In the morning we head towards O’smach, a rarely frequented Thai-Cambodian. Going by foot for an hour and a half we reach the main road. We flag down a tourist bus. There are no seats available, but the driver finds us a sitting area on the floor for a couple of bucks. After an hour we reach the junction that is our destination. We ask the driver to stop and we get off. It arouses sensations and astonishment on the entire bus. Why would anyone get off at the intersection of two roads in the tiny village right in the middle of nowhere? I only hear “good luck guys” with a clear irony, however with a bit of fascination as well.

We are in Kralanh, still about five hours south of the border. We even don’t know if the border crossing exists. We are looking forward to crossing muddy roads again. In many places the road is flooded by the downpours, which recently caused devastation in many parts of the country. We are looking for transportation with local people. It takes roughly an hour until make a deal with one of the drivers. There is an old Nissan with four-wheel drive. We board the already overloaded pickup truck and go.

Cars with such a simple design usually never fail. We do frequent stops to let some of the passengers off and to pick up new ones. Together with Bess and an average of eight other people we are sitting comfortably on sacks with fertilizer Made in Russia. Hard to hold on to anything here, so my thoughts focus on protecting my face against the intolerable fine dust and watching out for bumps in the road so I’m not going to loose the grip and fall out of the car. We are accompanied by burning stench of Russian fertilizer that incredibly disturbs our nostrils.

Occasionally we let the engine to cool down. In such conditions it is very easily overheated, I suppose the air filter has been choked long time ago. It is fantastic, but a dirty adventure.

At some point when car hits the bumb there is someone’s goose flying out of the bag and landing directly into hands of a Cambodian women (our fellow-passenger). If it had been a rabbit I would have thought that a magician’s show has been planned to entertain the passengers.

Things start to be complicated. It turns out that I’m not able to cross into Thailand at the O’Smach border crossing. It doesn’t make any sense to me and two hours of negotiations and making requests does not help either. Customs officers are by no means negotiable. It turns out that while some countries have a visa on arrival agreement, the availability of such visas is limited to a handful of border crossings. Making an optimal decision, me and Bess, who is an American (visa-free), decide to split for a while and meet again in Laos after some days.

I stop several cars, but they all go in a different direction. I’m thinking about a new plan and it has to be ready soon as the sunset is approaching. In the end a Toyota Hilux Hero appears and I make a decision – I’m going in another direction. Any direction is better than standing still.

The driver is a madman. We is speeding over holes and road bumps. He accelerates through the villages honking at innocent children playing on the road. The only parts when we slow down is going over the bridges. It is the end of the wet season and dirt road was partially washed by water which left the concrete bridge with a step the height of a curb above the road level. Even when the pickup slows down from 150 km/h to just around 100 km/h  I’m still feeling unsafe at the back of the cargo area. I tried to set a soft landing on my backpack and constantly struggle not to fall out. I would like to make picture of this situation, but it is far to risky. Sometimes I move sharply to the left, or to the right or even fly half a meter up unexpectedly. At one of the most extreme bumps I almost fell out of the car and it was the moment when I switched from soft and comfortable landing mode to survival mode. Holding onto railing in one corner and do my best to stay inside the card. I just think about reaching destination in one piece.

Here I am in Anlong Veng. Looking for a hotel I manage to find a few scenic places for early morning photo session. My backpack is covered in white dust from fertilizers, same with clothes and hair. I have to take care for this, because otherwise some plans will grow on my head. The lousy fan in my room is not enough during this incredibly stifling night. I can’t fall asleep for most of the night.

In the morning there is a fantastic pink light emerging from behind a flooded rice field. This is fishing town where people practice various fishing methods. I look at fishermen casting fishing-nets with their hands by the waterfall. Some use a small trap with tapered hole, others wade in water, someone is using an inner-tube to stay afloat and be in the middle of action.

Sun emerges above the horizon and casts a warm light on the extensive river pool with individual trees adding to this photogenic landscape. Experience shows that completely random places are very often the most surprising and memorable.

Halo Trust

I find the agency Halo Trust that is charge of mine clearance in rural Cambodia. My interlocutor Ming Ti tells me the story of the bloody history of Cambodia.

Everything started with propaganda of the Khmer Rouge regime and their protection of Cambodians against alleged American attacks in the 70’s. Known as the Khmer Rouge  they have evolved in the forests, occupying more and more territory of the country and eventually resettled people from the cities and took control of the state. An utopian vision of de-urbanization has emerged. It was supposed to lead the nation to return to its traditional values, the base work, taking care of the crops and becoming independent from abroad. It turned into a mass genocide that claimed more than two million lives  over the next five years. Approximately 30% of the population of the country was brutally killed.

Then Vietnam comes with help. It takes over the control and pushes the Khmer Rouge in the northern and western areas near the border with Thailand. Khmer Rouge transform into a guerrilla army. Vietnamese forces are united and well organized. This is even visible in patterns of landmines deployed in the field: the Khmer Rouge has deployed landmines accidentally and randomly, the Vietnamese in a far more predictable and logical manner. Mines laid by Khmer Rouge come mainly from Russia, East Germany and Hungary. Vietnam uses its own  and Chinese mines.

It is not only anti-personnel mines that were located. There are also some massive explosives meant to destroying tanks. Ming says that the greatest mine concentration occurs near the border with Thailand, which is 1200 km long following north and west ends of Cambodia.

For residents of Cambodia’s poorest areas cultivation of plants in endangered sites is not a bravado, but lack of choice and an inevitable necessity to feed their families. Landmines are occasionally are found all over Cambodia. Only in 2010 the unfortunate accidents killed more than 200 people. Each year even more people who accidentally trigger  a landmine are killed, injured or permanently disabled. Currently more than 40.000 Cambodians are people with amputated limbs, one of the worst statistics of this kind in the world.

Location of  the area suspected of being covered with landmines is the first step. The next step is identify the landmines and finally, safe removal and detonation.

Some facts about the activities of Halo Trust:

  • Government Organisation Halo Trust is sponsored by the governments of UK, USA, Finland and Japan
  • Their daily operation is manual and mechanical mine clearance. Markers defining the test range are gradually moved to mark the area examined to date
  • Major problem is access to the tested soil, the clearing team devotes approximately 70% of the time to remove vegetation from the area before examination
  • Most brigades work by pattern of 21 working days followed by 7 days break
  • First phase of work is called “National Survey 1” that is, talking to local people trying to initially estimate where there might be landmines. At this stage only the red plates are installed warning of danger
  • As late as in 2011, in accordance with the plans of Halo Trust the “National Survey 1” will be finished at country level
  • Analyzing the map, I see a lot of areas that have not been studied in details. The operation has already existed for 19 years
  • In the last 10 years the UK has been more involved in other areas of the world with more current problems, such as Sudan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • At the end this enjoyable meeting, Ming shows me a photo in one of showcases and says Angelina Jolie’s has visited Anlong Veng in 2002. “I remember that day as if it was yesterday” – he recalls gesticulating with his hands feminine contours.

To get some more information Ming directs me further south to Halo Trust headquarters in the area of Siem Reap.

My next card driver happens to be the owner of a pink Toyota. It’s another crazy driver. At some point there is a large dog walking along the roadside. At some point the dog makes an abrupt sidestep towards the center of the road. It is too late, the crazy driver already started to accelerate and it is not enough time to react. We hit the dog and damage the radiator and wheel arch.

Halo Trust Headquarters

The following morning I visit Halo Trust headquarters on my BMX. It is situated half an hour outside the city. I’m guided around the base by Michael, a tall and well-built Australian dressed in jeans and a loose, unbuttoned shirt. I visit a couple of rooms, watch the exhibits, compare local findings and also get an access to maps and more information.

Cambodia in the mines, HALO Trust in Numbers (1991 – 2011)

  • Until today only 7025 hectares here cleared. It is about 70 km^2
  • Land under the risk of landmines: 4050 km^2
  • Total number of operations performed: 2.050 in 395 villages
  • Number of landmines destroyed: 245.700
  • Number of anti-vehicle landmines destroyed: 2.883
  • Number of large caliber ammunition destroyed: 146.200
  • Number of small-caliber ammunition destroyed: 1,320,000
  • Estimated number of landmines left to be removed in Cambodia: 6 million
  • The average cost of deploying a landmine: $ 3
  • The average cost of removing a landmine: $1000

There are three main mine clearance organizations in Cambodia. These are: Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC), Halo Trust and Mines Advisory Group (MAG). Agencies are trying to work together and every year the pace of work increases. Assuming that certain processes will be improved and more accurate environmental intelligence is used, it is estimated that the real time needed to clear the entire country from landmines is 12-20 years.