DARK WATER: Cambodia's UXO Divers
It has been over 30 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. Cambodia and its people still suffer from the legacy of that dark time in a variety of ways, including the deadly and hidden threat of abandoned land mines, which still kill or injure more than 100 people every year.
Since the early 1990s, the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) has been training de-miners and has been responsible for clear ing vast areas of Cambodia from the threat of land mines. The 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 strong group of de-miners from 40 hopeful volunteers to become Cambodia’s first elite salvage diving unit.
During the early 1970’s ships carrying large stockpiles of explosive ordinance to supply the Khmer Republic were sunk in the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers by the Khmer Rouge and have laid there ever since.
Large ordinance dropped by the American Military during the Vietnam War on Cambodia have ended up in rivers and lakes and skirmishes between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s soldiers, and later with Vietnamese soldiers, have left unexploded fragments of war, hand grenades, mortar rounds and bullets in the waterways.
Fishermen regularly catch their nets on the boats and large ordinance, most will dive down (on a compression pump attached to a plastic tube) to cut the nets free at great personal risk. The threat of pulling up small explosives is very real. Dredgers that work the rivers collecting sand to be sold for construction regularly pull small scale ordinance from the rivers and rather than reporting them for the fear of holding up the work will just throw them back into the river or sell them for scrap.
The selected 9 divers are being trained not only to dive and recover, but are also learning how to do so completely blind in depths of up to 30 meters and against the strong currents of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. These are hostile
conditions, requiring both physical and mental strength and dexterity.