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War and Landmines: I Only Saw the Survivors
As Concern Worldwide draws its programs in Cambodia to a close after 23 years, Senior Health and HIV Advisor, Breda Gahan, recalls some of her experiences there in more turbulent times
Twenty-three years on, it’s a different country entirely.
Back in 1991, there was a lot of insecurity. While a peace agreement was signed in Paris, the country was still marred by warfare. Working conditions were difficult. We set up office in the Monorom Hotel in Phnom Penh and for the next three years I spent there, change in the country was always evident.
While my job was in Cambodia, I first traveled to Thailand to better understand not only Concern’s work in the refugee camps, but also what people felt about returning to Cambodia. When I reached Aranyaprathet town in eastern Thailand where the Khmer refugee camps were mostly located, I could hardly believe the size of the “camp cities.” I had never seen anything like it. The camps, at that time more than a decade old, had a sense of order. However, as permanent as they felt, you could sense people’s enthusiasm to return home.
Nervous and excited, I returned to Phnom Penh to help establish the Concern Cambodia office and, once it was deemed reasonably safe, a smaller provincial office in Kompong Speu Province. In the first months, Concern supported the internally displaced people (IDPs) in Krang Ampil Commune. Their health and living conditions were appalling, with most living on the ground in poorly maintained bamboo huts.
It was particularly grim and challenging in the rainy season.
I will always remember a woman who had died in childbirth because insecurity kept her from going to the hospital. I had met her a few days earlier while doing assessments on the needs of IDPs in the surrounding area. She was already a mother of a few children, had a supportive husband, and seemed well-respected in her community. I actually identified her as a potential community leader in my assessment.
I met her husband, their infant son in his arms a couple of days later, and learned she had died in labor. She went into labor after dark and was too afraid to make the trip to the hospital. Her fears were grounded in experience, for the Khmer Rouge soldiers were still active in many of the rural communes in Samrong Tong District where I was mostly working. I still wonder what became of that little boy.
From then on, Concern’s double-cab pick-up vehicle became a field ambulance, and every day I transported people who were unconscious with malaria or post-land mine accidents and women with pregnancy complications to the provincial hospital in Kompong Speu.
The local hospital had few qualified staff, a limited stock of medicines, and only very basic equipment.
I had to learn a lot about landmines. One of the programs we developed was called L-MAP, a landmine-awareness initiative that educated children and adults on accident prevention. There were so many accidents in 1991 and 1992. There were often nine or ten landmine accidents every night, and I only saw the survivors. Many people were killed as they tried to de-mine their land themselves before the United Nations (UN) and other agencies came in to help.
I’ll never forget meeting a man who survived after having lost both his eyes and his arms from de-mining activities. Beside him was his wife who had given birth during the night. I felt so angry and sad that this father would never see or hold his child in his arms.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) became operational in early 1992, and I reported to them every month on the landmine accidents I knew of. It was impossible to start rehabilitation of health centers, schools, roads, and bridges until de-mining was completed around these sites. In many cases, nothing of the buildings remained apart from the rudimentary foundations. The war years had certainly taken their toll on Cambodia and its people.
It wasn’t long before Cambodians started to refer to the “new landmine:” HIV and AIDS. Fueled by years of war and upheaval and an entrenched underground sex industry, the epidemic spread. In a few short years, Cambodia had the highest HIV prevalence in Southeast Asia. Thankfully, Cambodia has successfully curbed the spread of HIV with strong prevention efforts and leadership at all levels. This experience has influenced my work ever since.
When the returnees came back from the Thai border camps, many returned to their old villages. It was very moving to see all the reunions and many of the elderly who had stayed, and were unable to leave, met the grown grandchildren they had never seen.
When I left Cambodia in 1993, sick with dengue hemorrhagic fever, Concern was moving from emergency interventions to rehabilitation and development programs in health, education, forestry, and agriculture. Twenty years later, I am proud of the contribution that Concern has made to Cambodia’s development, and that I was a part of it.