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Inside the painstaking search for five million decaying bombs in Cambodia

On a steep and slippery hillside beside a quiet village in Battambang province in north-west Cambodia, a small team is hard at work clearing land mines from conflicts decades ago.

November 5, 2022

Red warning signs featuring a skull and cross bones are dotted all over sites where de-mining is underway in Cambodia. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

It is an arduous and painstaking task, with de-miners using detectors to manually map every centimetre of the ground and a range of tools to excavate every signal picked up.

It is exhausting work too, with each person wearing body armour, a helmet, and a thick visor as the hot sun beats down through the trees and the humidity swirls thick in the air.

Red signs featuring a skull and cross bones and the words 'Danger! Mines!' are stuck into the earth in areas that are untested no-go zones – some just centimetres from where the work is underway.

North-west Cambodia was littered with an estimated four to six million land mines after the Vietnamese army ousted the brutal Khmer Rouge in 1979 and during civil conflicts throughout the 80s and 90s.

With the population expanding into once-remote areas, the risk of stumbling across an old unexploded device is a terrifying fact of modern life.

In the first six months of this year there were 40 land mine accidents.

On the minefield, everyone works alone, many metres apart, just in case there is an accidental explosion.

"At first I was very nervous doing this job, but after training I have knowledge and I'm not a novice anymore," minefield leader Oeurn Phors told the ABC.

Oeurn Phors's work involves overseeing mine-clearing efforts in Battambang province, Cambodia. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

"I feel very happy to clear mines from the ground, I'm happy to help the community."

The painstaking search for five million decaying bombs

Ms Oeurn is one of almost a thousand de-miners who work in Cambodia across different sites for international mine-clearing charity The HALO Trust.

De-mining efforts have been made more difficult by frequent rain. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

Almost half of HALO Cambodia's de-mining team members are women, and all come from the areas they are working in.

The mine action community in Cambodia has so far cleared over one million mines, according to HALO charity's deputy program manager, Claire Fearn.

"We are really committed to clear Cambodia and make it land mine free," Ms Fearn said.

"We've seen huge transformations across villages since the 1990s when we first came here – villages that were littered with land mines are now thriving with agriculture, schools, and other trade operating on that land now."

De-miner and mother-of-three Nem Sokea, 36, told the ABC getting rid of the remnants of war is rewarding work.

"We are saving people's lives from the dangers of unexploded ordnance," Ms Nem said.

Nem Sokea is a mother of three who also works to clear mines across the country. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

"On the land we've already cleared, people can farm crops and improve their livelihoods."

It is a dangerous and delicate job at the best of times, but during the monsoon season from May to November it can be even more difficult.

On the day the ABC visits the minefield with The HALO Trust team, there is a heavy, lunchtime downpour and all work has to stop immediately for safety reasons.

When it resumes, the tasks are much tougher.

"Going up the mountain is challenging because there are rocks and it is difficult to walk, [then] when it rains it is slippery and it's difficult to work," Ms Oeurn said.

Now there are concerns a changing climate could complicate their efforts.

How climate change is contributing to mine floods

According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, climate change is increasing across the globe, bringing more frequent and intense rainfall, more extreme heat, and rising sea levels.

Already, some workers on the ground are noticing the effects of changing weather conditions on de-mining efforts.

"Climate change is making it difficult for us to work," Ms Oeurn said.

The IPPC's outlook has also alarmed weapon contamination experts from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).

ICRC weapon contamination delegate in the Mekong region Kiona Bolt says she was particularly concerned that more extreme rainfall events would set back de-mining and development efforts.

Organisations now have a good idea of where many of the areas of concern are. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

"We are definitely seeing after floods and landslides that unexploded ordinances are coming up and cluster munitions mines are being moved through the soil," Ms Bolt told the ABC.

"And some land that was previously cleared is re-contaminated, meaning resurvey needs to happen, as well as possible re-clearance."

Parts of Vietnam and Laos are also littered with unexploded devices after heavy ground and aerial attacks during the Vietnam war.

Ms Bolt said a recent ICRC survey carried out in the remote, mountainous province of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam showed people there were "nervous" about the impact of climate change.

"They mentioned extreme weather conditions and climate change as the main things that concern them living with weapon contamination," she said.

Sixteen per cent of survey respondents said they had found explosive remnants of war after flooding or landslides, with that increasing over the past 10 years.

Ms Bolt added that some villagers in the Savannakhet province in south-east Laos who were living in low-lying, mine-free areas that flooded, had no choice but to uproot to lands higher up that were still contaminated.

"So what that means for de-mining efforts is teams then have to reprioritise some of the areas that they thought they could do later, and basically drop everything they were doing in one place and move to the next because that's where the needs are," she said.

Linsey Cottrell, the environmental policy officer for UK charity the Conflict and Environmental Observatory, said each mine-contaminated region around the world would be affected by climate change in different ways.

She explained that while heavy rain, flooding and landslides would increase in some areas, others might be affected by extreme heat, which could destabilise unexploded devices or make firefighting efforts more dangerous.

She said the international de-mining industry needed to prepare for, consider, and adapt to climate change "urgently".

"The guidance is not yet there to support de-mining organisations and authorities as to how this should be tackled," she said.

"The International Mine Action Standards … are not directly considering the risks of climate change, although they are looking to review and revise that."

In the meantime, the ICRC is concerned that the number of casualties from mine accidents could rise if previously cleared minefields are re-contaminated during floods or landslides, or if displaced people are forced to move to new communities that have not yet been cleared.

Discovering a landmine changed their lives forever

At the ICRC-funded Battambang Rehabilitation Centre, the human cost of remnants of war is obvious.

Inside a large gymnasium, people are taking turns to walk between hand rails to get used to their new prosthetic legs, while others are using weights and gym equipment to build up their muscles.

People use the hand rails to get used to their new prosthetic legs. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

Centre director Chan Layheng said staff help more than 8,000 patients a year and around three quarters of those were injured by land mines.

"After they're injured by land mines they need prosthetic legs and physiotherapy and other items from the centre to support their bodies," Mr Chan told the ABC.

"We work with them and we give them incentives so they can survive and so they can get a job.

"We do not abandon them."

Sey Ha, who lost his right leg below the knee forest clearing 10 years ago, has come to the centre to be fitted with a new prosthetic leg.

It will be made by skilled technicians in a factory beside the gymnasium.

"When I first stepped on the land mine I didn't hear anything, but when I moved my foot I heard it explode and then I was knocked unconscious," the 28-year-old told the ABC.

Sey Ha says he was knocked unconscious when he stood on a land mine. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)

"Later, I lost my hope and I didn't want to live anymore, but my mother consoled me and said 'there are other people with disabilities out there and they can survive, they can live', so I must do the same."

Another new prosthetic recipient, farmer Ham Sophat, 59, who lost his left foot in a mine explosion, said that after his accident, demining teams found another seven unexploded devices in his village.

"Now I tell people 'you have to be careful, don't be careless if you clear the land, you have to be careful because they laid mines during the war and there is no map'," Mr Ham said.

Much of the Mekong region has been surveyed so mine action authorities and organisations do have a good idea of where many of the areas of concern are.

But there are surprises from time to time and now climate change is throwing more uncertainty into the mix.

Farmer Ham Sophat received a prosthetic leg after he was involved in a mine explosion. (ABC News: Mazoe Ford)
By South-East Asia correspondent Mazoe Ford and Yin Soeum in Battambang, Cambodia
Source: ABC News