War's legacy is literally entrenched throughout Cambodia's countryside

February 09, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

KOMPONG SPEU, Cambodia -- Phok Vanny found out one morning last week that land mines don't understand peace accords.

A Soviet-made POMZ-2 mine, laid to protect the perimeter of a Cambodian army base camp where he was stationed, exploded when a branch fell on the tripwire, shattering his legs and spraying most of his body with fragments.

"In the last 36 hours, we've had five mine victims from three separate incidents," Bill Holmes, a surgeon from the American Red Cross, said as he headed into the hospital's primitive operating room. "And this is supposed to be a quiet province."

The United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC) began detonating mines last month, two weeks after the U.N. General Assembly approved creation of a 1,000-member mine-clearing team.

But analysts say that the task of de-mining Cambodia promises to be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some areas, after almost two decades of indiscriminate reliance on a wide variety of mines by all factions, none of which have kept records on where they laid the explosives.

While conventional armies tend to control the use of mines at very high command levels, all four Cambodian factions issued mines "down to very low levels," one observer said.

Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, are believed strewn across Cambodia, and Asia Watch has attributed "tens of thousands of civilian deaths and injuries" to them.

"These grim statistics mean that the Cambodian conflict may be the first war in history in which land mines have claimed more victims -- combatants and noncombatants alike -- than any other weapon," it said in a recent report.

Outside the operating-room door, Dr. Holmes was more concerned about Phok Vanny's abdominal injury than either of his mangled legs.

"A guy like this would have four trauma teams working all night on him in the United States -- they'd have orthopedists, urologists, plastic surgeons working all night," said Dr. Holmes, 34, who trained at Boston City Hospital, the city's main trauma center.

Here, 40 miles west of Phnom Penh, it was only Dr. Holmes, several young Cambodian assistants and Phok Vanny.

Some of them kill and maim with one big blast. Some do the job with fragments. Others jump up out of the ground and explode in the air.

The United Nations is to disarm warring troops, bring 350,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand back into the country, and then conduct free and fair elections some time next year. Before the vote, the United Nations will essentially run the country in consultation with a reconciliation panel, the Supreme National Council, led by Prince Sihanouk.

The council is made up of representatives of the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government, two non-Communist resistance factions and the Khmer Rouge, who presided over the deaths of more than a million Cambodians from 1975 to early 1979, when they were toppled by the Vietnamese.

Clearing mines is the linchpin of the accord.

"Unless you remove mines from the border area, you cannot bring refugees back," said Yashushi Akashi, the newly appointed special U.N. representative for Cambodia.

"And unless you have these 350,000 refugees back, you cannot hope to have free and fair elections."

A few days earlier, Prince Sihanouk and the others watched a mine-clearing technique envisioned for Cambodia.

The first soldier marked the area being cleared with a rope, the second gently probed the ground with a spade looking for mines, and the third ran a metal detector over the ground to make sure nothing had been missed.

"The clearing task will take this country many years, many years, and there may be areas that are never cleared -- they may just be fenced off," said Lt. Col. Alan Beaver, the New Zealander heading the U.N. effort.

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