Chemical & Engineering News

March 10, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society

Cambodians grapple with war leftovers

Sam Sotha is a soft-spoken, unassuming man who nurtures the dream of war-weary Cambodians to live without fear of being blasted by land mines.

Decades of war have littered the Cambodian landscape with millions of mines - up to 6 million, according to Sotha. The land mines continue to kill and maim people and seriously impair Cambodia's economic development. Sotha hopes to get rid of these lethal leftovers of war.

Sotha: hoping for better technologies

Sotha is the director of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), a national demining effort based in Phnom Penh. The center's goal, he says, is to help Cambodia become a country" where people can go about their lives free from the threat of mines and where reconstruction and development can take place in a safe environment." To achieve this goal, the center has a four-prong strategy focusing on awareness, verification, clearance, and training.

The awareness campaign targets rural populations. Mine awareness teams travel to villages to teach children what mines look like and why they are dangerous. They also educate the local people about rescue techniques and how to get help.

Verification is at the heart of the Cambodian demining effort. The process is very slow because much of it is done through interviews. But it is critical because it helps pinpoint where deminers should go.

The search for minefields begins by asking villagers where they suspect mines may have been placed, says Sotha." We rely on what people recall they saw or heard many years ago." The anecdotal information then must be verified by talking to people living near areas suspected to be mined. Sadly, corroboration comes with tragic stories of amputees, families of people killed, or witnesses who have seen people blowing up.

Verification is the process that could benefit most from technological innovation, says Sotha. Because the mines in Cambodia were not laid and marked according to procedures required by internatio nal law, it is difficult to locate minefields and to define their perimeters. Technology can help demining personnel decide whether a suspected field is indeed mined or is actually free of mines. A suspected minefield that can be quickly declared clear - because it has no mines to begin with - could then be immediately put to economic use.

The Cambodians have a long way to go. From 1993 to 1996, only 353 square miles of suspected minefields were cleared by verification. Another 888 square miles need to be verified.

If a suspected minefield is verified to have mines, the perimeters are marked and then deminers come in to remove the mines manually, one by one.

CMAC has close to 1,600 trained deminers. Since 1993, they have removed and destroyed more than 60,000 antipersonnel land mines. With millions of mines more to go, their courageous efforts are but a drop in the bucket.

The center is hoping better technologies will speed up the work. Sotha says CMAC will soon be adding explosives-sniffing dogs to its verification teams. CMAC also plans to try mechanical clearing of verified minefields. And it is looking for better ways to clear bush and foliage.

"The attention of the scientific community is vital" to finding solutions to the land mine crisis, says Sotha. But those looking for technological solutions need to be familiar with conditions in the field. "Many technologies have been found wanting," he notes, because they don't operate effectively in the real world.