Painted sticks in red and white planted on the ground from left to right, projecting "danger" signs in bold text and red cards –a series of warnings that greeted us along the way.
Dusty roads led to the bare fields where a few houses stand. Indeed, we have arrived at the minefields of Cambodia. Fear immediately clouded my emotions as I took my first few steps on the field.
In front of me was a view I never expected to see, a horizon of greenery and a wooden house surrounded with such happy faces that greeted me as I approached them. I was amused with the positivity they showed which helped subside my fear.
On the very land that I stood on used to be a death trap during the Khmer Rouge –contaminated with landmines that killed millions of people who tried to escape and enter the country. Imagine walking along hectares of land that made you uncertain of taking further steps. That was how these families felt before their lands were cleared. However now, this uncertainty no longer stays with them as the lands are used for farming various crops, and this has become an important part of their lifestyle.
This very land gave life and a peace of mind to many families.
“In 2015, this land was cleared. We can now plant crops like bananas, cassava, papaya, passion fruit and lime. It makes me happy to see this land come to life once again. My children can play and my husband and I can plant crops. For this, we are very grateful”, joyfully shared by the village chief in small community in Battambang.
More cleared lands mean more families can live safely and happily. This great news especially matters for humanitarian work, but why should this matter for the people of Cambodia? Are they even aware of the dangers posed by landmines?
“Landmines are hidden killers and will continue to inflict fear in people, years after the conflict ends. People are challenged to return to their homes and communities cannot achieve their full economic potential for as long as the threat remains”, stated by Edwin Faigmane, Mine Action Specialist.
While Cambodia is recognised to have one of the best practices in mine clearance worldwide, mines/ERWs have caused a devastating number of casualties amounting to 64,688 from 1979 to 2017. From 1996, the number of casualties decreased from 4,320 per year to an annual average of 100 over the last five years (Cambodia Mine/ERW Victim Information System). A decrease in casualties also encouraged more lands to be cleared and released. Indeed, this is a great achievement for Cambodia. But it makes me wonder, why should this matter to those in urban Cambodia?
Mine Action is a sector for the people. Lands are being cleared and released for people to live a life they deserve –not for the sake of clearing lands alone. It promotes movement of all forms of aid and can contribute to the stability of the country, from creating roads, schools and health services for many communities. Cleared lands provide a safer environment and lands that can grow natural products which are enjoyed by many in urban areas; the sweet and palatable pineapples and plantains from the fields of Battambang, that I personally enjoy.
Many who live in affected areas have lived in those fields for years not knowing what could possibly happen the further they walk in the fields. For them, the value is found in the fruit from the seed planted, the farms they are able to cultivate more than the cleared lands alone. Through this life changing experience, they are given another chance to live a normal life.