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.


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