ANLONG VENG, Cambodia
While staring at the live bomb, I realized something important.
I have never felt afraid for my life.
I have been uneasy while flying.
I’ve felt a bit vulnerable while travelling up tall buildings in elevators.
And I was sure I would be one of the one per cent of people who contract West Nile Virus every year, worldwide.
But the day I photographed a live anti-tank mine on the road to Anlong Veng in Cambodia was different.
I was scared.
And not just for myself.
I was also afraid for the lives of the many Cambodian adults and children who have been, or are yet to be, victims of landmines.
The device was not much to look at.
Round, green and about the size of a pie plate.
But it’s deadly.
Had it exploded, it would have vapourized a 1,000-metre area and everything in it.
And if that weren’t enough to send me packing, I also had the opportunity to see some living history up close and personal in the form of a Russian-made, Vietnamese-dropped cluster bomb that weighed in at more than 675 kilograms.
Photographing a live, 20-year-old bomb will test anyone’s mettle.
But that was just the finale.
First came a two-hour ride through the jungle on a motorbike.
Then a 90-minute slog through dense brush.
There were several encounters with cobras.
And the ever-present threat of bandits … I started to question why I had come.
I’d arrived in Cambodia in January with my longtime friend and fellow photojournalist Richard Fitoussi.
I wanted to see for myself the country and the work he had been doing there as a photographer, filmmaker and as the international project manager of the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Fund — an NGO he started from Ontario in 1998.
It was his images of amputees living in the streets and of an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier unearthing and destroying some of the very mines he laid 20 years earlier that captivated me.
I was a photographer trying to break into photojournalism, and I was looking for a story I could tell with my own images.
Cambodia seemed like a good place to start.
It was ancient, mysterious, unfamiliar and tantalizingly dangerous.
And there is no shortage of landmines buried there.
According to the Cambodia Mine Action Committee (a government body) there are still an estimated 6 million mines in the ground.
At one point, that number was as high as 10 million.
Thanks to two decades of war and the coming of the Khmer Rouge, mines have been laid and re-laid so many times there is no longer any accurate record of where they were deployed.
So, standing above that one pie-plate-sized mine, I could see this was not an isolated danger but one that was ever-present.
I spent one month in Cambodia trying my best to document the lives of the people I encountered. Especially the ones who were victims of landmines.
One was a husband and father of five children who had lost both his arms to a mine when he was a young soldier in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army.
I met Douk in downtown Siem Reap, where he sold books on Cambodia to foreigners.
If he was lucky, he made $10 a day. That paid his rent in one of the local shanties and, with what was left, he bought a little rice and some minimal clothing for his family, he told me.
On the bright side, one of his daughters could attend school because of his work.
In his home, I witnessed the warmth and caring that many Khmer people possess.
Douk’s children were playful and inquisitive despite living in overcrowded, unsanitary quarters.
His wife welcomed us into their home and was overcome with tears as she told me how proud she was of her husband, who toiled everyday with his severe disability so the family could have a place to live.
And Douk himself was full of life and laughter and actually hugged me every time we met afterward (not something Khmer men traditionally do).
During my time there, I met and photographed a man named Rhett, who like Douk, was an ex Khmer Rouge soldier who stepped on a mine and has since tried to make a life for himself and his family in rural Cambodia.
Rhett’s home is little more than a raised wooden platform on stilts with a tattered blue tarp for a roof.
He had a home once with wooden walls and grass roof at the same location, but wildfire (started by neighbouring farmers) burned it down.
We actually spent one night hiding out in the jungle behind Rhett’s home because a group of young men was patrolling the road looking for the foreigners who were in the area.
It is not uncommon for outsiders to be robbed at night on rural roads.
It was with Rhett that we located the anti-tank mine and we spent a great deal of time with him during our time in the country.
At one point we travelled with him by boat to Battam Bang where he had the opportunity to be examined by doctors at Emergency (a frontline style field hospital) and was also fitted with a prosthetic at the Regional Physical Rehabilitation Centre.
For Rhett it was a 10-day journey that took him far from home and family.
One of the more haunting encounters for me happened at Battam Bang.
There, we met and photographed a 16-year-old named Cheat who had just had both arms severed by an landmine explosion less than a week before.
The immediacy of that situation made our meeting more tragic and very real.
Cheat had been tending the family’s water buffalo near his village and came across a small anti-personnel mine that he picked up.
He said he threw the mine to see if it would explode and, when it didn’t, he retrieved it.
It detonated when he touched it the second time.
In Khmer culture Cheat will find it hard to make a living as an amputee with few options available to him now.
There are good things about the landmine situation in Cambodia.
Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge soldier has spent much of his adult life finding and dismantling land mines — many of which he laid himself.
Aki Ra was the original inspiration for Fitoussi’s work in Cambodia.
It was with Aki Ra that he built the current Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Fund and the two still work closely together now.
Aki Ra’s original museum was a simple wooden shack that doubled as his home.
He also kept live mines and other un-exploded ordnance in the building while he dismantled them.
However, government policy and pressure from large de-mining NGOs forced Aki Ra to change the way he was working. Eventually he joined the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Fund.
But years of explosives training and the construction of the museum have helped Aki Ra to be an even more important figure in the campaign to de-mine Cambodia.
Aki Ra was recently the subject of a documentary called Year Zero that Fitoussi produced and which will be shown at international film festivals this year.
When I return to Cambodia this fall, I will have an opportunity to see the work being done by some of the larger de-mining NGOs like MAG and Halo Trust who have been clearing mines there for years.
I will also get a chance to see how Aki Ra is doing with his campaign and with his new team of de-miners who are currently training to assist him in the field.
He has been getting a great deal of help from a man by the name of Bill Morse and his NGO, the Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund, in the form of the actual licence to legally de-mine.
But most importantly, I will continue to record the images that tell the stories of everyday Cambodians who try to make a living in a land that is as dangerous as it is beautiful and where mines continue to disrupt lives and livelihoods, impacting the economy and posing an ever-present threat.
But even when that part of the story is complete there will be much more to do.
As the 10th anniversary of the Ottawa Convention to Ban Landmines approaches, it would appear that much progress has been made worldwide in clearing out these hidden killers, but the scourge of mines continues to plague the planet and global awareness of the issue is key to the success of their elimination.
For now, however, I am looking forward to returning to meet my new-found friends and the ones I have yet to meet.
Despite the seemingly dire circumstances the Khmer people live with, they always seem to be smiling and it makes me think that a Cambodia without mines is a real possibility.
For more information on the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Fund or Aki Ra please see the following links:
Whitehorse resident Chris Colbourne is a freelance photographer and frequent Yukon News contributor.