WHEN, 16 years after her first visit, photographer Alison Locke returned to what was once thought to be the most mined village in Cambodia, one of the first things she tried to locate was the pond that had been the water source for the village. There, she found two boys swimming and playing with carefree abandon. This was something, it struck her, that would never have happened in 1999.

Back then the pond had been freshly cleared of mines. Walkways were pegged out to show where children would go to collect water, as was often their job. A sense of danger still lingered about this place, where land mines had taken 21 casualties and claimed six lives. But it was not only the water source that held this jeopardy. Living in Maharsarob, one villager told her, had felt like “living in a war zone”, because people were still getting injured, long after the eight-year civil war ended. 

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, alongside its allies North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, had emerged victorious in 1975 over government forces backed by the United States and South Vietnam. The end of the war led to the Cambodian genocide, whereby an estimated 1.5m-3m people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge over a four-year period. Cambodians had seen unimaginable bloodshed yet many were being exposed to more still.

People in Maharsarob, Locke says, would tell their children to stick to the path. “It’s like something from a fairy story that your parents would say: stick to the path, don’t stray from the path. And it was something the children lived their lives with.”

Now, following the removal of 9,386 anti personnel land mines from the area, the people of Maharsarob can stray from the path once more. Going back, Locke found the village much changed. Many of the refugees whom she had photographed in 1999 had built homes, started to farm and were making livelihoods on the cleared land. Among them were Chaom Tauv and his family. Chaom Tauv was just 11 years old when Locke first met him. He was a lively child who galloped around the village with the aid of a homemade crutch. As a baby he had been caught by the explosion of a B40 rocket and had been so badly injured his left leg had been amputated very high on his thigh.

Land mines have been a long and destructive legacy of war in Cambodia. Many were laid after the Khmer Rouge had been driven over the border into Thailand, and were placed to prevent the return of the revolutionaries. For the most part they were laid by locals, forcibly conscripted into the K5, a plan to lay a barrier minefeld along to the full length of the Cambodia-Thailand border. But these were not the only land mines laid. Many factions did so. Khmer Rouge and monarchist opposition forces, for instance, also used them to protect newly won ground.

The village of Maharsrob had held a strategic position during the years of conflict between the Khmer Rouge and government forces and had been occupied by all sides. Most of the inhabitants of Maharsarob in 1999 were refugees who had come back across the border from Thailand. As Locke puts it: “People had returned because they had nowhere else to go. Most people knew it was contaminated land but they didn’t really have any choice where to settle. There was a lot of land grabbing going on at that time and some people literally weren’t rich enough to travel across if they were from eastern Cambodia and so they settled.” 

Enter the Halo Trust, the Dumfries and Galloway-based land mine clearance charity with whom Diana, Princess of Wales visited Angola in 1997, walking across a minefield to publicise the issue of land mines and the people who lose their limbs and lives to them after war has ended.

The trust, the first organisation to respond to Cambodia’s land mine problem, came across Mahrasarob, a cut-off village not even on the census, in 1998. Simon Conway, then a location manager for Halo and now director of strategy, had been travelling in a Land Rover with an interpreter when he was flagged down by a man at the side of the road who asked him to go to his village. The man, it turned out, was the village deminer. Already the victim of seven mine accidents, he had lost a leg. After travelling up a 10km dirt track, digging themselves out several times on the way, they found, Conway recalls, “this community which was literally living in a minefield”. 

“It was completely surrounded by mines and the people were unable to cultivate their own land,” says Conway. “They wouldn’t even go out into the fields that surrounded the houses. Because of this they were selling themselves for day labour in Thailand. But in order to get to Thailand they had to walk through the minefield.” They were, he says, “effectively living in captivity”.

One of the first things Halo did was employ locals, among them Chaom Tauv’s father, to be trained to work as deminers. “What happens is we come to these villages, which basically don’t exist and don’t get any help from anyone. Then we employ them. You hire people from the community, train them, give them protective equipment, manage them and their salaries pay for the seed they plant for their crops. Suddenly a small business grows. Then the government arrives, they get a road and a school and on the census.”
Conway recalls his initial assessment of the state of the village. “It was pretty clear from the beginning where the locals would and wouldn’t go. There was a serious mines problem. They wouldn’t even go out into the fields surrounding the houses. I think the first two devices I blew up were shells and rocket-propelled grenades they’d gathered up that were quite close to the water source. They’d had a large number of accidents around the water source.”

Chaom Tauv was 27 years old when Locke returned to the village. He and his wife had an 18-month-old baby, a child not much older than he was when he had his accident. His father, though, had died in the interim from a snakebite.

Chaom Tauv recalls how his father had once been so nervous of the mines. “We moved here in 1998 so my father could work as a woodcutter,” he says. “He was very scared about going into the woods, but had no choice, as no-one could use the land until it was safe from land mines.” But his father, using wages he had saved through his demining work, had bought seed and a patch of land on which Chaom Tauv now grew cassava. Through the Halo Trust, like many locals, they had been able to start farming.

“These people still live in a certain amount of poverty,” says Locke, “but they’re managing and Chaom Tauv is quite happy and he’s very lucky for a disabled person in Cambodia, to be married and have a child and be flourishing.” Those injured or disabled in explosions have not always fared so well, particularly, says Locke, men who found themselves suddenly unable to provide for their families. “For some of them, the idea that they can no longer provide, because that’s what they’re there for, can be completely crushing. It can devastate their lives.”

On her most recent visit Locke asked Chaom Tauv’s mother, Sen Chert, what she recalled of the incident that caused the loss of her son’s leg. She told her: “We were in our home when it was taken over by soldiers. I was cooking food for them and my son was upstairs asleep in his hammock – he was only a baby. One of the soldiers had gone upstairs and took out a B40 rocket. Suddenly there was a loud sound and black smoke. I ran upstairs and as the soldier ran out past me, I saw my son had dropped out of his hammock and I then saw his leg stuck on the wall.”

Sen Chert described how they had had to pick up her son and his leg and run to the hospital. “She said,” recalls Locke, “that the soldiers were horrified by what had happened. Soldiers helped them to the local army camp to try to get some first aid. He would have been very lucky to have lived.”
Many things had changed in Maharsarob, Locke notes, but the most significant thing is the relationship to the land. “People talk about the injuries caused by land mines, but the other big thing is the fact it prevents people from farming. Now they can walk freely into the land and farm it, and that gives them the ability to feed their families and sell crops and make a living.”

Though around half of these mines have been cleared, it is still, according to the Halo Trust, one of the “most land mine-impacted countries in the world”, with more than 64,000 casualties recorded since 1979. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates there may be as many as four to six million mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. Conway says they are still finding “similar concentrations” of mines in locations further south west, where people even now are “living in minefields”. “The thing about Cambodia is if you’re poor the only land that’s available to cultivate is mined land. So they are the most poor, most food-insecure people.”

Many more villages are still intensely mined, like Maharsarob once was. Conway believes, with sufficient funding, Cambodia could be cleared in the next 10 years. “Ending it is within reach. We finished Mozambique last year, which was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. It’d be great to see Cambodia finished.”

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