Landmines in Cambodia: his left foot, and the right one too

By Ed Chudnovksy | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Our host shuffles across his dirt floor and sits down heavily next to his wife on the bamboo platform which takes up most of their hut. Behind us are pots, baskets, a pile of blankets, a sack of rice. Trying not to stare, I glance surreptitiously at his feet. The right one is clad in a shoe, but the left is bare, and it is not a foot. It is a carving of a foot I wonder if a shoe could be fit over it to match the other one. Then I look at the shoe again and realize it is not a shoe. It is a carving of a foot with a shoe. This man makes his way in the world on two mismatched wooden legs.

Such scenes are all too common in the work of Rebecca Jordan. An American occupational therapist working for the French/Belgian organization Handicap International, she has a simple mandate: track down all the disabled in Cambodia, determine their needs, and connect them with availableservices. Such a task, daunting in any population of nine million, is here Herculean. The amputee population alone nears 40,000, two hundred times the rate in the United States. This fellow was unlucky enough to lose both of his legs. "So two different workshops gave him two different legs," Jordan says.

Jordan's Cambodian counterpart, Sumbo, himself an amputee, talks with the man Khmer, then summarizes: "He is having trouble with one of the legs. I told him we can help him get a new prosthesis fitted in Siem Reap. Otherwise he and his family are healthy. His wife is selling some things in the market, but he is not working. He says he knows how to repair bicycles, but he has no tools. I think we can help him, yes?"

The service Handicap International can provide is limited to regional prosthesis workshops and training centers. There is also the odd dollar available to help boost a family into a livelihood: tools for a trade, books for a teacher, baby chicks or ducklings to raise and sell. Beyond that, there is not much provision for disabled people in a country trying to patch itself together after more than twenty years of civil war. "Disabled folks here have to figure out how to make it on their own," says Jordan, "because everyone else is just scraping by, too." For Cambodia's amputees, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps takes on a whole new meaning.

How much food do you have left?" Jordan asks her mismatched client. He and his family returned last year from a camp across the Thai border, along with 360,000 other refugees, as part of a U.N.-sponsored peace agreement that also brought democratic elections and a new government to Cambodia. The U.N. provided returnees with tools, building materials, some money, and four coupons each good for three months of food, theoretically buying families enough time to bring in their first harvest. This family, we learn, has just redeemed its last coupon.

The woman who sits quietly beside her husband is the only one able to work the fields in this family of four. She smiles as much as he frowns. She looks healthy and strong. The man is lucky, Jordan later tells me: many wives of amputees (most of whom are male) have found the burden of responsibility too heavy and have abandoned their entire families to take up new identities elsewhere. In spite of the prodigious numbers of amputees here, they are looked upon by many as having brought about their own calamities through bad karma.

Jordan asks if they have any food planted. Sumbo translates: "They have asked and asked the headman, and he says always that there is no land ready to plant. There is open land, but it is not safe." We have seen this land, fallow fields around the village that should be growing crops, but instead are marked with red skull-and-crossbones signs reading: "Danger!! Mines!!"

Jordan nods and exchanges glances with her partner: foiled again. The war machine that haunts Cambodia's past, hinders its present, and threatens its future is of the size, cost, and complexity of a yo-yo. The anti-personnel mine is the perverse perfection of the two great economic engines of the twentieth century: military technology and massmarketing.

Like grim archaeological artifacts, the mines planted beneath Cambodia's soil provide a record of the rise and fall of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. The Soviet POMZ-2s and PMNs were first planted in the late 1960s by Vietnamese looking for staging grounds in their war against South Vietnam. American Claymores soon joined them, as Nixon and Kissinger waged their secret "sideshow" war until overtaken by a hail of domestic protest. At about the same time, the right-wing, pro-American General Lon Nol took power, and the Chinese Type 72A mines date back to the rebellion that ultimately brought the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot to power for their reign of terror. When the Vietnamese came back to rout Pol Pot, U.S. and Chinese weapons were both suddenly flowing to the same side,a coalition of rebel groups fighting the Vietnamese-installed, andSoviet-backed government. So it was that the Reagan and Bush administrations implicitly embraced the Khmer Rouge, perhaps the strangest of their strange bedfellows. Finally the collapse of the Soviet Union led all parties to the bargaining table to reshuffle the deck. A certain degree of peace has come to the country, save for the continued resistance of the Khmer Rouge. But that peace is broken every day by blasts from a multi-national force of minebombs bearing witness to conflicts long ago abandoned.

Estimates of the number of anti-personnel mines planted in Cambodia range in the millions. Norodom Sihanouk, king of the year-old constitutional monarchy, claims there are more land mines than people. If the new polity is to survive, it is vitally important that Cambodians be able to return to the rhythm of normal life: but nearly 90 percent of the populace are rural peasants, and fully half the unused arable land that could be enhancing life is instead planted with a crop designed to destroy it.

Russ Bedford is a field demining expert for the Mines Advisory Group, a British organization clearing mines on the road to Pailin, headquarters of the Khmer Rouge. The work here, he says, is excruciatingly slow; he contrasts it to his last job, sweeping Kuwait after its liberation: "Believe it or not, there's an international protocol for laying mines, and the Iraqis followed it to the T. You're supposed to lay them out in a certain pattern and keep a record of what you've done. When we went into Kuwait, we were able to clear the mines out in nothing flat, even without the maps. Here, there's no such thing as a pattern or map. Didn't matter which army it was, they all did it the same, just littering the ground with whatever they had." With virtually no money having been spent on research into mine-removal technology, the process boils down to a sophisticated version of beachcombing, with the stakes infinitely higher.

In this inch-by-inch struggle to reclaim Cambodia's countryside, the grotesquely lopsided economics favor combatants over peacemakers: to remove a mine that costs as little as $3 to make, that can blow off an adult's leg or kill a child, requires an investment of up to $1,000 in equipment, personnel, training, and insurance. That puts the price tag fora clean sweep of the mines in Cambodia-a task essential to the preservation of its fragile peace-in the billions of dollars. Funding has been trickling in but is miniscule compared to the enormity of the problem. Private donors prefer causes that have a human face, such as aid to the handicapped. Jordan mused on the irony that it is so much easier to raise funds for her program than for the de-miners; "The guy without a leg draws sympathy, but the bomb that makes him that way doesn't have ad-appeal." Meanwhile, the mines add ten new victims to Jordan's clientele every day.

Jordan did not witness her first land-mine accident until last August. In spite of years of humanitarian work in the wake of such accidents, she was not prepared for what she would see. "Everyone I'd ever worked with had already been wrapped up in a nice package by the hospital. I'd never asked or thought much about what the explosion was like. But when I was in the fields that day and heard the boom, I knew it couldn't be anything else. I ran to help, and there was this man on the ground without a lower leg, still conscious. There wasn't even much blood, because the heat cauterized the wound. I fell apart." That night, sleepless, she wrote a description of the event and a prayer for a way to rid the world of "these horrible monsters." She sent it off to the U.S. Congress.

Lately, anti-mine advocacy has accelerated in the United States. The New York Times Magazine recently featured the topic, and Congress, led by Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Lane Evans, recently extended a one-year moratorium on the export of anti-personnel mines for another three years, in spite of initial opposition by the defence industry. The Congress also recently approved the appropriation of $10 million out of the defence budget for worldwide mine removal. That amount, though a start, is dwarfed by the enormity of the problem.

Many question the wisdom of foreign aid with a facile question: "Why give abroad when we have so many of our own in need?" Cambodia offers a good case in point for that "why." First, there is a clear pragmatic rationale for rendering assistance: global stability is enhanced by peace in Cambodia, which, were it to break anew into full-scale civil war, would draw in such neighbors as Vietnam, Thailand, China, and Japan. The channeling of the region's wealth into military confrontation could crash the global economy and start a new round of political polarization; it would be much cheaper and easier to prevent such a war than stop it.

But there is a more compelling reason for aid: justice demands it. Cambodia was one of many sacrificial pawns in a half-century-long global chess game played out between the great powers. The policies of the United States, Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union fueled the events that brought the country to such misery and supplied the antipersonnel mines that continue to exact their daily toll. Out of this group, the United States is the player that should step out and claim its fair share of responsibility. Compensation is already in the works for unwitting subjects of radiation experiments carried out by the U.S. government; ethics, not to mention world leadership, demand no less concern for Cold War victims just as real on the other side of the world.

The foreign policy debate in the U.S. has turned from facing off with communism to finding a new focus for international relations in a confusing multipolar world. But in the rush to shift the agenda to "new business," it would be rash to neglect the "old business" of messes left behind. Perhaps the first goal of foreign policy need not be so much to fabricate a new world order "out of whole cloth" as to help patch the rents torn in the global social fabric in the name of democracy.

Those interested in becoming involved in the anti-mine movement can contact Arms Project, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017 or Vietnam Veterans of America, 2001 St. Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Ed Chudnovsky served with Becky Jordan in the Peace Corps in Zaire in the 1980s. He is seeking Chudnovskys from around Kiev who may have survived the Holocaust.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ed Chudnovksy here

Peace Magazine homepage