In Cambodia, which is roughly the size of Kansas, more than 4 million land mines and other unexploded ordinance lie beneath the earth.

If you meditate on this — and the fact that the annual monsoon rains can often uproot, transport and rebury mines in new locations — you may, like me, choose to stay safely on the trail.

Unfortunately Cambodia’s population is growing. And even though the fatalities from this terrible legacy of three decades of war are dropping, with average incomes  around $750 per year it’s getting harder and harder for Cambodians to remain cooped up. Families desperate for land have tremendous incentive to plant crops near to areas where mines are known to be buried. Women fetching water forget themselves and walk a few feet off a path. Construction crews hit anti-tank mines while digging a well. Little boys discover a strange object in a field and detonate it while kicking it around.

Last month I went with representatives of The HALO Trust to visit the notorious K5 Minefield in northern Cambodia. The experience taught me a lot about how these weapons of war are left viciously in place well after the fighting ends.

I learned about the heroic work of de-mining organizations, which even with the best of processes in place sometimes ends in tragedy. And I was reminded about the importance of memory in social change — how easy it it is for the global community to forget about a community in crisis as time goes on.

Samples of mines put to work in Cambodia since the Viet-American War.

Samples of mines put to work in Cambodia since the Viet-American War.

Slow Motion Crisis

My day began with a briefing at HALO Trust’s Siem Riep headquarters. As Projects Officer Camilla Thurlow explained, for 20 years landmines were an important part of the military strategies of first the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese armies, and then the State of Cambodia. Mines could be bought cheaply from the U.S., China and the Soviet Union and easily installed by barely trained soldiers or conscripted civilians. Eventually the entire border between Thailand and Cambodia was sealed — so many mines were put in, in fact, that often many of those who placed them can’t recall where.

Today huge tracts of land in Cambodia sit untrusted and unused, crimping Cambodia’s future and crippling its people. More than 64,000 people have died from landmines and unexploded ordinance since 1979. And Cambodia’s 25,000-plus amputees makes it one of the most maimed societies in the world.

Donning blast protection suites.

Donning blast protection suits.

With teams in more than 16 countries, HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian landmine clearance organization. The organization operates a well-organized shadow army of community organizers, logistics experts, and mine technicians who work against the clock to extract as many as possible as soon as possible.

In Cambodia alone HALO has more than 1,100 personnel. Outside of Cambodia, another 7,000 staff work in  hot spots for HALO including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Angola and Kosovo. In all, the organization has cleared more than 1.4 million mines and 10,800 minefields since its founding in 1988.

To fund its work, HALO relies on a mix of government agency support and private foundations and NGO dollars. Most recently its annual budget worldwide was $55 million. To put it in perspective, that figure is about 1/10,000 the size of the next year’s U.S. Defense Department budget.

Close to the border with Thailand, heading to the minefield.

Close to the border with Thailand, heading to the minefield.

After the briefing we got in a truck and made our way to a portion of the K5 minefield a few miles from the town of Anlong Veng, two hours to the north of Siem Reap. As in much of Cambodia, the earth in this part of Southeast Asia is a rich, loamy red clay. Deforestation has left the fields and hills scrubby, like a shave interrupted. Every so often a tractor putters by, a reminder of how important this land is to farmers. 

It was here where the homicidal Khmer Rouge made its final stand, using the town as a sort of ersatz base after being forced out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese invasion in 1978. Through much of the 1980s, the PRK (People’s Republic of Kampuchea) government then in charge of Cambodia laid mines in a vast arc of death to stop Khmer Rouge forces from ducking back into the country to harass local villages and fight government forces.

Our visit was at the height of the hot season. While the sun burned down we put on our blast protection suits and joined a group of extraction personnel as they fanned out across the slowly browning fields. 

Patience At Work

An area map of landmine clearance. The grey area is the minefield. The plant symbols represent encroaching farm acreage. The red symbols show where landmines have already been discovered.

An local map of landmine clearance. The grey shows what has already been cleared. Green symbols represent encroaching farm acreage. Red symbols show where landmines have been discovered.

Despite significant advancements in applied technology, landmine clearance remains an expensive and timely proposition. Systems have to be designed. Staff must be trained. All kinds of metal debris can give off  signals, but not every signal is a positive for a landmine. And even with proven processes in place, deadly mistakes can happen. 

When equipment picks up a signal from a possible mine or piece of unexploded ordinance, an elaborate process goes into play designed to reduce risk and keep technician safe.

A HALO technician isolates and excavates a possible landmine.

A HALO technician isolates and excavates a possible landmine.

In this picture above, three popsicle stick-sized rods have been laid down to indicate the specific spot where the signal was picked up. The technician will begin from a certain distance out and then slowly and lightly extract earth at a certain depth leading up the edge of the possible mine. Stakes dot the area, indicating zones of the minefield where posssible mines may still be hidden.

To do its work in Cambodia, HALO recruits and trains local Cambodians. This has the benefit of providing jobs and technical skills to people who need then, while also not requiring the larger pay packages of Western employees. While in the field with HALO I got to see some of these brave folks in action. 

A technician for HALO Trust

A technician for HALO Trust

Persistence and Progress

HALO Trust has worked in Cambodia since 1991, not long after it first became safe to enter the country for humanitarian work. In the 21 years that have followed, HALO personnel cleared over 200,000 landmines and many times more unexploded ordinance in the country.

But the pace of extraction is completely dependent on funding, and combined with the three other leading landmine organizations in Cambodia, annual spending on landmine clearance hovers at around $30 million. That means it may take another 10-20 years to clear the rest of Cambodia’s mines — assuming of course that no other conflicts come along to absorb funds from the foundations and government programs that pay for this kind of work.

And with the fighting now a full generation away in Cambodia and recent growth at a healthy 7% it’s not clear that Cambodia will continue to be seen as a nation in crisis, which may potentially take a bite out of program budgets. In Angola, more than 530 minefields remain 12 years after its bitter civil war. In Iran, tens of millions of mines dot its border with Iraq. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, huge tracts of land have been mined since the Americans invaded in 2002 and 2003.

Which means for places like Cambodia, where the conflict happened more than a generation ago, time may be running out to rid itself of its landmine legacy.