Saturday, September 20, 2008

Draw Your Own Conclussions

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the difficulties CSHD has had in getting up and running. It’s been frustrating and more than once I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t just be better to do things the ‘old way’; clear where it’s needed and the heck with all the paperwork. But we believed that if we could get certified we could get more deminers into the field and be a much more effective tool in making Cambodia a safer place for all who live here.

I perhaps naively believed that a new, all-Khmer demining NGO would be welcomed and could compliment the work being done in this country to save lives.

The red tape and delays came home to roost earlier this month.

But let’s back up a bit, to the beginning of all this, and give you a short history:

Aki Ra, an ex-child soldier, who’d laid thousands of mines during his years at war, decided in the early 90s that he wanted to make mine-clearing his trade. He traveled throughout the areas in which he’d fought for nearly 20 years, plying his trade: clearing mines, UXOs and booby traps wherever he or anyone else found them. He cleared over 50,000, without injury to himself or anyone he ever trained. And he did it for free.

To support his work he started a small museum to show off some of the mines he’d cleared and to care for the children he and his wife had adopted. The original Museum was modest and a Canadian NGO helped to build a new one. The government required that the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA) certify it. In return for certification Aki Ra had to cease his ‘uncertified’ demining activities and apply for a certificate. With little other choice he agreed and asked for my help to get it done. I immediately said yes, closed my business, and have spent most of the last year in Cambodia working on the ‘process’.

To certify CSHD we had to do 2 things:

Register CSHD as a Khmer NGO
Apply for certification with CMAA

We couldn’t even get an application to register the NGO without a letter from CMAA authorizing the Ministry of the Interior to issue the application. CMAA readily agreed to provide the letter. We were asked to prepare it and send it to them for signature. After claims of never receiving the original letter and not getting several email copies of the letter I hand carrying a copy from California to Phnom Penh and handed it to the official in charge of certification. Upon receiving the letter I was told it needed to be in Khmer. With the intervention of a senior government official, the letter was issued in less than 24 hours; 10 weeks after CMAA had agreed to provide it to us. We asked for it in January. We received it in March.

We prepared the application and it was eventually issued at the end of May after more ridiculous delays, 5 months after we initially visited the Ministry.

Our ‘provisional’ certification, good for 180 day’s was issued at the end of June, just in time for the rainy season to ground Team1 for 60-90 days.

Chrung village asked the government years ago to clear the mines that threatened them. It was assigned to one of the authorized humanitarian demining groups. But with all the mines still in the ground, Chrung was far down the list, and never cleared. The village chief contacted Aki Ra, and working as an unauthorized deminer, most of the time alone, he cleared 16 anti-tank mines and a ‘rice sack’ full of anti-personnel mines. Then he had to stop.

Chrung came back to haunt this country earlier this month when a horrible ‘accident’ occured. I put the word ‘accident’ in quotes only because it need never have happened.

A group of locals were traveling from a nearby village to Chrung. They came via a tractor hauling a cart. On their return, traveling down a narrow cart path, they ran over an anti tank mine. Five died and three were horribly wounded. The villagers had to cut down a tree to retrieve the dead body of a 3 month-old baby. The bodies were cremated where the accident happened, in a ceremony attended only by the people who lived in the villages. The area is still littered with the clothing of the dead and the empty sacks of rice they carried in the cart. The crater is still there, 3 feet deep, filled with water. Anti tank mines in this area were usually laid 10 meters apart. The villagers paced off the distances and marked where they believe 2 more mines are buried.

10 minutes after the accident happened the village chief called Aki Ra and asked when he could come back and finish his work. We still had equipment to buy and paperwork to complete before we would be ‘allowed’ to clear any land, but Aki Ra got the team together and I traveled with them to Chrung to watch them survey the village, prior to commencing a full demining operation. We had planned on spending a week, but had to leave when monsoon rains made continued work too dangerous. We decided to spend the extra time in the provincial capital, getting the necessary paperwork done so that we could return when the rains let up.

But CSHD can’t clear Chrung. It was assigned a long time ago to someone else and the villagers will just have to wait until they have the time to get there. CSHD is ready now.

Maybe the funeral pyre for the 5 dead will build a fire somewhere else. This need never have happened.

There’s a lot more here I haven’t said and can’t say, so read between the lines and draw your own conclusions.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Baked Beans, Tuna, and a Paperback Book

Kinda sounds like a song from the 60s huh?

Actually it's what I spent the afternoon doing today. Buying my stuff for the little excursion we're making into the north of the country tomorrow.

I don't want to get into the details of where we are going and what we'll be doing, since you all know pretty much what it is already.

It's been fairly hectic all week over here and it has finally started raining in earnest. (And boy, is Earnest unhappy) - I'm sorry , I couldn't resist.

I was here in June, the beginning of the rainy season and didn't see much rain at all. I came back at the end of August and saw more, but it still wasn't raining a lot. Every other day or so it would rain HARD for an hour or so, but it was fairly predictable. Then on Sunday it started raining a lot. It rained very hard Monday, all day Tuesday and most of Wednesday and yesterday. Today, Friday, it's been raining off and on all day. Never hard. Never enough to keep you from going out, just a constant drizel.

So it will be very interesting to see how Babu copes with it in the jungle. Actually, we'll most probably be staying in a village, under cover. I've got a poncho, hammock, food, a change of clothes, and trash bags. Oh yeah - TP too. Can't forget the TP. uh-uh....can't forget the TP. and a big paperback book. While the guys are working I have to stay put, so to speak.

We'll be gone for at least 3 days, possibly a week.

Oh yeah - I forgot to mention...tomorrow morning, before we shove off, some people from Iraq are visiting the Museum. Now that should be interesting.

More to come when I get back.

Be good. Fight On!


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

5 dead - from the net

This is what it's all bout:

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A truck hit an anti-tank mine in a former stronghold of Cambodia's ultra-communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas, killing at least five people and wounding three, police said on Sunday.

The victims of Friday's accident in the northwestern district of Anlong Veng included women and children who were traveling in a truck carrying rice to a mill, police said.

The area near the Thai border, was once a base for Khmer Rouge guerrillas and is where the group's chief, Pol Pot, died in 1998.

Recent heavy rain could have loosened the soil and shifted the mine onto the road, provincial police chief Menn Ly said.

Decades of civil war, especially in the former battlefields of Khmer Rouge, left Cambodia as the world's most mined country -- an estimated 4-6 million landmines are believed to be still planted in the countryside.

Mine-clearing teams have cleared over 400 square km (155 sq miles) of land but another 4,000 square km are still to be de-mined, said Leng Sochea, a spokesman for Cambodia's Mine Action Centre.

About 450 people are killed each year in Cambodia by mines, down from about 800 in earlier years. Many more are maimed.

(Reporting by Ek Madra; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Friday, September 5, 2008

5 Dead

I was going to write something cute today. Then we got the phone call.

I was sitting in the office of Cambodian Self Help Demining when the call came in from the village chief of the first small 'low priority' village we are to clear. He wanted to know when we could come up and start demining. He was pretty frantic. Five minutes earlier a truck had run over an anti tank mine and five of his villagers died a pretty ugly death.

This is why I've gone to Cambodia.

This is why I started the Landmine Relief Fund.

We're still raising the money to get to Chrung, the village that suffered the accident.

We're still trying to get our story out.

I will be in Chrung in a week to see CSHD begin their survey. I hope we all get back. Yeah - this is serious stuff. It'll kill you.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Bureaucrats, Ambulances, Jails and Happy Chicken Soup

Well let me tell tell you what’s been going on around here in the last few daze.

I spent 4 days in Phnom Penh trying like crazy to get some tools released from Customs that we shipped over here in July. They’ve been sitting in the warehouse since about the 20th of that month.

I went to the Customs office Thursday and the agent who told me last week I had to have all the copies of the original document now told me I had to go to another office to get a form filled out so we get them released with no duty. I headed over there only to find out I needed 2 letters written stating what the goods were and that CSHD was a recognized NGO. While I had the NGO registration certificate and the invoice, I still needed the letters.

So I went back to my hotel, wrote the letters, had them printed out and returned to the office the next day. Then I was told that I had to have 5 copies of the original docs and they were closing in 5 minutes. It was now Friday and they wouldn’t be open until Monday. So I called our good friend Bunra, a lawyer who’s done a lot of work for us and asked him if he could get this stuff released. He’s handling it for us. Today he called and I needed another 2 letters. One saying that he could negotiate the ‘deal’ for us and the second telling then exactly what was in the shipment. Now – they have the invoice, and one of the letters already details the contents, and they have catalogue pages with descriptions and pictures of the 3 items we shipped….but they needed a separate letter detailing the details. So I wrote those and fired them off to Bunra. We’re waiting to find out the outcome. Let’s just say I am peeved, and certainly will think twice about ever using DHL again. They assured us that they would take care of all the details. After it got here, they turned it over to their broker and washed their hands of the entire transaction.

Did I say that originally the broker wanted $650 to clear it? Hmmmm……..

Then I got to go to jail.

Bunra, as I said is a lawyer. He picked me up Friday and asked if I had a bit of time to run some errand with him. Sure. He had a client in jail and said he needed to go see about getting him out. So we headed off to the ‘new’ Phnom Penh Central Jail. It’s a complex on the road to Sihanoukville, near the airport. Looks pretty much like an office complex.

The jail here is better than many of the others, only a few guys per cell, and families can see them on a regular basis. We spent about a half hour there and I decided that if I ever get in trouble over here I’ll start screaming ‘US Embassy” at the top of my lungs and fall down and roll on the ground like a 3 year old. No way I want to wind up there.

We’ll be setting up the CSHD office at Aki Ra’s house in Siem Reap. The deminers are building a nice fence around the house now and we’ll expand the gate so we can get our 2 vehicles inside and locked up at night.

Our Australian buddies, from the Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearance Team, are footing the bill for an ambulance for CSHD. That’s a huge donation and very much appreciated by Aki Ra and the team. We have to have one to do our work. It needs to be a 4x4 and able to carry a casualty to the nearest hospital in case we have any accidents in the field. I spent part of Saturday looking through the used car lots in Phnom Penh. We’ll probably wind up with a Toyota Land Cruiser that we’ll retrofit to what we need. There are lots of them available in PP. The pricing I got gives us a base to work from. I am sure that Aki Ra and Pov, our number 2 at CSHD will beat my “barrang’ price.

On a personal note, I bought a couple of pairs of shorts before I left home and brought them over here. I’ve already gone down to the last notch on my belt and I can take off the shorts without undoing the snap or zipper, so I guess that’s good. But they still call me ‘Grandfather’ and it STILL pisses me off.

And lastly, for dinner last night I had soup…’Happy Chicken’ they called it. I didn’t read the entire description. Turned out to be Alice B. Toklas soup. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. And yes, I WAS hungry after I had the soup.

Back to PP later this week to buy the ambulance and then north to the jungle.

Babu from the jungle.