PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
PERHAPS no other country symbolizes the worldwide land-mine problem better than Cambodia.
More than 20 years of conventional and guerrilla warfare relying heavily on land mines has left Cambodia reeling in poverty and grim mine statistics. One in every 236 Cambodians - or a total of 35,000 - has lost a limb or limbs to one of the estimated 7 million antipersonnel mines scattered across the country. Eight Cambodians a day are killed or maimed by mines, exacting a huge economic cost in lost wages and care.
At the current rate of clearance, Cambodia will not be totally demined for another 300 years, leaving thousands of acres of arable land unusable for generations.
``We must not accept this horrible fact of death,'' says Australian Justice Michael Kirby, the UN special representative for human rights in Cambodia. ``We must make sure that these terrible instruments of death are made a thing of the past.''
While an enforced universal ban might put an end to Cambodia's future problems, it would not solve its current challenges, which are exacerbated by their continued use by both the government and Khmer Rouge rebels. A government plan to unilaterally stop using mines has not progressed since it was proposed following Mr. Kirby's visit.
On Oct. 2, King Norodom Sihanouk appealed to both Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the government to stop laying land mines. ``I ask that the use and placement of land mines ... be very severely and definitively condemned.''
In the meantime, mine-clearance teams, sponsored by international relief organizations, the UN, and foreign governments, are working overtime.
While they were not involved with actual mine clearance, a group of US soldiers Sept. 23 completed a two-month demining course with Army troops, the first US military training program in the country since the early 1970s. The goal was to teach the Cambodians the techniques to operate clearance programs themselves. ``We want them to have self-sustaining capability,'' said Maj. Russ Berkoff, the leader of the US team.
Self-sustaining capability is also the goal of the UN-sponsored Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), set up at the request of Cambodian First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. He appealed last year to the UN to ``help us make our country safe for present and future generations.'' CMAC, has 1,500 Cambodian deminers working to allow people to resettle in mined areas and clear land for agriculture.
The Halo Trust, a British charity, has been training Cambodians in demining techniques for the past three years as well as actually participating in the clearance. Their work is sometimes made difficult by the remining of cleared fields by both the Army and the Khmer Rouge, according to many deminers.
But as the deminers work, 200 to 300 Cambodians per month are falling victim to the mines.
For them, life will never be the same. Losing a limb is bad enough, but in a Buddhist country where the sense of fatalism is high, land-mine victims are often thought of as being punished for a past wrong, according to Matthew Middlemiss, head of the Halo Trust mission here. `The are ostracized, often by both friends and family,'' he says.
Training programs for mine disabled are up and running, but the need is huge, according to trainers. About 140 mine-disabled people graduated from a training program at the Wat Than National Rehabilitation Center here, one of several countrywide. There they are taught carpentry, tailoring, craft production, and office skills. About 60 percent of the program's graduates find employment, a high rate, but more needs to be done, the trainers say. ``We're just touching so few,'' says Patsy Curran, who works at Wat Than. ``There are so many.''