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Flooding unearths Cambodia's landmines

PHNOM PENH, 21 October 2013 (IRIN) - Thanks to intensive demining in Cambodia's Battambang Province, few residents in Rokha Kiri District have seen landmines in the past two decades, even though the country still ranks as one of the most heavily mined in the world.

But following flooding that has killed an estimated 160 people nationwide since August, Mom Sokhum's family had a surprise near their farm: an anti-tank mine.

Although Mom was used to handling anti-tank and anti-personnel mines as a soldier during the country's civil war, in the 1980s and 1990s, he said he was shocked to learn one had washed up nearby.

"I haven't seen them since [the war against] the Khmer Rouge," he said, referring to followers of the country's Communist Party who carried out a genocide from 1975 to 1978. "Although I buried some myself, it still made me feel faint."

Locals are worried that no one knows where the anti-tank mine came from or how many explosive remnants of war are floating in the floodwaters. The flooding has led to the evacuation of at least 50,000 households as of 20 October, according to the country's National Committee for Disaster Management.

The executive director of Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), Heng Ratana, said it is still not clear how many mines or unexploded ordnance (UXO) have been dislodged in the country's three most heavily mined provinces - Banteay Meanchey, Pailin and Battambang. It is also unknown how far the mines can float.

Potentially fatal

According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), as of August, CMAC and international demining NGOs had cleared almost one million anti-personnel landmines, 23,000 anti-tank mines and about 2.4 million explosive remnants of war from 1,013sqkm of land since demining efforts started in 1992. That land has been resettled and cultivated.

Still, hundreds of thousands of mines and UXOs are estimated to remain in the ground.

"Based on the extent of the remaining contamination and the current level of resources made available for clearance activity, Cambodia would need about 15 more years to clear and released the known contaminated lands," according to UNDP.

Most mines and UXOs, including those recently washed up, are potentially fatal, according to CMAC.

"There will be more mines and UXOs to find when the water starts to recede," said Kry Lom Ith, president of CMAC's explosive ordnance disposal team for Battambang and Pailin provinces. He added that it is unlikely all will be found before they sink back into the ground.

His team cleared and destroyed some 30 UXO this past week, including anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, grenades, rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Flooding complicates demining

The dislodged mines and UXOs have complicated demining, said Heng, who noted that flooding has never before washed up so many mines.

Mines that sink back into the ground once floodwaters recede also pose a major risk for deminers, who typically expect mines to be buried face-up; these mines may be buried at a different angle.

"When it is in a different angle, and you push to take it out, you will make it explode," Heng told IRIN. "It's very worrying. But we pray that that doesn't happen."

Meanwhile, the farmer Mom has been forced to continue farming his land to feed his family.

Following bouts of flooding in August and then again in late September, the National Committee for Disaster Management estimated some 300,000 hectares of farmland has been inundated.

"We don't know where the safe areas are for us anymore," Mom said.

The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority said that from the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 until September 2012, more than 44,500 Cambodians have been maimed and about 19,700 killed by mines and UXO.


Theme(s): Natural Disasters, Conflict,

Copyright © IRIN 2013
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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