Millions of landmines are still scattered across Cambodia. But help from abroad is making an impact: equipment and expertise from Japan are giving people back their land - and their hope.
In this Japan special edition of Focus, we went to Cambodia to see first-hand how Japan’s support in the de-mining process has helped bring peace and safety to local communities. Decades of war have left their mark on the Southeast Asian country, believed to still be home to millions of landmines and other unexploded devices.
I don't have to be scared anymore when I work in my field
Near the Thai border, in the Bovel district of Battambang province, today children can safely play outside. But not that long ago, what is now the local primary school’s playground was littered with dozens of mines.
“After the land was cleared, this school was built. It helps children get the education they need in the community, and it gives them a chance for a better future,” said Sinat Nov, a 24-year-old teacher at Klaing primary school.
The story of this school is just one example of the tireless efforts the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) has put into raising awareness and clearing the mines.
Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and cleaning it up is a challenging task, towards which Japan has provided the biggest support over the past decade.
Around 1,600 de-miners are at work across Cambodia, helped by dogs, metal detectors, brush-cutters and heavy de-mining machines resembling tanks. Tagaki Shigeru, a technical adviser for Japan Mine Action Service, showed us one of these machines: it weighs 34 tonnes and ploughs up the soil with its 30-cm-long teeth to dig up anti-personnel landmines, he explained.
Japan has not only provided equipment, but also funding and experts that pass on their know-how to locals. People like Keng Sotheara, who has been working in the minefields for more than 10 years.
She is now an expert in recognizing dangerous remnants of war, from anti-personnel mines to anti-tank mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO): deadly weapons that lie dormant in the ground for years, even decades, and risk detonating if stepped on or touched.
Every day the 31-year-old risks her life probing the ground for mines: at any moment, she could trigger an explosion. “Once the detector signals an object, I need to be extremely careful with anything I do. Especially when I dig and brush, I need to go very gently,” she says.
Reclaiming land and livelihoods
So far CMAC has destroyed more than two and half million landmines and other unexploded ordnance such as bombs, shells and grenades.
“Since the 1980’s, the Japanese government and people really assisted Cambodians to collectively work together to build peace,” said CMAC Director-General Heng Ratana. “We are very proud to see Japanese people help us to stand up and walk by ourselves.”
Once a patch of land is cleared, it’s handed over to local communities.
“Our aim is to encourage this country to be free, to be a democratic and stable society,” said Naoki Kamoshida, counselor at the Japanese Embassy in Cambodia. “The stability of Cambodia is important for the stability of the whole region.”
Land that was once deadly is now full of promise. In Battambang province, locals have reclaimed their livelihoods as farmers. A young woman, Chanry Vap, proudly showed us the cassava she now grows.
“Since CMAC cleared the land I don’t have to be scared anymore when I work in my field, and I can grow what I want,” she said. “It has improved the life of my family so much.”