Ratting Out Cambodian Land Mines
Millions of landmines have outlived the conflicts in which they were embedded. Now rats and dogs are being used in Cambodia and elsewhere to sniff them out.
Imagine that the country you live in is dirt poor, there is no Social Security, and unless you can somehow make a living for yourself and your family you will, quite literally, starve. Along with most other people you know, you survive off the land—growing crops, foraging for food, collecting firewood, and bartering. Some days you manage to scrape together just enough to eat; other days you don’t.
Now, imagine if, added to all this, scattered underground near where you live there are explosive devices waiting silently to kill you. They could be buried in your back garden, on the way to your work, or around your children’s school. A kilogram of pressure is all it takes ... Even the weight of a newborn baby is enough to set one off. And when the anti-personnel mine explodes, it will explode straight upwards, shredding the flesh of your leg, splintering your bones.
Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But this is reality for many Cambodian families.
It was a visit to this beautiful, but dark and tragic country that inspired me to write my debut thriller, White Crocodile. In White Crocodile, emotionally damaged mine-clearer Tess Hardy travels to Cambodia to uncover the truth behind her abusive ex-husband’s death. On arrival, she finds that teenage mothers are going missing from villages around the minefields, while others are being found mutilated and murdered, their babies abandoned. And there are whispers about the white crocodile, a mythical beast that brings death to all who meet it. Caught in a web of lies that stretches from Cambodia to a murder in England, and a violent secret 20 years old, Tess must unravel the truth, and quickly—before she becomes the next victim.
It was while I was responsible for land-based weapons at Jane’s Information Group, the world’s leading publisher of defense intelligence information, that I spent time in Battambang Province, Cambodia, working with mine clearers from two charities, Mines Advisory Group and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. I was privileged to get to know both Western and Khmer clearers and to spend time talking with Khmers who had lost limbs to land mines. There are huge numbers of amputees in Cambodia, including very young children, many of whom thought, tragically, that the anti-personnel mine they found was a toy.
Cambodia still has an estimated six million land mines buried mainly in the northwest region around Battambang, where White Crocodile is set. But the land mine problem is not just confined to Cambodia. It is a huge global issue that 20 years ago, Diana, Princess of Wales, recognized and campaigned tirelessly to bring to the collective global consciousness. Unfortunately, many people believe that the land mine problem died with Diana. This view couldn’t be more wrong. There are still an estimated 110 million land mines, mainly anti-personnel, buried in 68 countries throughout the world.
What makes land mines uniquely horrible and arguably the most inhumane weapons of war is that they are totally indiscriminate and non-targetable. Once buried, a mine will wait, often for years and often long after the war in which it was laid has finished, until it is stepped on. The land mine doesn’t care who triggers it—soldier, civilian, man, woman, boy, girl, or livestock—it will explode, causing grievous injury or death. And as anti-personnel mines cost as little as $3, they are incredibly cheap and horribly effective.
When I first went to Cambodia, I naively had an image of a minefield as a huge flat football-like field, on which I would be able to see the mines sticking out of the ground. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In reality, a minefield is anywhere. It is a rice paddy field under half a foot of water, it is a narrow path that cuts through thick jungle, it is a dirt road or a field of thigh high elephant grass. In most of these locations, it is impossible to get in mine clearing machines—even if the clearance charities could afford them, which they can’t—and so every one of these 110 million land mines need to be cleared by hand. Typically, this involves a trained mine clearer armed with a high-tech metal detector, wearing a shatterproof visor and flak jacket, sweeping the ground in front of them for mines. However, this is slow, dangerous work, and mine clearance charities are constantly looking for ways to innovate. Mine detection dogs, trained to carefully sniff the ground and signal to their human partner when they smell explosives, are now used by many clearance charities. Unlike a rescue dog, or a dog that is trained to detect drugs, the mine-detecting dog needs to be 100 percent reliable. A mistake means grievous injury or death to both dog and handler. This is why the training of mine-detection dogs is difficult and time-consuming. However, compared to other detection methods, mine-detection dogs are nearly ten times as effective, and their use has saved countless lives.
The latest innovation in humanitarian mine clearing, one I was surprised and delighted to hear about, is the use of “HeroRat.” APOPO is a charity that trains African giant pouched rats to save lives by sniffing out land mines. The benefit of rats over dogs is that rats are cheaper to breed and train and far cheaper to house and feed throughout their working lives. African giant pouched rats are sociable, clean and highly intelligent animals that have poor vision, but a very keen sense of smell and can detect tiny quantities of TNT buried up to ten inches underground. APOPO plans to bring mine detection rats to Cambodia this year, with an initial deployment of 12 rats.
As armed conflicts continue throughout the world, the global land mine problem may never be entirely eradicated, but it is good to know that so many dedicated and innovate charities are working to free countless people’s lives of these terrible weapons.
While doing a first degree in psychology, K. T. Medina joined the British Territorial Army, where she spent five years, ending up as a troop commander in the Royal Engineers. She has worked in publishing, as Managing Editor, Land Based Weapon Systems, at Jane’s Information Group, as a strategy consultant, and as a lecturer at The London School of Economics. White Crocodile, a thriller set in the minefields of Cambodia, is her first novel.