Cambodia digs out seeds of death: A farmer who steps on a mine loses both a limb and a livelihood, Terry McCarthy writes in Phnom Penh

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The Independent Online
WHEN a farmer steps on a landmine in Cambodia, the blast will not only blow his foot and lower leg off, it will reduce him and his family to poverty overnight. The calculations are devastatingly simple, according to Matthew Middlemiss, in charge of the Cambodian operations of Halo Trust, a British mine-clearing organisation.

'The chances are, he will be at least 40km (25 miles) from a hospital. To get there, his family will have to hire a motorcycle with trailer, which . . . will cost up to dollars 30 ( pounds 20). Then he will have to pay for his treatment and medicine in the hospital. It will come to at least dollars 100. That will be the entire year's income for his family.'

In the north, west and south of Cambodia there are mines all over the countryside. Two thousand big minefields have been surveyed, and the ominous red signs with a skull and crossbones and 'Danger, Mines' written in Cambodian and English are a common feature along paths and roads outside town. Even some of the smaller temples in the Angkor complex in northern Cambodia have been mined.

The mine-clearing groups in Cambodia estimate that 7 million mines have been laid in the country - almost one for each man, woman and child in the population. Up to 300 people step on mines each month. Cambodia, along with Angola, has the greatest proportion of amputees of any country, about one in every 250 people.

Besides Halo Trust, there are French, Norwegian and British groups helping the Cambodians to learn how to remove the mines. It is a painstakingly slow and precise process. Every square foot must be checked and re- checked with a metal detector; to clear one small village can take up to six months for a team working every day.

'It is sort of a combination of archaeology and gardening - finding things very sensitively with great discipline,' said Mr Middlemiss, a former British Army officer who has been in Cambodia with the Halo Trust for two and a half years. It is also very expensive. Kuwait has spent dollars 900m on clearing mines since the Gulf War - while in Cambodia, after spending dollars 2.8bn on a UN peace plan, a mere dollars 15m has been donated for mine clearing.

'Landmines violate two of the most basic provisions of international law concerning conflicts,' said Urs Boegli, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Phnom Penh. 'First, they do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians, and secondly, they cause unnecessary suffering.'

The ICRC is spearheading a campaign to have the international export of landmines stopped. Germany is in favour of an export ban, but John Major has argued against a ban. British defence industries are important mine manufacturers.

Next year a 1980 UN weapons convention is to be revised. Of particular concern is Protocol 2, which deals with mines. Humanitarian groups have demanded that all mines be detectable by having a minimum metal content, that they be equipped with self-destruct mechanisms so that they do not continue maiming for years to come and that mapping of minefields be more precise. The drafters of the possible revisions are tackling the problem of enforcing restrictions and plan to impose punitive sanctions if necessary.

But as humanitarian groups and mine-exporting countries do battle over revisions to Protocol 2, the maiming and killing by mines continues in Cambodia. Some 50 per cent of people injured by mines are estimated to die before receiving medical help. The ICRC calculates it takes an average of eight and a half hours to get to a hospital. Another ICRC survey found 78 per cent of injured knew they were in a minefield at the time, but were forced to take the risk out of economic necessity - to get water, wood or to farm.

'If we don't clear the landmines' said Mr Middlemiss, 'the Cambodians will do it themselves - one leg at a time'.

(Photograph omitted)