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Archive for November 24th, 2008

Don’t Tell my Mom that I Blew up Some Landmines

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I’m just drying off after a very wet moto ride back from the PSI office, about 10 minutes away from the hotel. I get the sense that it doesn’t rain for long here, but it rains pretty hard when it does.

I spent a very interesting half-day in Kampong Chnang, a bit over one hour north of Phnom Penh, working with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a mine action group. Vinh organized the trip for Rick, him and me with the intent of giving Rick (video) and me (photography) the chance to document their work. Golden West is based and run by highly-trained ex-military personnel who partner with national organizations in the countries they work (currently Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua, previously Angola, Mozambique, Iraq and Azerbaijan). They are not a demining organization per se, but rather use their expertise to support initiatives in very creative and sustainable ways, which I will explain.

Our day started very early, at 6am. Rick and I met up in front of his apartment, and a few minutes later Vinh showed up in a white truck driven by Thomas Eisele, the Regional Program Manager for GWF. We drove northwest to Kampong Chnang through pretty thick early morning traffic, with trucks and carts piled high with folks heading into towns for work, plus quite a number of oxen carts. Things change fast in the countryside.

Out at their facility we met Roger Hess, their very articulate and impassioned Director of Field Operations, who led us through their work there. The first major initiative is their explosive harvesting system (EHS) – essentially the recycling of explosive material for re-use in demining and UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance. The explosive charges necessary to destroy mines and munitions are in huge demand in Cambodia because of their decades of war. What GWF does is extract explosives from high-calibre munitions, like old artillery shells, and convert them into explosives to be used by demining organizations. We watched (and documented) the process as GWF-trained and employed technicians cut open 105mm artillery rounds with a bandsaw (we were watching the automated process on video from a hardened location), steamed out the core of explosive material, then cooked and blended into either soft plastic explosive or harder blocks of moulded explosive that can be cut into the necessary sizes. The material they were creating was highly stable and could only be detonated with the addition of a trigger charge. Obviously they demonstrated a high degree of professionalism and care in their work. Additionally, they applied locally relevant technology that could be used as a model for future work with or without them. For example, they had started with a water cutter for the ordnance, but it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, operate and maintain. They replaced this with a readily available water-cooled bandsaw that has worked flawlessly for thousands of cuts, is locally repairable, and actually works much faster. They did similar with their steamer.

The Foundation also develops new ways of demolishing ordnance in place using less-expensive charges made from recycled RPGs and PVC pipe packed with shaped charges designed to safely destroy explosive material in mines and bombs. One of the more exciting things I got to experience was triggering the detonator to destroy two landmines (in a brick pit a very safe distance away). This is obviously something one can’t do everyday.

The final element that we looked at was their work with explosive detection. What they are developing is inexpensive means to quickly determine the extent of UXO in areas suspected of being contaminated. To do this, they have looked at ways of attaching looped wire arrays, essentially large detectors, onto vehicles. The idea is that this array can be driven in swaths across an area thought to contain UXOs, and audio and visual signals indicate with high accuracy where metal of all kinds is in the ground. These are marked. In this way, it can be quickly determined where UXO exists and, more importantly, where it doesn’t, in a process called area reduction. Clear areas are safe to use, and contaminated areas can be cleared through UXO-clearing action.

The technology isn’t unique to GWF, but what they are doing is creating simple, effective and cheap way to attach the arrays to vehicles. Their prototype is a John Deere Gator to which they mounted a simple hinged PVC pipe frame that could be raised and lowered by a hand crank. The pipe framed strong and inexpensive trucker’s tarp onto which the two arrays were attached. This same system can and has been mounted on a basic hand tractor, ubiquitous in the country, with very limited modification. They have done the same with a full-sized tractor, mounting eight arrays on it which allows for very rapid area reduction.

It was a fascinating morning, and I have about 250 images to process and share with Golden West. With luck I can use my connections with them to do more similar work next time I’m in-country.

Thomas drove us back into town and treated us to a tasty (and unhealthy) lunch at the Cadillac Bar next to my hotel. I had grilled cheese and tomato with fries, but Vinh’s dinner hardened my arteries looking at it and was far more dangerous than any of the munitions we’d seen earlier in the day. He had chicken fried steak – two massive pieces of deep-fried beef – plus he substituted the mashed potatoes for fries and the steamed veggies for an omelette. Somehow he made it through, but his eyes were pretty glassy by the end of it.

Rick went to work at the Post, Vinh probably went to bed and I grabbed a moto over to the PSI offices (south of the Independence Monument on s.334). There I met up with staff, American and local, and arranged things for my days there. They will keep me busy with outreach locally tomorrow night, then an overnight trip into the countryside to the south on Wednesday, which should prove an amazing experience.

Tonight – a night out with Vinh and Sue, and hopefully Rick, to see Phnom Penh’s seamy underbelly, which should help me understand some of what PSI’s work here is all about.

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Written by sockeyed

November 24, 2008 at 22:00

Anchor Beer Welcomes Ben to the Bodge

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It’s a lot of fun to be back in Phnom Penh, and it’s certainly several rungs up the energy ladder from Vientiane. After Laos, it’s noisy (lots of honking), the streets are dusty and crowded with scooters and tuk tuks and cyclos and trucks and cars, the sidewalks are jammed full of stalls and scooters and people sitting around, and there’s simply a lot more city than in Vientiane. It’s hotter, too, about 28 or 30 degrees, and fairly humid, so it’s easy to get sweaty walking around the streets.

Rob, Meriem and I had a good night out on friday. Our meal at Le Centrale was great. I had onion soup and tilapia served on a round of mashed potatoes and smothered in creamy sauce, and we all shared a bottle of French wine. For dessert we walked to a place near the fountain called Ty Na or something like that, and had a pair of very good crepes – one flaming one with bananas and rum, and one full of ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was very pleasantly stuffed after that. Rob and Meriem walked me the ten minutes to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.

Getting to Phnom Penh was very straightforward – a short van ride to Wattay airport, quick check-in, a bottle of lao lao hooch in the duty free, then I boarded my Vietnam Airlines flight for the one hour flight south. I sat next to a very young-seeming backpacker from Atlanta, working her way through Southeast Asia and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. She seemed to be enjoying her adventures. I provide what tips I could about Phnom Penh.

I had a good laugh when I arrived at the airport and made my way out of the terminal. My friend Vinh Dao, a journalist who has worked with the Cambodia Daily and is now freelancing, sent a tuk tuk driver friend to meet me, and there he was holding up a big red Anchor beer box with my name written on it, much to the amusement of all the other drivers around him. Piy (Pee? Pi?) was his name, and he drove me to the Paragon Hotel on the riverfront. It was a lively, hot and dusty trip; very stimulating.

Vinh booked me into the Paragon. It’s a decent place to stay with a good bed, hot water, fridge, and more. It’s clean and very central. Initially I was in a riverfront room, but today have moved to the back of the hotel because of the incessant honking.

I made some phone calls and got settled, and wandered the great streets around the hotel. There are several markets close by, and no shortage of stimulation (and “moto-dops” and tuk tuk drivers offering rides, often to unsavoury locations). In fact, the ubiquitous moto-dops are very useful: for a dollar they will drive you almost anywhere in the central city. I’ve already used them a number of times.

Speaking of dollars, I’d forgotten that the USD is the de facto currency here, at least for folks like me. In fact, bank machines dispense dollars. The only time that I’ve got Riel is when I’ve been given change for amount less than a dollar (there are 4,000 Riel to the USD right now).

I got out on one PSI Cambodia project last night – an MSM drop-in centre about 5-10 minutes by car from the hotel. It was karaoke night, so the folks sat on the floor and crooned along with Cambodian pop songs. There was also a group game, although I’m not sure what was being taught through it, and a quiz with prizes. I’m pretty sure that the object of that was male sexual health. Green mango with chili and salt was being passed around as a snack and I helped myself to a fair whack as it’s delicious stuff.

I was there for about an hour, then returned to the hotel and called another friend, Rick Valenzuela, who is from New Jersey and is here working for the Phnom Penh Post. I’ve known Rick for about four years, though internet photo groups, but last night was the first time that I’ve met him in person. Since 2004, he has lived in the US, Chiang Mai and Dakar, Senegal, and has now returned here (he used to work for the Daily).

He has a great second-storey corner loft just a block from the hotel and also on the riverfront. It’s a classic Phnom Penh concrete building, and we sat on the curved corner balcony surrounded by a huge number of plants, and drank Mekong Whiskey with the tabby cat who came with the apartment. We were joined by one and then another staffer from the Post who happened to walk by and was beckoned up from the balcony. Both lived very close by.

At around 11pm, we heard from Vinh and walked the 15 minutes to the Rock Bar (which is actually called the Zeppelin Café). It is one of my favourite spots in Phnom Penh. The owner loves his classic rock and has a great vinyl library. He spends his time behind a couple of turntables and spins tracks all night. He doesn’t play the usual classic rock dreck you hear on the radio, but a great mix of hard rock, heavy metal, early punk and more. Rick and I had a few drinks ($1 Ricard on ice for me), then Vinh and Sue showed up. We chatted and drank there until after 1am, and ordered some great Chinese-style dumplings. They were up for going out some more, but I hit my sleepy wall, so we hopped on respective motos and were driven home.

Another favourite spot of mine here is the Chi Cha Indian restaurant, about four short blocks northwest of my hotel. I had breakfast there this morning at about 10am – an omelette, dahl, chapati and chai for $2.50. I had dinner there last night as well. I can imagine myself going to Chi Cha quite a few more times before I head home.

Today is sunday so there wasn’t a ton to do shooting-wise, so I mostly just walked the streets after breakfast. I strolled over to the Central Market, then to the new Sorya mall, where I bought a pile of DVDs to talk home to folks for Xmas presents. I moto’d back to the hotel just after noon and switch rooms, then wandered out again. I decided to walk down Street 63, which runs south from the Central Market. It is apparently where many brothels are found, so I figured that it would be relevant for my PSI work to see where they are and what they are like, but I didn’t spot one. They have to be there – the street is infamous for them – but I guess that I don’t know what to look for. There were no red lights, no legions of women sitting out front, no pimps dragging you in. Oh well. I’ll ask Sue about it tonight.

I went back into Sorya mall, partly to cool down and have a drink, but also to pick up a few more DVDs (at $1.50 each, it’s kind of addictive). The light was getting nice, so I returned to the hotel to get my Leica and wandered for about an hour and hopefully got a few decent street shots. Excellent material here to work with, regardless.

I’ll be meeting Vinh and Sue in about 20 minutes for dinner down at Le Cedre for Lebanese food, so I’d better get ready.

Written by sockeyed

November 24, 2008 at 02:00