Thursday, 27 January 2011

Graham Allen's travelog of Cambodia with MAG

via CAAI

Thursday 27th January 2011

Happy new year from all at Commercial Money Matters and thanks to the Bridging and Commercial team for inviting me to present a follow-up article about my Christmas trip to Cambodia to observe the work of MAG (Mines Advisory Group).

A bit about Cambodia post-conflict
Cambodia is slightly smaller than the UK, bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, with a population about a quarter of the size of the UK’s. As a result of nearly 30 years of conflict, more than 40% of the population remains affected by the dangers posed by landmines, cluster bombs, air dropped bombs and unexploded ordnance. The UN estimates that up to 6 million mines were laid, with more than 60,000 deaths and injuries since 1979. This is not a problem that will soon be solved.

A bit about MAG in Cambodia
MAG’s clearance and Mine Risk Education activities help local people reclaim their land and give them the knowledge to help reduce future accidents. Previously unsafe areas can now be used for housing, construction of wells, schools and health centres, improvements to roads, and increasing access to agricultural land.

A bit about me and MAG
My involvement with MAG is as UK Volunteer Ambassador, giving talks, raising awareness and fundraising. It is clearly a huge help for me to see MAG’s work at first hand and, as my brother Clifford works for MAG in Cambodia, I combined a week visiting MAG teams in the field with a family visit. Previously I have visited Vietnam and Namibia in connection with MAG.

Thursday 16 December
My partner and I escaped from Heathrow before the worst of the snow and arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to high temperatures and humidity. This was a shock to the system, but not an unpleasant one. Hoping to flop straight into bed, I was surprised to hear that my scheduled meeting with the Country Programme Manager, Jamie Franklin, had been brought forward from Saturday to this evening. Jamie wanted to know my goals for the visit and I confirmed that I wanted to see different technologies and methodologies in action.

Friday 17 December
We are given an introductory talk on donors and are shown some of the devices we might see in the field. Then we set off for the five hour drive to Battambang in one of MAG’s Land Rovers. Battambang is where most of the field teams are based, a nail-biting drive which sets the tone for all our travel experiences. Let me tell you a bit about the roads!

A bit about the roads
Some of them are potholed unmade dirt tracks, covering everything for hundreds of metres around in clouds of dust which hamper visibility. The surfaced roads are unmade at the sides and have lane markings which are completely ignored.

Traffic moves as fast as it possibly can in a noisy stream, overtaking sometimes four abreast in each direction, weaving, ducking and diving, plunging into the dirt verges and somehow managing to keep going without hitting each other, or at least not very often. Lorries with teetering loads, bent axles and flat springs crab their way along the roads, unwilling to use their brakes because of the weight of their loads, the crowds of people perched on top and the fact that containers are often not fastened onto their bases. Motos (mopeds) sail into your path from all directions without looking and seemingly without fear, carrying whole families, beds, building materials and farmyard animals. There are more Toyota Camrys and 4x4s than you can shake a stick at. Ox carts, pony carts, tractor units with carts, bicycles, tuk-tuks, herds of water buffalo, dogs, monkeys and children all join the hooting, jostling throng. Minibuses and pick-up trucks carry unbelievable numbers of people, with passengers crammed onto the driver’s lap, hanging out of the windows and sitting on rows of motos hanging out of the back doors.

Terrifying near misses happen every few yards, of the sort that you would normally tell everyone about for a week, but here they don’t even merit a gasp as another incident is always just ahead. There is something miraculously organic about the way that the traffic flows and merges but it requires an act of faith or blind courage to join in and go with the flow. Fortunately Clifford knows how it is done.

Monday 20 December
A morning in Phlov Meas minefield

After a weekend acclimatising, on Monday morning we go to the MAG compound in Battambang for a safety briefing and fitting of body armour and helmets. We meet Thor Thoeun, Mine Action Coordinator, who drives us to the village of Phlov Meas, where we go through a further safety briefing, including recognition of the coloured pickets which mark the different activities in the minefield. Safety is paramount to MAG and so safety briefings and orientation are a daily feature. We learn about the tools that are used, including some that you might see in your own garden shed. One of the de-miners shows us how the metal detectors are calibrated and demonstrates the clearance technique, which in this minefield is “one man one lane”. This is a system where each technician - of which incidentally one third are women and 10% are amputees - uses a metal detector to identify fragments and carefully clear a narrow lane ahead of them, approaching each item by digging below it.

Thoeun explains the maps on site, starting with a map of the area, then a hand-drawn map showing the community’s priorities for clearance. From this a scale map is produced, showing the areas to be cleared and a running tally of items cleared, dates and quality assurance etc. Finally there is a map produced by the Mine Action Planning Unit (MAPU), showing that in this village 25 families will benefit from the clearance and will receive land for dwellings and cultivation.

The work is painstaking and it is hot and tiring just watching: I didn’t know it was possible for so much sweat to run down the inside of my sunglasses. The body armour is heavy, the helmet and visor make me feel claustrophobic and it is hard keeping hydrated as the visor has to stay down through each 45 minute work period. De-miners work six hour days, starting at 7am, five days a week with a 15 minute break each hour, signalled by a whistle blast. I admire the dedication of the teams, who are giving so much back to their communities. I obviously feel slightly apprehensive about being in a live minefield but am also quietly assured that we are in the safest possible hands. As we leave, we notice some houses beyond the perimeter of the minefield on land which was previously mined. Now they are safe.

Monday 20 December
An afternoon of country orientation
Returning to Battambang, we undergo Country Orientation at the MAG office with Clifford. He shows us a country map, pointing out the main areas of threat. There are 30 MAG teams at work, including 233 national field staff. As he talks we hear children chanting in the school next door, a poignant reminder of the progress that has been made in returning previously contaminated land to safe public use.

Tuesday 21 December
A day in the Chamkar 100 minefield
The next day we drive a couple of hours to the rural Chamkar 100 minefield, about 40km from the Thai border. Here mines had been laid close together along a track used by pedestrians and light vehicles. So far the team has found 1,557 mines and destroyed 104 pieces of unexploded ordnance. When land is handed over to this community, eleven families will benefit.

The team here uses the ‘lateral approach’ method, moving laterally along a 60cm strip, using regular metal detectors and also a new type of detector which can tell the difference between random metal fragments and explosives, saving a lot of time.

There is a school next to the minefield and I talk to the children through an interpreter and give them an impromptu open air lesson about MAG’s work. I show them pictures on my camera of the snow back home and they struggle to understand what it is to feel cold. I ask them whether they know that their school is built on what was previously a minefield. Shockingly, some can identify photos of different mines from one of our educational packs and point to the map to show where they can be found, indicating a worrying degree of first-hand knowledge.

Wednesday 22 December
Kon Phnum minefield
Today’s minefield is at the bottom of two hills and, according to the community, involves three lines of mines. The area has been used by the community for years for collecting mushrooms and timber, and 51 of the 71 mines detected so far have already been dismantled by locals, at great danger to themselves. After clearance, more than 2,000 families will benefit from safe access to the resources on the hillside.

My brother Clifford heads up the Research and Development team for new technology, which is being used in this minefield. The terrain is very difficult with lots of rocks, trees with hard, tangled roots, termite mounds and steep slopes. We watch the team cutting down small trees, removing rocks, strimming, blowing, raking and carrying out rapid excavation techniques. Then it is back in the Land Rover for another good shaking up on the way back to Battambang. I alight feeling as if I have been beaten up!

Thursday 23 December
End of year gathering of MAG teams
It is the end of the year for the MAG teams and they come from far and wide to the base at Battambang, returning vehicles and equipment before going on leave. The MAG compound is seething with Land Rovers, motos and men and women in uniform. I am invited to be included in the group photo. Technical Field Manager Frank Masche makes a speech to the teams, reflecting on the past year’s work and looking forward to the challenges ahead. The occasion ends with sandwiches and drinks before everyone disperses for the break.

I am left with mixed emotions. I am staggered by the enormity of the problem that still exists. I am struck by the dynamism of the people and the country, which is developing fast. I have respect and admiration for what the teams undertake in such difficult circumstances.

I have spent the last 30 years in a people business, affecting change in many people’s lives, providing them with finance for housing, to run their businesses and provide employment. None of this, I hope, will ever be threatened by the sort of dangers that I have witnessed in Cambodia. It is sobering to see how many people live their lives in fear, stress and poverty in post-conflict countries.

If any of this strikes a chord with you, then please be moved to put your hand in your pocket and part with some of that hard-earned cash to support MAG in helping people to take control of their environment and improve their lives. Our thanks to Bridging and Commercial for their generous donation.

For more information about Graham Allen or about him doing a talk about MAG for your organisation, visit

You can also contact MAG’s fundraising team on 0161 238 5486 to find out how your company can support MAG’s vital work.

For more information about MAG's work in Cambodia please visit

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