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Meet the 23-year-old woman clearing mines from a war she doesn't remember

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines – which Ireland played a crucial part in – has been an extraordinary success.

Halo/Irish Aid A GYATA mine from Hungary in the Chomka Chek minefield Source: Nic Dunlop

THE K-5 BARRIER minefield in Cambodia is one of the largest minefields in the world.

Estimated to contain up to 2 million mines, it runs along the entire 370 kilometres of the Thai-Cambodian border; from the Laos to the east, to the Gulf of Thailand in the south.

It was on the K-5 that Yan Srey Yen was first exposed to the horrors of landmines. The 18-year-old had just completed her training as a de-miner with the HALO Trust, a charity supported by Irish Aid (the Irish government’s overseas assistance programme) which removes debris left behind by war.

She was working with her team on a forested slope when suddenly there was a loud explosion.

“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I couldn’t move.”

At first, her team members thought she had detonated the mine. But she was fine.

It was 60-year-old Chhem Se, another de-miner working in an area about 15 metres away. The blast was so strong it broke his helmet apart.

“There was blood all over his face and he’d lost a hand,” recalls Srey Yen. “I was shaking
when I came to help.”

The medic patched Chhem Se up and he was taken on a stretcher to the evacuation point. He began vomiting blood. He was then flown by helicopter to hospital where died several days later.

Chhem Se was an experienced de-miner who had been with HALO for 15 years. He was due to retire within a matter of weeks. A popular member of Srey Yen’s team, his death was a sobering reminder of the deadly work Srey Yen had embarked upon; that even the most experienced de-miners were vulnerable to the devastating impact of mines.

“Later, when I learned that he died,” she says, “I cried.”

Halo/Irish Aid Source: Nic Dunlop

Twenty years ago this month, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. The same year, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (also known as the Mine Ban Treaty or the Ottawa Treaty) was adopted. This represented a landmark legal framework urging states to eliminate landmines worldwide.

The campaign, which comprises 1,300 organisations, has returned thousands of acres of land to impoverished communities all over the world.

Out of 195 states, 163 have signed the Treaty.

Ireland helped draft the agreement and was among the first signatories.

In Cambodia, where the campaign began, more than 50% of minefields have now been cleared and accident rates have plummeted.

The campaign has been an extraordinary success.

Halo/Irish Aid The Thai-Cambodian border, Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia, October 2017. Source: Nic Dunlop

The history

Landmines were used by all sides in Cambodia’s decades-long conflict.

In 1978, after the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power, they pushed the guerrillas over the frontier into neighbouring Thailand. They then sealed the border with a network of defences that included the vast K-5 barrier minefield.

The war came to an end in 1998, but landmines continue to reap a deadly harvest.

But it is not only landmines that pose a threat. Another legacy of the conflict are thousands, perhaps millions of unexploded bombs and shells which are unearthed daily.

These include cluster bombs, or ‘bombies’ which are small balls of steel that are dropped from planes and send metal fragments over an area of several football fields.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen logs and maps the days progress back at the HALO camp near the Chomka Chek minefield Source: Nic Dunlop

Millions were dropped and they have a high failure rate and do not always detonate when released.

After the Ottawa Treaty, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines continued their work, leading to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which also banned their use.

In 2008, Ireland chaired the negotiations on the Convention as part of its continuing leadership in this area.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was adopted in Dublin, has since been signed by 108 countries.

As Cambodia’s population increases and land becomes scarce, poor farmers are moving into previously uncultivated areas, particularly along the border with Thailand; much of it contaminated by the explosive remnants of war.

Recently, the Cambodian government started building a road that will run parallel to the frontier alongside the K-5 minefield. And whenever roads are built, more people move into these areas, exposing them to the dangers of landmines and bombs.

Halo/Irish Aid Back at the HALO camp the deminers relax by watching Cambodian kick-boxing on a TV near the Chomka Chek minefield Source: Nic Dunlop

More mines than people

In 2006, the HALO Trust began to clear the K-5.

A UK-based humanitarian clearance organisation HALO has been operational in Cambodia since 1991 when the landmine problem was at its worst.

At the time, some estimates put the number of landmines at 10 million; more than
one for every man, woman and child.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen prepares to destroy A GYATA anti-personnel landmine from Hungary in the Chomka Chek minefield Source: Nic Dunlop

Irish Aid has supported HALO’s work in Cambodia since 1997; part of a global commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to eradicate poverty and ease the plight of civilians caught up in conflict.

And without mine clearance, there can be no meaningful development. Today, as direct result of that support, 53,000 families can now farm free from the fear of serious injury or death.

HALO employs over 1,000 people in Cambodia.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen helps Sophal into her protective vest before going into the minefield. Source: Nic Dunlop

They recruit and train female and male de-miners from mine-affected areas, supporting some of the poorest people in Cambodia. And by recruiting and training locals to work in HALO teams, it gives staff a greater sense of purpose, at times clearing their own land.

Srey Yen’s village, Ou Pok, is less than three kilometres from the K-5 minefield. She joined The HALO Trust in 2012 when teams came to her village to recruit de-miners.

Like many of her team members, she is from a poor farming family; before joining HALO she dropped out of school to support her parents by selling fish in a market on the Thai side.

But when she joined HALO her father was not pleased.

It wasn’t until she returned to their village with her team that he understood.

“He was really proud when I went to clear mines in our village,” she says.

Everyone knows me and they talked about how I helped them and that made my father even prouder.

Srey Yen was a toddler when the war with the Khmer Rouge came to an end. The mines closest to her house were Chinese Type-69’s. These bounding mines leap into the air when triggered, exploding at chest height, sending small steel balls at ballistic speed in all directions.

A total 1,570 mines were found in the area.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen assists a member of her team in the Chomka Chek minefield Source: Nic Dunlop

“I only knew the extent of the problem when we began clearing them,’ says Srey Yen. “I became scared when I realised just how close they were.”

The concrete results of Srey Yen’s team is not hard to find.

One of her neighbours, Sreng Oun, had a third of his land polluted by these hidden killers. Since the mines have been cleared, life has improved and people are no longer fearful.

Before we had about five accidents in the village. After HALO cleared the area, I haven’t heard of a single one.

Halo/Irish Aid 54-year-old Seum Kon beside his cabbage field Source: Nic Dunlop

The economic benefit

Mine clearance has also made a significant difference economically.

Not far away, in Trapeang Tav village, Ouk Ra’s land was contaminated by more than 20 mines.

Before the mines were removed, the family earned approximately $1,000 a year from the land that was mine free.

“I had nowhere else to go,” she says.

Now the mines have been cleared her income has doubled.

“If HALO hadn’t come,” she says, “it would be really difficult; I’d have nothing. And no money to buy rice.”

Halo/Irish Aid Source: Nic Dunlop

Today Srey Yen is working on a stretch of the K-5 that is a stone’s throw from her village called Chomka Chek. The money from Irish Aid goes to operational costs like food, fuel, equipment and salaries.

The teams are in the minefield just after 7am and work until midday before going back out until 3pm.

They work in heavy protective clothing with helmets and visors in temperatures that often exceed 30 degrees Celsius.

Halo/Irish Aid Morning parade/head count Source: Nic Dunlop

 

The work is slow and methodical and discipline is rigidly enforced by the 23-year-old.

She spends her days watching over her team ensuring they work safely and effectively.

A simple mistake can result in serious injury or, as in the case with Chhem Se, death.

As a field officer with HALO, Srey Yen oversees nine de-miners.

Despite her youth, she is clearly driven and leads by example. “When I see people make mistakes, I tell them straight away. If they didn’t change their behaviour, I’d report them,” she says.

Then they’d get warned because they didn’t listen to me. People in my team say I’m serious and strict during working hours. But when I explain clearly to people, they understand. If they don’t listen and don’t work hard together it’s difficult for me to manage. It can save lives.

In the rare occurrence where an accident occurs, all work is stopped.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen clears up at the end of the day after destroying a GYATA anti-personnel landmine Source: Nic Dunlop

After the wounded are evacuated, a detailed and rigorous investigation is carried out by HALO staff to ascertain exactly what happened and why.

Following strict operating procedures in the minefield is taken extremely seriously and finding the cause is paramount to prevent further accidents.

Injuries still happen

Members of Srey Yen’s team are only too aware of the need to follow strict procedures and the importance of good leadership. And they treat Srey Yen with a respect usually given to someone much older. It’s a testament to her leadership capabilities.

“She’s really strong,” says one HALO member.

It’s good because people will act, they don’t ignore her; they listen.

Despite the great progress that has been made in Cambodia, there are still reports of mine incidents. And the increasing mechanisation of farming in brings added hazards. Small tractors are now a common sight, often carrying heavy loads and people to and from fields.

This increases the risks of death and injury from anti-tank mines.

When 54-year-old Seum Kon moved to Romdoul Choeng Phnom village, beneath the Dangrek range, everyone was afraid of mines. Kon remembers the day well. A tractor carrying eight people detonated an anti-tank mine, killing five people and injuring three, including two babies.

Kon arrived to find a scene of carnage.

“A body had been cut in two, people had lost legs and a dead baby was stuck on a tree. One body was twisted and contorted in an unnatural way,” he recalls.

“There was blood and entrails everywhere.”

Immediately he called HALO and, together with the other villagers, helped the survivors to the main road. The HALO ambulance then evacuated them to hospital and Kon helped take the dead to their families.

What made it worse was the track had been used many times before and people believed it was perfectly safe.

“People were terrified after that,” says Kon.

But all that has changed as the entire area was cleared.

Back in the K-5 at Chomka Chek, Srey Yen takes a break from the work.

“I never thought, as a young girl, I could work as hard as a man,” she says.

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen logs and maps the day's progress Source: Nic Dunlop

She had always lived with her parents. She’s learnt to be independent, she says, as well the importance of working as a team.

“It’s another family for me.”

A solitary figure, Srey Yen is clearly motivated; the job is no longer just a way of helping her family. When her parents heard of the accidents they wanted her to stop work.

“I refused. I know just how important this work is.”

When she tells people about her job now, she wants them to understand why clearing mines is important. In urban areas, few understand the hazards the poor face in the countryside. And for much of the population, the war is little more than a memory.

For Srey Yen, she is clearing mines from a conflict she has no experience of. But that doesn’t lessen her commitment to the work.

“As long as HALO is in Cambodia,’ she says, “I want to work with them. I hope that after HALO, and when the mine clearance finishes, that everyone is safe and can use the land.”

But as long as there are mines, and people are poor, she says, they’ll have no option but to take risks.

It is 20 years since Diana, Princess of Wales, helped raise awareness of landmines when she visited HALO in Angola. Since then, 27 countries have been declared mine-free, 51 million stockpiled landmines have been destroyed and the global trade in mines has ended.

Yet more than 60 million people still live with the daily fear of landmines and unexploded bombs.

January 15th - On this day in History - 1997 15 January 1997: Diana, Princess of Wales touring a minefield in Angola. Source: John Stillwell

Signatories of the Treaty have pledged to clear the world of mines by 2025. Most agree this deadline is aspirational and unlikely to be achievable unless significant funding is forthcoming. Irish Aid has just signed a four-year contract to continue funding HALO.

“I know that we’re trying to finish for 2025,” says Srey Yen. “But it will take longer because no one really knows how many mines there are. I want to see that people are safe. If I have no job in the future,” she says with a smile, ”I’d be happy, because that means everyone will be safe.”

Halo/Irish Aid Srey Yen in Chomka Chek minefield in October 2017 Source: Nic Dunlop

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based photographer, writer and occasional (Emmy-nominated) filmmaker. This report was completed with support from Irish Aid and the Embassy of Ireland to Vietnam.

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About the author:

Nic Dunlop

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