Courtesy of Landmine Relief Fund
Kneeling behind one of the de-miners, a young girl of 20, I synch my breathing to hers, moving as she moves, sliding my knees ever so gently, watching for any tell-tale sign or a depression in the dirt. She uses gardening shears to clear overhanging brush and runs a knife around the edges of her detector to make sure it is functioning properly before passing it almost unperceptively over the ground from left to right then back again several times. It is like watching paint dry and the only sound is the beating of my own heart. It is the most intense feeling, senses heightened, sound magnified, ears scanning for the slightest nuance, eyes probing through the dirt itself. When that six inch swath gives no warning she moves the red painted board forward to the limit of her scan, another few inches made safe.
In an hour we move ten feet when a screech comes over the headphones and she kneels, slowly begins to clear dirt, inserting her trowel at an angle so as not to apply any pressure on the mine should that prove to be the culprit. A mere 10 pounds of pressure is all it takes to enter the hereafter. With infinite patience she scoops dirt away revealing the green curved rim of a Russian made anti-personnel mine. It is only six inches around and four inches high but packed with ball bearings that when ignited will send dozens of metal balls screaming at 300 miles per hour to rip a human body to pieces. Word goes out over the radio and Akira comes running. In a few minutes he has lived up to his slogan, "One mine at a time."
Risking Death for $250 a Month
All of the team is young; at about 40 Akira is the eldest by far. They are all dedicated professionals who are aware of the nobility of their work and are intensely proud. Three of them are young girls and the senior field supervisor is a young woman of 24 who uses her meager-to-us salary of about $250 US dollars a month to fund a library and school for her village. There is no dark humor here, no death jokes, as death is a constant passenger on everyone's shoulders whenever they are at work.
They have chosen a life of self-denial that is almost as monastic as the iconic robed monks the country is known for. In their military fatigues bearing the logo of the de-mining organization, they are treated as local heroes and Akira is rapidly attaining superstar status. By his own estimate though, it will take another decade to rid Cambodia of most of its land mines.
Land mines date back hundreds of years and are found in over 100 countries, but Cambodia, with its war-torn past, is near the top of the list for sheer saturation. In Cambodia today there are an estimated 63,000 land mine victims alive and that means one out of every 290 people in the country has suffered from their destructive power. While Akira believes he has personally cleared about 50,000 of them, there is still an estimated 3-5 million left in the ground. Worldwide it is estimated that close to 100 million land mines are still in the ground, many left from the Second World War but still lethal nonetheless. While industrial nations are loathe to give out casualty figures, the de-miners I was with claim there are close to 4000 victims of the "perfect soldier" annually.
No one knows how much unexploded ordinance is still in the ground worldwide. Each unexploded bomb, rocket, missile, mortar and artillery round is a time bomb waiting for ignition as for most there is no time limit at which they become inactive. The longer they lay buried, the more unstable they become.
When I leave I take a final look at Akira sitting by a campfire laughing with his troops. It had been a good day. He had blown up five mines.
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Photos by James Dorsey and Landmine Relief Fund
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Stories in Stone: Walking Vietnam's Long Wall by Ben Keene
A Dollar and a Dime in Vietnam by Richard Sterling
Picnicking at the Ruins of Angkor by Michael Buckley
Raiders of the Lost Temple in Cambodia by Michael Buckley
See other Asia travel stories from the archives
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