Ten Cambodian deminers — familiar with looking for land mines in the country’s rice fields — will soon start working to remove tons of explosives left on the bottom of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers since the Vietnam War. Made possible by a $70,000 grant from the U.S. government, the men completed training that started with learning how to swim.
“If we just said, ‘Send us people who can swim,’ there wouldn’t be enough applicants,’” says course director Allen Tan, who is also the general manager for Southeast Asia of the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a demining nonprofit that spearheaded the project.
Demining Cambodia’s rivers became a priority after some locals took matters into their own hands. Diving with a hose and breathing air from a machine used to inflate bicycle tires, they began taking out the munitions for a profit. While they sell the scrap metal, it is not clear what they do with the explosives, says Marcel Durocher, who also works with Golden West. He says the U.S. sank 207 ships in Cambodia during the 1970s. An unknown number of ammunition -barges were also brought down by the Khmer Rouge and -the right-wing -government of Cambodia.
With almost zero visibility, the divers will work in complete darkness, using only their hands to identify explosives, and then attach them to ropes that will bring them to the surface.
If the Cambodia project is successful, it will become a blueprint for the U.S. government’s support of underwater demining in other parts of the world.