JULIANNA'S JOURNEY AT UNDP CAMBODIA: MINE ACTION
Written by Julianna, JPC
Bumping along a windy dirt road within the outskirts of Battambang province, a CMAA officer to my right navigates the path using an electronic map on his tablet. Looking over his shoulder at the screen, the tablet shows real time navigation as our UNDP car barrels forward. Red and green patches are lighting up on either side of the road, showing cleared and active mine fields. It took me a minute to process that in all actuality, we were driving through active mine fields. With real landmines. That still had the ability to detonate.
As a JPC, I’ve been assigned to support UNDP Cambodia’s mine action project.
In Cambodia, the lasting effects of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) leave harrowing reminders of past conflict, while also maintaining fear of future violence in affected areas. These accidents leave lasting scars not only on the individuals harmed, but on entire communities.
The landmine and ERW issue is the result of a series of internal and regional conflicts that affected the country from the mid-1960s until the end of 1998. As a result, Cambodia remains one of the most highly mine contaminated countries in the world. Since 1979, more than 64,700 human casualties have been attributed to mines and ERWs with the highest concentration of landmines found in the northwest regions bordering Thailand. Other parts of the country, mainly the east, are impacted by ERW, including cluster munitions.
The number of landmine and ERW accidents have been dropping, from 4,320 in 1996 to 58 in 2018. However, landmines and ERW continue to hinder national reconstruction and development, as 1,734 square kilometers remain impacted by the presence of landmines and ERW, including cluster munitions
The enduring impact of landmines on vulnerable communities is not only felt in the constant fear of potential violence, but also in reinforcing cycles of poverty. Landmines prevent communities from using land and natural resources to earn a living and improve their livelihoods. In many cases, vulnerable people are desperate, feeling as if they have no choice but to farm mine contaminated lands in order to survive. This often results in injuries, and in worst cases, death. The risks are significant, as 36,020 injuries have been caused by landmines since 1979.
In response to this ongoing suffering, the Royal Government of Cambodia has committed to a country-specific sustainable development goal. CSDG 18 aims to clear all known landmines by 2025.
With the support of Australia, Switzerland, Canada and the United Nations Development Programme, the Government’s mine clearance activities focus not only on the socioeconomic benefits of land clearance, but also on providing security and peace of mind back to these same communities.
So far, the project has released 238 km2 of mine contaminated land for use by affected communities. Within these areas, 978,703 people have directly benefited from land clearance. Among these beneficiaries, 3,665 are persons with disabilities.
Beyond the prevention of causalities, mine action aims to transition communities from those affected by the trauma, to communities that are strong and resilient. The strengthening of these communities means providing support to the most vulnerable, including those physically harmed by landmines. Providing mine risk education, victim assistance and advocating for the rights of landmine survivors are key in building this resiliency. This is especially pertinent, as Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability in the Asia Pacific region as a result of landmines and unexploded ordnances.
As a JPC supporting the project, I have been fortunate enough to participate in several field visits to provinces where the project conducts mine clearance activities. The experience has been eye opening to say the least.
UNDP’s Clearing for Results Project focuses on the most densely mined provinces, those being Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Pailin. Throughout our visits, I was able to observe mine clearance operations and even a live detonation.
Perhaps the most impactful experience from our visits was hearing firsthand accounts from landmine victims, village beneficiaries and mine clearance operators. Their experiences were varied, from describing injuries, to explaining clearance operations, or the feeling of safety they now have as a result of the project.
I heard a villager in Banteay Meanchey describe the circumstances that lead to his eye injury, that while walking two of his cows towards the river to drink, the cow in front stumbled on a mine that detonated. Another villager in Pailin described the measures he would take to detonate mines on his own, by placing dried grass on the landmine, attempting to light it and running away. Children described avoiding playing in their backyards, as their parents and schoolteachers told them of the dangers if they were to come across a land mine or ERW.
Trying to understand the lasting impact past decades of conflict and landmines have on communities, especially from those who experience these traumas firsthand, is certainly overwhelming. But hearing the relief and gratitude these same communities have after knowing their villages have been deemed mine-free is also a very powerful experience.
The Royal government aims to clear the entire country of known landmines by the year 2025. This is a very large feat to accomplish, but with the right support, including from UNDP, I am hopeful Cambodians will one day be able to describe landmines as a threat from the past.