I’m eating breakfast at an outdoor café in Siem Reap, Cambodia, when I see an unusual cart slowly making its way down the street. I follow its progress with interest, and when it draws near I leave my table to get a closer look. The driver pulls alongside me and flashes a smile like the sun after a hard summer rain. I’m mesmerized, but I break away from his smile to read the signs on his cart. Only then do I realize he has no legs.
He’s one of the lucky ones. His name is Teng, and more than the spectacular temples, wild tuk-tuk rides and crazy nightlife of Siem Reap, his story and those of others like him will be what I take home as my most lasting memory of Cambodia.
Cambodia suffered 20 years of political upheaval, through civil war and the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, followed by an equally repressive period of government backed by Vietnam until 1989, until it finally emerged as the democratic Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993. Before all that, though, it was dragged into the Vietnam war, and today the country is still littered with landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from a half million tons of bombs dropped by the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
This means that two entire generations are paying the ongoing price for these wars. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four to six million landmines and other pieces of UXO still in Cambodia. Although half the country’s minefields have now been cleared, Cambodia is still one of the most landmine-impacted countries in the world with the highest casualty ratio in the world.
In Cambodia, only about 25% of mine victims arrive at a hospital within 6 hours of being injured. Another 15% have to travel for more than 3 days before they reach a hospital, which leads to obviously low survival rates. In a country rampant with poverty, to have a family member lose a limb and have no access to good healthcare or governmental aid makes the dangers of landmines an even heavier burden on the community. This is the main reason so many orphanages have popped up in Cambodia over the last generation. Like everyone else I’ve met on my travels, all this cart driver wants is to provide a good life for his children. An accident of fate – or a crime of war, depending on your viewpoint – keep him from doing that.
This is the type of story that captures my interest, because it tells so much about a culture, yet we never hear about it from our news media in the U.S. I’m particularly interested because I’m traveling with two women who work for CISR, a humanitarian agency that provides management training for organizations that clear minefields worldwide. They have spent the past month in Vietnam providing training for landmine relief agencies from across Southeast Asia.
Last night at dinner they introduced me to three young men who work out in the field as deminers for The HALO Trust, the largest and oldest organization dedicated to clearing UXOs from war regions. Founded in 1988, today they operate in fifteen countries and four territories. Seeming wise beyond their years, these men defy the stereotype of entitled millennials and help me understand why and how they do what they do and how they got there.
“I worked at CISR and gave a presentation once,” Ed, a handsome 25-year-old laughingly tells me. “I got my ego handed to me by the participants who were in the field. They said if I wanted to know what I was talking about I should come to HALO and do it for real. So I did, and they were right. Learning about something academically is very different from doing it in real life. It’s been an important lesson for me.”
“I just came from Mozambique,” Deon tells me, “but it’s even harder to remove UXOs here, where there’s everything from rice fields to highways to mountains. We use everything from high-tech machinery to dogs to locate UXOs, but it’s the local communities who have become the best source of intelligence. They’re the ones at risk of losing their children or their livestock, so the communities educate everyone on what to look for. It’s been a fabulous partnership. It makes our job much easier, and seeing the gratitude in their eyes makes it all worth it.”
Asqanaz fills me in on how things work at HALO. “Everyone has to learn demining, no matter what your job is. Even the kitchen staff has to get hands-on in the field. But there’s payback, because even the demining staff have to work their first 30 days in the kitchen before they get trained in the field.”
“We use geese as security to guard the TNT we use to destroy the weapons,” he tells me. “If the geese know you, they ignore you. If you’re a stranger they honk like crazy. It’s failsafe security,” he laughs.
Asqanaz came from a demining program in Armenia, his home country. “We have a DMZ (demilitarized zone) from our war with Azerbijan and I met someone from HALO who suggested I could help all over the world. Who wouldn’t want to see the world and save lives in the process?”
Demining is painstakingly slow, manually grueling labor in the brutal heat and humidity of the jungle, and their lives are at risk every day. Ed has had malaria four times in the past few years, but he shrugs it off as a cost of doing business. It’s the same attitude I get from other humanitarian aid workers I meet in this country.
Bill Morse is a great example of this. Bill manages the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a gorgeous 30-minute ride by tuk-tuk outside of Siem Reap. Unfazed by the sudden downpour, the passionate American tells me the history of the museum while entertaining me with stories of trying to get things done in Cambodia. “We had a new truck donated to us from Australia 18 months ago,” he says, tugging on the University of Southern California lanyard that holds his ID badge, “but it’s been sitting in Customs for 17 months waiting to get through the bureaucracy. We just have to deal with these things one day at a time.”
The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier who has devoted his life to removing landmines in Cambodia and to caring for young landmine victims or the children of victims. Since 1992, Aki Ra has personally removed and destroyed as many as 50,000 landmines in Cambodia, often with just a screwdriver. The museum serves to educate visitors on the ongoing crisis and provide funds for the adjacent Relief Facility/orphanage, which is run by Bill and his wife Jill.
The cost to lay a landmine is only $3, but it can cost as much as $1,000 per mine for removal, Bill tells me as he points out bullets, grenades and missiles that have been recovered. That doesn’t even factor in the human cost. Besides the obvious cost of injury and death, if a farmer even suspects there are UXO’s on the land, he won’t cultivate the land. Enough farmers with uncultivated land can result in famine, but even more immediately, it results in an unending cycle of poverty.
Despite all these efforts, Cambodia still has one of the highest casualty rates in the world, and one-third of the casualties are children. The work is paying off, though: “25 years ago there were 4,000 injuries a year,” Bill tells me. “This year we’ve had only 72 and it’s already October.”
His wife Jill takes me through the school served by the orphanage. This is one of several days each week the kids go to public school in the local village, which is why I am allowed to see this part of the facility. “We don’t let tourists near the children. Kids are not part of the museum. They’re not animals in a zoo,” she tells me. “I cringe every time I see a tour bus pull up to an orphanage. Most of the time it’s not even a real orphanage, it’s just a racket to draw tourists in. We’re the real deal here.”
Currently 23 kids between age seven and 21 live there full-time, and Jill manages their education and housing. Funding comes from the Landmine Relief Fund (LMRF) set up by Bill in 2003, which finances the demining operation as well as education of 3,000 students in rural villages. In Cambodia, education, minefields and orphanages are all intertwined in a complex dance that I don’t yet fully understand, but with every conversation I’m getting closer.
Jill has a background in education and vents her frustration with the textbooks that are used globally for English-language curriculum. “The New Headway English learning book used around the world is irrelevant crap,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s full of cocktail party conversations and what to expect at a resort. When will my kids ever use this vocabulary in a conversation? I want them to learn words they’ll use in real life, so they can get jobs and make better lives for themselves and their families.” She sounds like every other teacher I’ve heard rail against administration, but in her case, she’s halfway around the world trying to build something out of nothing.
The Morses have been running the school and orphanage since 2003, which is long enough now to show some results – and to have learned some hard lessons. Several of the students have been with them long-term and are currently in university, sponsored by the LMRF. “We make the students sign a contract that if they quit university they have to pay is back the tuition, which is $250,” Jill tells me. “That’s not a lot for us, but for them it is a huge amount.” They’ve put this policy in place because they noticed a trend: “At that age, boys want motorbikes and cell phones. That’s fine, but let’s not waste $250 sending them to school if they’re not ready.”
It’s now, when we’re talking about the thirteen years they’ve been running the orphanage and explaining how things have changed, that things come full circle for me. In the early days, most of the children they took in were orphaned because their parents died from injuries from landmines or other UXO. As the demining operations have made headway, fewer of their children are true orphans and more are there because the poverty of their families in rural villages don’t offer them the opportunity for an education. The hope and intent is to educate those children so they can go back to the villages and educate others.
Every once in a while, though, a new child comes along whose parent was injured by UXO and can no longer support him or her. This brings me back to Teng, the man with the sunny smile selling guidebooks in the cart in Siem Reap, and what his sign says.
“Dear Sir or Madam/Gentleman,
Hello! My name is Teng Daralam, double amputee and I also suffer from stomach caused by a landmine in 1990. I am self-employed and work to support my family as well so my kids can go to public school and English classes, so their lives will improve and be better than I can provide for them.
Thanks and God bless!”
I buy a guidebook that I don’t really need and leave it at my hotel for other guests to use. If the tourists stop coming and Teng can no longer sell his guidebooks, it is people like Bill and Jill Morse that Teng can send his children to, because in their care they will be educated and have a chance at a better future that Teng can’t provide.
Vietnam wasn’t my war, and it probably wasn’t yours. By a twist of fate, it missed being Bill’s war by only six weeks, but since then he’s made its cleanup his war. He’s joined by an army of humanitarian workers, from the heroic and selfless demining teams to the operational teams that support them financially and administratively.
One of the women I’m traveling with who works for CISR is my daughter Jessie. And yes, I am incredibly proud of her for choosing to support humanity in such an important way. But more than that, I am extraordinarily grateful to her for giving me this opportunity to experience Cambodia in a very different, and much more meaningful, way than most tourists can.