The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog

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

with 3 comments

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

3 Responses

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  1. Great looking photos dood. I am glad you are enjoying the trip so far.
    By the way, that steak is still sitting in my stomach.. I think it’s time to get the salt water cleanse going.

    Vinh

    November 26, 2008 at 03:49

  2. That dinner looks freakin tasty

    McNoodle

    November 26, 2008 at 22:25

  3. Ha ha, great story.

    The Wrath of Khan

    May 28, 2009 at 02:55


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