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By Maggie Padlewska

    Cambodia, located in central southeast Asia, is one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. More than 64,000 people have been killed indiscriminately by landmines since 1979 following the end of the three decades of war. About 25,000 landmine survivors now live with missing limbs, and the severe pain and struggles caused by leftover explosives, many of which remain scattered and buried beneath Cambodian soil until the present day.

  Cambodia has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita than any other country in the world. More than 26 million explosive sub-munitions have been dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War, with between 1.9 and 2.8 cluster munitions remaining buried  in the soil today.   

Muy Seu Bel, was only seven years old when he stepped on a landmine. “ I didn’t know that the Khmer Rouge had put landmines near my village” he said.


Two of his brothers were also victims of landmines. Like Bel, the middle brother of five siblings survived. His eldest brother, however, did not. He stepped and an anti-tank mine designed to blow up vehicles. His remains were never found.  

Left to fend for himself as a young child, Bel fought to survive on his own, until he was taken in by a man who opened a landmine museum and presented him with the opportunity to do what he dreamt of most: to study, and help others who had suffered like him. Thanks to his relentless courage and determination, Bel pursued his university studies in engineering, only to then be persistently denied the opportunity of employment, despite his well-documented qualifications, due to his missing leg. 


“It was hard, it made me very sad….but I used that sadness, and not anger, to motivate me to fight for good, to improve the lives of people like me” he says. Bel founded the Khmer Independent Life Team (KILT), an NGO that helps some of the country’s most underprivileged people struggling with polio and landmine caused injuries. He provides housing, food, language and skill building education to orphans and amputees. Recognizing the power of his hands and mind, he is also a highly respected artist, jewelry maker, musician, community leader, husband and father.  

    Despite ongoing efforts to rid Cambodia of the indiscriminate killers that continue to terrorize the population, more needs to be done, and faster. While de-mining efforts are underway, there is a constant urgency to seek and employ techniques that will increase their effectiveness and efficiency in order to save lives and prevent future casualties. The goal was to de-mine Cambodia by 2025, but many fear that deadline will not be met due to the gravity of mine-contamination in this country.  


One group, that has joined forces with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) to speed the de-mining efforts in some of the country’s most mine-affected areas, is APOPO; an African-based organization that specializes in the training and deployment of TNT-detecting rats to sniff out buried explosives. “HeroRATS” as they are called, are a carefully selected species that have proven an amazing ability, suitability, and efficiency in detecting mines. 


About 35 rats have now been shipped to Cambodia, many of which have been actively working in minefields since January last year. 

I stumbled upon APOPO's newly built Cambodian facility, located along a side road leading to Angkor Wat. Greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Heanh, a de-mining veteran who himself touched and lifted about 10,000 landmines with his bare hands, I was immediately offered a tour. Step by step, as we walked through a beautifully designed learning facility, I was told about Cambodia’s brutal history, informed of the seriousness and magnitude of the danger that remains in many regions of Cambodia’s countryside, the horrific toll that it has and is taking on its people, and the urgency to de-mine a country once ravaged by war. 

“These rats are heroes!” I was told by my guide Sambath who grew up near a minefield and witnessed the horror of a mine ridden landscape.  Motivated by his strong will to help speed change in his country, he speaks passionately about the work, need, and efficiency of Cambodia’s newest de-mining partners. “What would normally take a few months to scan with metal detectors, these rats can do in matter of a few weeks. These rats are not only amazing at doing their job but they are also preventing unnecessary casualties among our field workers.”

Kept on a strict diet and training routine, and looked after with the utmost care, these large HeroRats never exceed a weight of 1.5 kilograms. They are trained to sniff out TNT in small metal capsules hidden beneath the ground, which they identity by pausing and gently scratching the soil around them. Once located, they are proudly rewarded with a peanut or a banana, and a loving head and chin scratch from their handlers.     


According to APOPO’s latest report, Cambodia’s HeroRATS have worked a total of 33 days, covering 115,156 square meters in landmine infested areas, identified 13 AP landmines and 10 unexploded ordnances (UXO) out of the 32 explosives removed in partnership with the CMAC. 


Their work during those two months alone, have cleared and secured an area that is home to four families consisting of 21 people who, until now, have lived surrounded by the unseen, terrifying, and potentially lethal munitions that laid scattered near their homes, play and walking areas, agricultural fields, and livestock. 


This is a story that needs to be told, to keep being retold, and to be known as widely as possible. Until this beautiful country and its people are free of the ongoing horror leftover after brutal war - this is something that we, as members of the global community, cannot allow to escape our minds. 




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