The Asian Philanthropy Forum is pleased to announce that Wesley Hedden has joined us as a contributing author. Wesley is based in Southeast Asia.
“Raise your hand if you have seen an explosion caused by a land mine or ERW?”
Four out of twenty two kids raise their hands.
“Were any of you injured in the explosions?” One boy shows the others deep scars on his arm and another boy lifts up his shirt to reveal similar scars on his side.
“Do you know anyone who has been killed by a mine or ERW?” They all know or know of someone who has been killed by a mine or ERW.
I am at the primary school in Lumtong Chas village in the far north of Cambodia, near the Thai border, in Oddar Meanchey province. Two local project officers from the Belgium NGO, Handicap International, have invited me to attend a training session, or what they prefer to call a brainstorming session, on land mine safety with children in this village. The kids range in age from nine to fifteen years old, and all are boys. There are only boys because boys are much more vulnerable to land mine and ERW (explosive remnants of war) risks than girls. Over 85% of all land mine and ERW casualties in Cambodia are males, the majority of whom are between ten and twenty four years old.
No one knows exactly how many mines were laid in Cambodia during nearly three decades of civil war, but it is without question one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. There are also ERWs scattered throughout the country, including fuses, artillery shells, mortars, IEDs, grenades, aircraft bombs, and others. The most heavily mined areas are along the Thai border where the Khmer Rouge fled after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979. Although the war ended in 1998, mines and ERWs continue to kill people. Between 2000 and 2005, there were approximately 800 mine/ERW casualties each year in Cambodia.
The brainstorming session in Lumtong Chas that I am attending is the first of four. It is important to the facilitators that the kids brainstorm their own ideas about land mine and ERW risks. This is not a traditional hierarchical training structure in which the trainers impart knowledge to the students; it is rather participatory and empowering for the boys. Games and activities are organized to promote trust, cooperation, and a spirit of openness in the group. During the first brainstorming session, the kids share their experiences and opinions about what they consider high risk activities. Everyone in the class agrees that playing with mines and ERWs or using them to fish or taking them apart for scrap metal is dangerous. They also recognize that watching others participate in these activities can be dangerous. These are important risks for the boys to recognize because, as it turns out, 28% of mine/ERW victims are handling mines/ERWs while another 27% are bystanders to people handling mines/ERWs. Thus, by avoiding these activities, the risk of injuries from mines and ERWs decreases dramatically.
Fortunately, through a broad, coordinated effort by numerous NGOs and government and UN agencies, the situation has improved dramatically in recent years. Organizations like the HALO Trust have worked relentlessly to survey and clear mine/ERW locations, while other organizations like the Cambodian Red Cross and Handicap International (who are collaborating on the Cambodian Mine/ERW Victim Information System) provide mine risk education, assist victims and their families, and raise disability awareness. As a result of these efforts, the number of mine/ERW casualties fell from 875 in 2005 to 271 in 2008 and is expected to be even lower in 2009.
While it’s sometimes difficult to quantify progress in development work, the reduction of mine/ERW casualties in Cambodia is a clear and tangible example of lives and livelihoods being saved.
For readers interested in learning more about land mines in Cambodia, please visit the Cambodian Red Cross website. Also for those visiting Siem Reap, there is an excellent museum called the Cambodian Land mine Museum dedicated to educating the public about land mines on the way to the popular temple, Banteay Srey.
About the pictures: Boys in Lumtong Chas village participate in a teambuilding activity where they have to cooperate to untie a “human knot.” Handicap International mine/ERW risk education activities are always engaging and sometimes unusual. For example, last month they organized a province wide rap competition where kids from around Oddar Meanchey performed raps about mine/ERW safety.
The second picture is a display from the Cambodian Land mine Museum, near Siem Reap. It includes various types of mines and ERWs that have been deactivated and brought to the museum to increase public awareness.