Cambodia's land mines: A Vast, Deadly Army That Never Sleeps, Never Makes Peace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

YOU can read all about the perniciousness of antipersonnel land mines: how some look so innocuous that children mistake them for toys; how armies and guerrillas in countries like Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia have laid them indiscriminately instead of in mapped fields; and how they are 10 to 20 times more expensive to defuse or destroy safely than they are to produce.

You can read how land mines slow development by rendering fertile land untouchable and how some demining groups estimate that there may be 8 million to 10 million mines in Cambodia -- one for every Cambodian, making it the most mined country on Earth. (The US State Department puts the figure at 4 million to 7 million.)

But this sort of book learning offers only meager preparation for meeting some of the people on these pages, Cambodian soldiers maimed by mines. In its enduring struggle against the Khmer Rouge rebels, Maoist guerrillas waging civil war in Cambodia, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) routinely suffers casualties from land mines.

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Recently, the RCAF has been engaging the Khmer Rouge in the heavily mined provinces of Battambang and Preah Vihear in the northwest, causing an increase in the rate of mine casualties. Many of these soldiers are eventually brought to the military hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh.

According to local press reports, hospital officials estimate that 60 to 70 percent of the roughly 700 soldiers in the facility have been wounded by mines. Most of them are amputees.

In one of the hospital's ward rooms, a photographer and I found three soldiers from the same RCAF unit who had been wounded by mines within a few weeks of one another in Battambang.

Poev Sokha lost his left leg at the calf. He said he had spent 15 of his 31 years in the Army. What would he do now? ''I don't know,'' he replied.

The hospital is dirty and bleak. The influx of soldiers from the provinces is beyond its capacity, so patients and families crowd the hallways. Some buildings are under construction and some are falling down.

While we were talking to Mr. Sokha, another soldier from his unit rolled over on his bed to see what the commotion was. He sat up and changed position several times to find a comfortable way to rest his legs, both amputated and bandaged below the knee. He said his name was Kuon Sak and that he had been transferred from a Battambang hospital to Phnom Penh a few days earlier.

The change was a big improvement, he explained, because his family in Phnom Penh could come to feed him and help him keep clean. His wife, Chan So Pheap, said she spent the whole day in the hospital.

Mr. Sak, also a career soldier, was similarly unsure about the next phase in his life. ''I'm waiting to hear from the government.''

The government and private groups do help those wounded by land mines in Cambodia, although many people concerned with the problem are quick to note that the resources and staff available are not adequate to meet the need.

Late last month about 1,000 of these people gathered in Phnom Penh to make that point as part of an unprecedented Mine Awareness Day held across Cambodia.

''We want to send a message to the world that Cambodia is the victim of the mine,'' said Ieng Mouly, head of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) and the country's minister of information. He urged countries and private groups to continue to support demining, rehabilitation, and mine-awareness programs, some of which are facing cutbacks in funding as world attention shifts to other crises.

He appealed to mine-manufacturing countries to ''please stop producing devices that kill military [personnel] and civilians in peace and in war.''

CMAC deputy assistant director Phan Sothy said the day was designed to show Cambodia's support for an international movement to ban the use, production, export, and stockpiling of land mines.

The day began with a parade of people who have been affected by mines, either because they were injured by one or because they work to prevent that calamity or to ease its aftermath. Deminers marched, as did mine-awareness workers and farmers concerned with mines' effect on agriculture.

Some of the vehicles in the parade had posters warning people to stay still and call for help when they see a mine. Others in the parade carried graphic pictures to show children and illiterates what mines may do if they are detonated.

There were groups of people in wheelchairs, but also many others marched with ease. Only a plastic foot revealed who was or was not an amputee.

The deminers wore brand-new blue-and-green uniforms, walking silently and carefully, the way they must.

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