“We have the scorpion fish here,” he told them in English. “It sits on a rock all day and looks unhappy, so if you see that a rock’s got two eyes, go find another rock.”
When the translator explained what he’d said, the men laughed. Almost in the same moment they rose and rushed out of their classroom following the command of their instructor. He’d given them exactly two and a half minutes to gear up for a dive. Though this training took place in Cambodia, it wasn’t unusual that the dive instructor was foreigner. Quite possibly there is just one Cambodian SCUBA instructor in the entire country. But what’s more surprising is that the trainees were all locals. That they didn’t speak English was the least of it. Most couldn’t even swim at the outset. They’d learned just two weeks before and none of this had anything to do with some trendy boot camp dive vacation. The men were all ‘deminers’, chosen for a program that would eventually qualify them to remove explosives from the bottom of Cambodia’s waterways, there since the Vietnam War.
Forty applicants commenced training at the end of January. Maybe 25 per cent were expected to graduate from the military-style course funded by a $70,000 grant from the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement of the U.S. government’s Department of State. It was a first for Cambodia.
In fast moving, zero visibility rivers the job requires the divers to use only their sense of touch to locate the
unexploded rockets, bombs, mortars, projectiles and grenades; not for the faint of heart. To train the Cambodian
deminers for this underwater work was a team of explosive ordinance divers from Australia and the United States, among them three experts from the U.S. military.
It wasn’t until the first day of pool training that the instructors learned almost none of their students, all in
their 30s and 40s, could swim. They needed flotation devices.
“Some of them could do a frog kick, you know, the kind you see when you throw a baby in the water,” said explosive ordinance diver Robert Rice, who’d flown in fromTexas. “But some had never even put their face in the water.”
Every day, hundreds of people travel between Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. They’re 140 miles (225km) apart so the journey takes at least six hours, in part because halfway along the highway is interrupted by a river. Loaded buses, motorbikes and pedestrians carrying carrying baskets of merchandise on their heads cram onto an overcrowded ferry that carries them to the far side of this waterway, the Mekong River, less than a kilometre distant. The Japanese government is building a bridge here as part of its humanitarian assistance to Cambodia, and when foundation drilling began more than a year ago there was an explosion that proved to be a Chinese-made projectile buried in the riverbed mud. Fortunately no one was hurt but a drainage system pump didn’t fare so well.
The incident made a dramatic point. Tons of potentially lethal explosives rest on the bottom of the Mekong River, one of the longest in Asia. With plans to build more bridges across this key Cambodian river in the coming years, the need to remove this ordnance became a priority.
“In the past, it was just a matter of luck, you just took a risk with construction,” said Heng Ratana, the director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), the country’s government demining agency. “Now with a need to construct essential infrastructure in Cambodia we cannot just avoid tons of unexploded ordinance in the country.”
It’s estimated that the United States dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the 1960s and 70s, attempting to interrupt the movement of military supplies from North Vietnam to the south. According to recently released American bombing data, the United States sank 207 vessels in Cambodia during this time, many of which were ammunition barges, each carrying 1,000 tons of ordinance.
“They dropped three times more bombs in Cambodia than they dropped in Japan during the Second World War,” Ratana says. “I believe the U.S. government has a moral responsibility.”
Vessels were also sunk in fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the right wing government of Cambodia. In 1974-75, before Phnom Penh was captured by communist forces, the only supply route to the city was via the Mekong, along which barges attempted to bring arms from Saigon. The Khmer Rouge would ambush them at locations where the river narrowed. No records were kept so it’s not known how many boats they sank, said Marcel Durocher, a Canadian scientist with the demining nonprofit called Golden West, which has spearheaded the underwater UXO recovery project.
“In that period of time, anything that moved on the river was a fair target for somebody,” Durocher said.
Now the sunken barges have been on the bottom of the river for decades, some protruding above the surface in the dry season and disappearing again when the water levels rise between May and November. In the last decade, however, some enterprising locals have figured out that metal from the bombs, rockets, and projectiles can be sold for a profit.
“We’ve seen these people on bamboo rafts that support a small generator and an air pump that allows a person tied to a rope to dive 30 to 40 feet (10-12m) down,” Durocher said. “It’s just a diver with nothing except a hose in the corner of his mouth and a basket to collect the metal.”
With no proper SCUBA gear, these divers breathe air often tainted by machines usually used to inflate tires. While locals sell the metal, it’s not clear what they do with the explosives. Durocher was told of a recent incident in which 16,000 rounds of recovered artillery ammunition, containing tons of explosives, essentially went missing.
“Nobody knows what happened to those,” he said. “With all the recent terrorist activity in the region – in Indonesia, South Thailand – there is a concern about people recovering this ordinance and selling it to parties that have a different interest and the piles of underwater munitions represent unsecured stock piles of explosives.”
Another concern is environmental. As these weapons degrade they may release explosives into the river contaminating fish and drinking water.
“The explosives are very toxic,” Durocher said. “If you put TNT in a glass of water, in a few days it will turn brown.”
Another reason to recover the explosives is the practical matter of reusing the recovered bombs. Landmines are a problem in Cambodia that, arguably, are an even greater threat to the public. Hence, one role of the deminers is to locate and dispose of these explosives by way of detonation, which requires explosives the state must purchase. Recovered devices that are deemed stable can be used for this purpose.
In Cambodia it’s not unusual to be a non-swimmer. Most people in this poor Southeast Asian country live far from the sea and travel is a luxury. Two weeks after their training started about half of the deminers passed the swim test, which included floating for ten minutes in the pool, swimming 33 feet (10m) under water and making it from one edge of the pool to the other six times using any stroke, resting as needed, for a total distance of 650 plus feet (200m). Those who didn’t make the cut “were dropped because we felt it wasn’t safe for them to operate around water,” Course Director Allen Tan said. Tan is also the general manager for Southeast Asia of the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation.
One of the men who learned to swim in less than two weeks was 36-year-old Heang Sambo, a translator.
“Before this course, I never tried swimming,” he said. “I’d just walk at the edge of the water and get my feet wet. I’ve never been in water deeper than my head.”
Sambo and the other successful candidates were then sent off to Koh Rong, one of Cambodia’s most popular island resorts, which is two and a half hours by boat from the mainland. For many of them it was the first time on any island and their first time at sea. Koh Rong boasts crystal clear water beautiful sunsets. It is also a place where holidaymakers are partying until 3 a.m. and foreign woman are parading about the beaches in bikinis. But on arrival instructor Robert Rice made it clear that they were not on vacation. The deminers were forbidden from venturing beyond their guesthouse at the Monkey Island Resort and from wearing anything but their uniforms. Resort staff were forbidden to sell alcoholic beverages to the men in the yellow T-shirts. It would be early nights and early mornings for them. Breakfast was at 6:30 a.m. The boat departed at 7 a.m.
“The environment here is a bit deceptive,” Rice said. “We want them to get a good night’s sleep. If they can’t focus, they’ll get killed or kill someone else.”
Their training was tough: routinely swimming 1.2 miles (2km) in the sea, diving in a black out mask and learning to secure smooth (explosive) objects underwater, so that they don’t come loose on their way to the surface. Just like in the movies, pushups were the penalty when needed. Those who passed the month-long selection course will continue training for another year or longer before working with real explosives.
From the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand, the men must transition to the muddy, fast-flowing rivers with zero visibility. They will locate the barges and explosives using metal detectors from the surface and, because they cannot differentiate between a metallic ship or a barge full of ammunition, the divers will then descend to determine exactly what has been identified by the detector. By touch they must locate and identify the ordnance of which there are a thousand different kinds, Rice said. They are American-made, Russian-made, Chinese-made and it will be their job to determine one from another and whether their find is safe for recovery.
“They can have their eyes open or closed, either way they can’t see anything,” Rice said. “They’re learning how to lead with their hands, recognizing by touch.”
If it’s big and has lifting lugs, they’d know it was dropped from an airplane. If there are no grooves in it, they’d know it’s never been fired, and is safe to bring up. And there’s always the slight chance explosives might detonate, say, if a diver accidentally pulls the pin on a grenade.
“On paper there’s always a risk, but realistically it’s not something to worry about,” Rice said, then added, “If you have no idea what it is, you have to do research. Other times you have to take your best guess. If in doubt though, you just blow it in place. You bring the explosives to it, and you just blow it up right there.”
Bombs OK, Not Sharks
So why would someone who doesn’t know how to swim volunteer to work with bombs under water? Asked this question, the men all said they joined the program to improve their qualifications. With luck CMAC will reward them with some level of pay increase. None of the men admitted to being afraid of drowning or being blown up. But they did express concern over the presence of sharks and crocodiles.
“I’m really scared of these,” Sambo said. “Most of the others feel as I do because we’ve watched movies about them and the crocodiles looked very real.”
Of course the deminers are experienced at working with explosives on land. With little education, some didn’t finish high school, they chose to accept danger to earn a little more. Sambo said when he became a deminer his salary was $151 per month, about three times what he would have been able to make in a different job. Many of the CMAC personnel are also former soldiers who fought in Cambodia’s wars up until the 1990s, some as members of the Khmer Rouge. It could be said their good luck has already carried them unharmed through decades of conflict. With their highly qualified trainers to guide them and proper equipment, Sambo said he wasn’t worried about safety.
“If we follow the procedure, we’ll be fine,” he said.
Aboard the dive boat next day the men were rubbing toothpaste on their masks to prevent fogging. The humour in this was not lost on Rice considering what the kind of water in which the men were training to work. It was time to dive. Sambo was last off the boat and distracted by my questions he jumped off… without his fins.
Diving in Cambodia
Scuba Nation is Cambodia’s first dive centre, a PADI 5 Star National Geographic facility now in operation for 11 years and that operates the country’s only live-aboard dive boat. Today there are six PADI centers in the country. In the last decade, the country’s scuba training market has grown from about 100 trainees per year to 1,000 annually now, according to Vicky Leah, who co-owns Scuba Nation with her husband. She says most dive’ ‘trainees in Cambodia are tourists. Only a fraction of divers they certify each year are Cambodians, she said. Cambodian waters are home to a wide range of marine life from sea horses to whale sharks.
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