It has been over 30 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which resulted in the death of an estimated 2 million people. Cambodia and its people still suffer from the legacy of that dark time in a variety of ways, one of which includes the deadly and hidden threat of abandoned land mines. Every year, over 100 people are killed or injured by this unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Since the early 1990s, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) has been training de-miners and has been responsible for clearing vast areas of Cambodia from the threat of land mines. This huge task has now taken a new direction for CMAC: the group, working in conjunction with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, has selected a 9-person group of de-miners to become Cambodia’s first elite salvage diving unit.

During the early 1970s, ships carried large stockpiles of explosive ordnance to supply the Khmer Republic. At some point, a great number sunk in the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers and have laid dormant ever since.

In addition, a large amount of ordnance dropped by the American military during the Vietnam War on Cambodia have ended up in rivers and lakes across the counter. Also, near constant skirmishes between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s soldiers, and later with Vietnamese soldiers, left unexploded fragments of hand grenades, mortar rounds and bullets in the waterways everywhere.

Fishermen regularly catch ordnance in their nets. Forced into action by their limited economic means, most will dive down (using a compression pump attached to a plastic tube) to cut the nets free. This is done with no training and at great personal risk: the threat of pulling up small explosives is very real.

Meanwhile, dredgers that work the rivers collecting sand to be sold for construction regularly pull up small-scale ordnance as well. Rather than reporting their findings (for fear of holding up the work), the dredgers just throw the material back into the river.

The 9 divers selected for this group are being trained to dive and recover ordnance in the safest manner possible. Given the extreme conditions—up to 30 m underwater, buffeted by the strong currents of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers—the training is rigorous and demanding. Their work is incredibly challenging, requiring both physical and mental strength and great dexterity. But, after all, this is a matter of life and death.

—Charles Fox

Editors’ Note: We first discovered
Charles Fox’s work while meeting photographers and reviewing portfolios at the inaugural LensCulture / World Press Photo Portfolio Reviews held in Amsterdam.