that, I decide that my journalistic obligations are fulfilled.
In 1.5 hours Akira and the villagers helping him removed 15 mines. Not a dent in the estimated 6 million mines still in the ground in Cambodia, but one farmer's land is a step closer to being usable.
Glad to hear your are feeling better. Sorry about your computer. Mine stopped for a few days but some guy in Berkeley told me how to fix it by hitting 3 keys.
I haven't written because I've been so busy with Granddma. We are going to be moving her into assisted living at the Jewish Home for the aged and selling the place in Rossmoor.
I received the registration for your mototcycle and don't know where to send it. Please let me know. Also do you want me to renew your driver's license for $24. I think it's a good idea. It's good for 4 years and will save you hassle when you come back.
Please let me know ASAP. Love you, Mom
Misha - Jan 15, 2004
Wow! Now thats a mom, a jewish one at that. Hears that her son is off disarming mines in Cambodia and she asks if he wants his driver's license renewed. I swear to god my mom would lay puppies. I'd tell you to be safe Adam, but how often can you hear that from your friends? Just remember, its hard to be a journalist after you've blown off your fingers.
Ari - Jan 19, 2004
mines. yay! more than ever I feel the urge to drop everything around me and run off to travel the world.
I agree with Misha. Fingers good, blown off stumps bad.
Louis - Jan 19, 2004
Hey Adam, your writing just keeps getting better and better! Wow mines! What misha says. Be careful!
Julia - Jan 20, 2004
I'll tell you, *my* Jewish mom certainly would make more note of the whole bomb thing.
Every time I think of doing something new and how I might be a little hesitant at the idea of "change," I think of you.
Daiv - Jan 20, 2004
Adam, you should have your web site set up in advance so that it is easy to change it to display the horrible things that have happened to you. That way you can turn the background color red, post hospital contact information, etc. all from a bed when you can only move your one remaining eyelid. I recommending posting blood type in advance, while you still have some they can test.
Hmmmm... it's not at all a bad idea. I'll think about how to implement it, and my blood type is AB+.
Porter - Jan 22, 2004
One good side effect of getting your fingers blown off by a mine... Stumpy.. is that a cool nickname or what?
It's good to see that at least one of my friends doesn't take these things at all seriously.
Christine - Jan 25, 2004
Damn! I thought I was unlucky breaking my knee. The story of the mines will definitely keep me from feeling sorry for myself if I do start. I'm glad you're safe and sound. As for the article, I'd love to read that too. I saw a great one in a magazine last year about women who demine fields and live in camps away from their families for years at a time. It might have been in Jane. Miss you.
Rachel's Mom - Jan 26, 2004
I have a huge urge to write to this friend of yours named Adam-- good Jewish mom that I am---since his own mom has her brain elsewhere. I'd tell this young man a thing or two--like: GET YOUR GODDAMN TUCHIS OUT OF THERE NOW!
"Why?" Adam says!
Because I say so!
Philip Coggan - Feb 13, 2004
Hi Adam - came here via TrekEarth. This article is certainly saleable to Thingasian.com, especially with photos. Good luck :-).
Thanks for the help and advice Phillip.
Unfortunately, ThingsAsian.com seems to be now defunct.
Landmine Mapper - Jul 30, 2004
You will be pleased to hear
that there are no records of any demining accidents in Malai commune for either CMAC, MAG or HALO Trust demining agency. HALO does not operate in the commune.
Only CMAC operates there although this is changing recently.
In addition there are no accidents recorded involving
"a supervisor having both legs blown off" by a landmine.
Accidents involving injuries to more than two proffessional deminers at once, are fairly rare due to minimum safety distances.
The area you are describing is indeed very heavily mined (as is most of the border)
From the description of your
activities above, I strongly urge you to consider improving any existing insurance coverage to include maximize payments for disability.
With regard to the drawbacks
of allowing village demining:
The most "insane" story I've heard is from a few months ago in Lao. One guy sat on top of a large US bomb trying to defuse t with a hammer while a group of six friends sat gathered around
in close proximity. None of them survived. They also had decided to drag the bomb into the village before undertaking the operation so
unfortunately the nearest hut was also demolished killing several
occupants. The results of the explosion were eye-witnessed by a MAG employee who arrived at the scene just too late to stop
By the way, a large American bomb will get you at least $50 in scrap or one to two months wages for the average villager (not just three meals).
Actually, Cambodia is never going to demine all it's land. The way mines were laid here is too random (and often too nasty, just a few here and there on a footpath or around a well or a dwelling). Add to that an extensive UXO problem and lots of tropical vegetation and you can completely forget talking about total clearance.
"Casualty reduction" is therefore the only achievable goal.
internal migration here is very rapid (to the Thai border) and is very difficult
for the demining agencies to keep up.
Add to that a doubling in prices for scrap metal and you have really
bad casualty rates this year. The knee-jerk reaction from the Government
is to plan legislation to ban mine detectors and arrest village deminers.
Need less to say the donors are not exactly happy with this decision.
A recent Handicap International report on village demining in Cambodia
is quite clear about it's importance. However, the Cambodian Government
has it's own reasons. there is too much vested interest in maintaining powerful institutions such as CMAC.
However, I think CMAC, HALO and MAG are actually doing a fairly good
job. HALO in particular is now concentrating on clearing minefields that
are "too dangerous for village deminers". Some minefields particularily in the
K-5 border mine belt have mines every square meter, an impossible task for a village deminer. HALO also considers donor money will dry up at the end of the current five year funding cycle and therefore the priority is to go for the hard jobs now while the expertise, skill and machinery is still in place...hopefully when the staff reductions come laid off deminers will be able to pick up work freelance.
Really the only way to "clear" Cambodia would be to mobilize 50,000
Royal Cambodian Army soldiers to do the job. However, when donor
money totals $25 million dollars annually why the hell would the
Cambodian Government want to hurry and do for free a job that the
donors will eventually pay for...and when it comes down to it HIV,
road accidents, snake bites (and malnutrition) kill alot more people here
so maybe the Cambodian government is right to save it's scarce resources.
Landmine Mapper - Jul 30, 2004
Where is a photograph of your "German" mine?
I'll stick to the comments that I made in the
CMAC, HALO, MAG journal entry. The math just doesn't seem to add up.
"It shocks me, but apparently one explosive device removed every 10 days per person is not only accepted, but considered good in this industry."
And here's a photo of a mine that Akira claimed was East German. [ Photo ]
Ann - Oct 13, 2006
I doubt this will be read as this is from such an old post, but I had to comment. You are right in your assessment of MAG and HALO. They are pitifully inefficient, and not because they are simply acting in a safe manner. They are simply slow because they have no incentive to work quickly, and are in the business of keeping themselves in business. HALO is clearing areas with high concentrations of mines because it makes their numbers look good. Not because they are high priority areas or too dangerous for villagers (although villagers should not be demining). The border should be last priority anyway as it is not used for agriculture. MAG and HALO are bozos and the international donor community has been bamboozled by their marketing. Argh, mine clearance is a very corrupt business, and the NGOs are right in the thick of it.
Thanks for the comment.
I actually get all of these messages.
Demining the border has to be a bit of a priority because a lot of people live on the border (at least it's a priority for them).
Do you have any suggestions for making things better?
The way that I see it, the best solution is giving help and training the the villagers who are already demining.