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Unmaking the mines of Mekong

It was on an unrelentingly hot day last week when Sok Chenda dived into the Mekong River and helped change how Cambodia deals with a deadly chapter of its history.

He slipped into the warm water, adjusted his mask and scuba gear, steadied his breathing and slowly began his descent several metres below, where the river water gradually turns from pale to thick, acidic yellow.

Down there, in a lonely world of swirling sediment and the sound of one’s own breathing, Chenda was feeling for something in the cloudiness. And then he saw it: a live, 225kg Mark 82 aircraft bomb that had wedged itself in the river bed, still in the same position 40 years after it had fallen.

Working meticulously and methodically, Chenda carefully fixed a cable to the metal carcass, connecting the bomb to an inflatable lift bag. The bomb was pulled free and towed to land, where it was then driven to a desolate field and sawed into three parts by a remote-controlled machine. The explosive matter was then set alight.

The Mark 82 was a relic from the 1960s and 1970s, when Cambodia was pounded by an estimated 2.7-million tonnes of ordnance dropped mostly from American planes as the war in Vietnam spilled over the border.

Had it met its target all those years ago it would have probably blown a vast hole in Cambodian soil, where at least 2 000km2 of land remains contaminated. Possibly several thousand tonnes of munitions are still under water.

Even today, unexploded mines and bombs kill hundreds across the country. Before now, this bomb’s extraction would have been near impossible: Cambodia’s de-mining operations are focused primarily on land clearance and have simply lacked the technical skills to handle such salvage.

But then Chenda and his colleagues from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre endured two years of gruelling army-style training to get to this turning point in the country’s efforts in UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance, becoming part of the first team to safely salvage a deadly remnant from one of the country’s main waterways.

The feat was nothing short of remarkable, not least because it came just two years after they learned how to swim, then scuba dive, then develop the composure to clear bombs in such an unusual environment using only their sense of touch.

“We looked at people who were learning fast,” said Allen Tan, country director of the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, which works on mine and UXO clearance and provided training for the team with funds from the United States state department.

“Forty candidates had to learn how to swim and scuba dive safely in 30 days,” said Tan. “That is quite a learning curve and it was intense … But the number one thing was: Did they have heart?

“To make it in this, you have to have very good resolve. You have to want it so bad to be able to make it through and be willing to really push yourself.”

Some failed; some simply dropped out. Two candidates were failed just two days before graduation “because it’s that serious”, Tan said.

“You can’t be their friend, because they could die. You have to take people on merit solely. We assign them numbers; we didn’t know their names and we didn’t want to know.”

In the end, he said the 10 graduates – one has since left the team – spent the next two years in further training and developed the skills needed to work in such a “mentally tough environment”.

Chenda, who spent 16 years clearing explosive ordnance on land, said he was happy to have changed direction, despite the intensity of the training.

“It was difficult to see – we could not see,” he said of his dive. “But I was not scared. I was focused.”

Mike Nisi, Golden West’s chief of underwater operations, said the procedure was “textbook” in its execution.

As well as the vast number of bombs dropped aerially, it is estimated that up to 300 weapons supply boats from South Vietnam were sunk by Khmer Rouge forces to stop them from reaching the US-backed Lon Nol army in Phnom Penh.

Like so many other remnants of conflict, the bomb Chenda brought to the surface may well have stayed unnoticed in the thick river mud, its fins protruding at a sideways angle, had it not caught on the net of a 42-year-old fisherman, Yor Dieb, last month.

Dieb, who has fished these waters in a tranquil part of Kandal province for the past 20 years, knew the significance of his snagged net only when he dived in to liberate it by hand.

“I was scared,” he said, not least because it is the second bomb he has caught his net in 10 years on this stretch of water, across which boats also ferry people.

According to the most recent report issued by the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, 64 496 ordnance-related casualties have been recorded since 1979. Of these, 19 708 people were killed, 35 822 were injured and 8 965 had to undergo amputations.

The mine action authority is now able to turn its attention to remnants found underwater, as well as to the roughly 20 000 calls it receives every year from members of the public who come across suspicious-looking devices.

“We have found a number of cases where people have been wounded or killed by munitions under the water, even mines, when people use the traditional bamboo tools to catch catfish … and when they come to pick up those tools, they blow up,” said the body’s director general, Heng Ratana.

For Dieb, the fisherman, the need for more focus on making river-bank communities safe from ordnance is important.

“Fishermen are so scared about finding more bombs,” he said. – ©?Guardian News & Media 2015

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