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UK charity workers brave dangers to clear Cambodia of landmines

Published 27/12/2015

The HALO Trust included a mannequin as part of an anti-landmine photography exhibition mounted in the US
The HALO Trust included a mannequin as part of an anti-landmine photography exhibition mounted in the US

Forty years after the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge swept to power in Cambodia, British charity workers are leading the effort to clear the landmines that are still the scourge of the country.

Cambodia is one of the most densely landmined countries in the world - a legacy of decades of internal war - and at one point one in every 235 Cambodians was a victim of them.

Often no bigger than a fist, these deadly weapons can lie dormant in the ground for decades before being triggered and maiming or killing anyone unlucky enough to be in its path.

Susanna Smale, from the HALO Trust de-mining charity, said the scars they leave behind can be seen everywhere - from the locals on crutches with missing limbs, to the large stretches of land left unfarmed because of the landmines just beneath the surface.

She told the Press Association: "If you are living inside a minefield or beside a minefield, or the farmland that has been allocated to you is a minefield then, obviously, that impact is huge. Both in terms of the injuries they can cause, but also the development it holds back.

"Immediately post conflict you had huge numbers of people returning back to Cambodia, displaced people, and that was when the accident rate was through the roof, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

"But accident rates are still significant. And now there are a lot of anti tank mine accidents, which is an increasing problem as more people return to the countryside to farm the land."

Beneath the piercing sun a team of de-miners from The HALO Trust, a charity made famous when Diana, Princess of Wales visited their field in Angola shortly before her death in 1997, are undergoing the painstaking task of clearing the mine fields.

They are working on a stretch of land near Anlong Veng, a town famous for having the grave of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot - who was responsible for the deaths of up to three million Cambodians.

The town was the last Khmer Rouge stronghold, and when it finally fell in 1998 many internally displaced people returned to their homes and discovered the area had been heavily mined.

So The HALO Trust, a British charity which has its headquarters in Scotland, moved in to clear the area.

De-miners are clearing a field near the town which locals have been unable to farm because of the mines. When they are done, four families will cultivate the land.

Ms Smale said: "You have areas where you clear that start off as an incredibly small village and with more clearance grow and grow and grow into a very considerable community with a good amount of farmland.

"That is hugely rewarding, you can really see the impact of the job, and in some places that is so instant as well. You can see the benefits straight away, as well as knowing you are taking that risk away immediately from local people, local children."

The first major use of landmines in Cambodia came in 1979, when Vietnam invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge - the Communist rulers who came to power four years earlier and slaughtered millions in their ruthless pursuit of an agrarian socialist society.

The Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge north into Thailand and laid millions of mines along the entire 750km stretch of the border in a notorious barrier known as K5.

State of Cambodia forces laid further mines to defend villages from the Khmer Rouge, who also planted the weapons to protect land they had gained.

The result is a deadly patchwork of munitions that litter whole swathes of the country, killing locals, holding back development and impoverishing communities.

The HALO Trust began de-mining in Cambodia in 1991 and has cleared more than 222,000 mines. Cambodia plans to complete its mine clearance by 2025.

Toeur Ron Sok, who worked as a de-miner before becoming Ms Smale's translator, said: "Before, I was afraid of the mine. But then I thought 'because of the mines we don't have land, we don't have arms.

"So I think 'I'm not afraid, I'll come and clear the mine to save people in Cambodia'. So I think I am strong, I am not afraid any more."

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