KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia
Sok Chenda stood barefoot on a rickety wooden boat, the tropical sun beating down on his baby blue bucket hat. The water was dark, gloomy and brown. The air, heavy and hot.
Chenda appeared unfazed, in spite of the enormous task before him. His face — flat, focused and obscured by sunglasses — could have won him the World Series of Poker.
The men alongside him were the eight others who trained to become members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center’s dive unit. Their purpose was singular: Identify and fish out the thousands of unexploded ordnance that litter Cambodia’s waterways.
The team was about to conduct its inaugural removal mission in Kandal Province, just north of the capital Phnom Penh. With accompaniment by members of the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a U.S. State Department-backed organization devoted to assisting countries impacted by landmines and unexploded bombs, the divers were to recover a 500-lb. MK82 explosive that was discovered two weeks before by a local fisherman.
The man’s fishing net had snagged part of the bomb — a common United States-made aerial explosive with a 200-meter blast radius — during a routine trawl. It was likely a relic leftover from the Vietnam War that had either missed its intended target or tumbled into the river after failing to detonate.
That single bomb is emblematic of a problem that’s sprinkled across the Cambodian countryside. The country’s troubled history during the second half of the 20th century, defined largely by three decades of vicious civil war and overlapping regional conflicts, left the Kingdom’s waterways and landscape polluted with an untold number of explosives and munitions that to this day pose grave danger to the country’s citizens, especially those living in poorer, rural areas.
The bulk of these bombs are believed to derive from the United States’ covert carpet-bombing campaign of Cambodia during the Vietnam War; estimates place the amount of explosives dropped on the country at around 500,000 tons. Add to that the untold number of munitions barges sunk in the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers by the Khmer Rouge during its struggle for power in the early 1970s, along with the countless explosives that may have shifted underwater because of erosion and extreme weather. Cambodia is only now addressing an issue that will likely take decades to clean up.
The divers floated calmly over on their ramshackle vessel, almost overloaded with scuba equipment. They drifted to a spot confirmed prior to the mission using underwater sonar. Once they were close enough, Chenda sprung into action and dipped into the Mekong’s murky waters — the culmination of two years of intense training in a zero-visibility “black water environment.”
Navigating through the river’s yellowy haze, where visibility might reach 10 centimeters on a good day, Chenda groped until he felt his massive target. He then methodically secured a line from the bomb to the boat, along with a high-pressure air tube connected to a balloon-like lift bag. After what felt like an hour, he exited the water. Other members of the team inflated the lift bag, raised the massive MK82 toward the surface and began safely towing it to shore.
Once on land, the rusty bomb looked decidedly less sinister, almost resembling an elderly, beached beluga whale. As policemen secured the area, local village residents looked on at the relic with a mix of curiosity, relief and horror. How many of these deadly devices still lurked under their boats and fishing nets?
“I feel good,” Chenda said after the mission, a satisfied smile creeping up on his typically stoic face. “It [was] no problem.”
The succession of regimes and revolutions that tore through Cambodia from the 1960s to the early 1990s left a legacy of thousands of landmines beneath the country’s soil. The Khmer Rouge, the infamous communist movement whose eventual takeover would lead to approximately 2 million Cambodians losing their lives, was particularly active in laying landmines, as was the occupying Vietnamese army that entered the country to oust them. The explosives were planted so prolifically, on military targets and roads and farms, that those putting them down often lost count and forgot where they were placed (one former mine planter estimated he put down 4,000-5,000 in a single month). As a result, the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) estimates that anywhere from 4 to 6 million explosive remnants of war remain buried in Cambodia.
When stability slowly returned to the war-torn country in the early 1990s, the healing process finally began. From 1992 to 2009, CMAC’s land operations found and destroyed roughly 2 million explosives. However, from 1979 (the year the Khmer Rouge fell) to September 2009, more than 63,000 casualties from explosives were recorded in Cambodia — almost 20,000 people died, and roughly 9,000 were amputated. Amputation is a common theme in Cambodia, which counts over 25,000 amputees among its population.
But while CMAC’s mine removal efforts in the Cambodian countryside have greatly helped alleviate some of the nastiness associated with leftover explosives on land, the country’s rivers and lakes are completely different stories: Nobody knows how many munitions dwell at the bottom of Cambodia’s waterways. These underwater threats can not only maim or kill those on or near water, but they can potentially be removed from their resting places and sold to violent criminals on the black market.
In 2013, Golden West and CMAC initiated the first strategic steps toward expanding clearance to Cambodia’s rivers and lakes. The advanced nature of the dive program meant Golden West had to secure state-of-the-art equipment from its backers and discover top-notch talent in its host country. But while equipment is easily obtainable, Cambodia as a recruitment pool for salvage divers presented a host of challenges from the get-go.
Most Cambodians have no access to rigorous math or science education, and the majority of people go through life never learning how to properly swim. As such, Golden West needed to develop an intense selection course.Diver Piseth Dara was one of those in the course. “[I’m] used to seeing [people] who have been amputated, but I have none in my family,” said Dara, a reserved young man with a soft voice.
When he and the others were ready to tackle the training course, they faced a pair of two-week long phases. During the first phase, candidates practiced basic swim strokes, snorkeling and safety exercises, and also learned history, physics and scuba vocabulary.
Of the initial 40 people, 34 candidates made it to the selection test for Phase II. The second phase was conducted in the southern coastal town of Sihanoukville and was much more exhausting. The 14-hour days were spent training in the ocean, the pool and the classroom, with the candidates engaging in working dives and water-based physical exercise designed to test their limits. Only 13 candidates completed the course, and out of this last group, the nine-member CMAC dive team was created.
“I designed the original selection course to be so tough and grueling that anyone who could make it through would have the heart and mind to stay safe in the extreme environment of the river,” said Golden West Cambodia Country Director Allen Tan. “These nine who are in this unit — these guys really showed a level of dedication that you rarely see, even in the most rigorous environments, such as the military.”
Tan is a former explosive ordnance disposal team leader with the U.S. Army. Bearded and tattooed but with boyish features, Tan carries himself like a cool older brother around the dive team, a demeanor that perfectly encapsulates the proud, borderline paternal attitude he has toward the squad he helped bring together.
“I remember on the first day of the selection course, I asked who could swim, and a handful of them raised their hands, including the current dive team leader, Sok Chenda,” Tan recalled. “Suspicious, I followed with the question: Who can swim across the Mekong?”
Every hand shot down, and self-defeating laughter ensued.
During training, Chenda was falling behind on the physical exercises. Later he walked over to Tan and apologized.
“He followed by saying that although he may not be able to complete every pushup, he would never quit on us,” Tan said. “That’s when I knew he would make it. What he didn’t know is that the purpose of the exercise was not to see how fit people are, but to see who would quit due to lack of motivation.”
Chenda said he had no idea how he became the leader of the team, though he reckoned his age (38) and experience may have had something to do with it.
“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I was a demining technical instructor, and after, I was a team leader, maybe. Because I had all those experiences before.”
Chenda admitted he still finds English difficult despite his studies, yet he insisted on being interviewed in a language he has far from mastered — a continuation of his never-quit attitude.
He talked more about his prior experience: Before he became the dive team leader, he was, like the rest of his comrades, searching for mines on land. He worked in Battambang Province as a deminer for several years, and eventually worked his way up to becoming a demining technical instructor with CMAC. But when he heard about the dive program, Chenda said he decided to apply in hopes of advancing his career and abilities.
“I [got into diving] because I wanted to change my experience,” he said. “I wanted to know how to work with dive [equipment], because this was a new program in Cambodia and a new program for CMAC.”
Chenda also wanted to learn how to swim, since he, like every other recruit, could only really doggy paddle before he started formally training.
Just after pulling up the 500-lb. bomb in Kandal, he said he wasn’t scared during the operation, despite the fact he was fiddling with a potentially active bomb powerful enough to liquidate him. He had training, he said, whereas fishermen and farmers do not — why would he be scared?
Several months later, I asked him again if he was sure he wasn’t a little scared.
“There’s no room for fear,” Chenda said with a wry smile. “I’m not scared, because I can’t see.”
In the moments the men cast off their bashful veneers and conversed through a translator, they portrayed a tangible sense of duty and commitment to helping their home country become a safer place.
Square-jawed and dignified, Lorn Sarath, 26, expressed his desire to help the people along Cambodia’s rivers who are facing mines and bombs but are perhaps unaware of their danger. Their reality hits close for Sarath — since January 2014, his home province of Battambang has recorded almost 27 percent of Cambodia’s landmine casualties, the highest figure in the country.
“After [people] get in accidents, they are so worried about their families and their life… Losing legs, losing hands. It is very [bad],” he said. “If I wasn’t a de-miner or a diver, I’d be on the farm.”
On Sept. 11, about 40 excited school children pattered around the pool area of Phnom Penh’s iconic Olympic Stadium as the divers organized their equipment on the sidelines. The sun was beaming through the misty grayness that envelopes the capital during monsoon season, brightening the mood at this “Community Water Day.” Air-drying in the tropical heat after a brief swim lesson with the divers, the kids and their chaperones gathered around the diving pool on the opposite end of the deck.
The squad was officially in Phnom Penh to educate the kids on the importance of water safety — a particularly pressing topic in a country where drowning is a leading cause of death for children after infancy. But this afternoon, as indicated by the impressive equipment the men lugged down from their training facility in Kampong Chhnang, the divers were also offering a brief glimpse into their difficult training regimen.
“I think [it’s] a good thing for Cambodian youths to see that not only is this is a possible career, but how these guys are,” said Mike Nisi, the chief of underwater operations for Golden West and one the team’s primary trainers. “They have a hard a job that’s real demanding, real physical. You gotta be smart. … I want Cambodian youth to be out there to talk to them and ask them questions.”
Chenda, meanwhile, ambled around the pool as he prepared to kick off the exhibition.
“I want people to see what the dive team does,” he said. “How to get the bomb, how to dive.”
The students looked on as Nisi and the divers went through their underwater exhibitions almost effortlessly — how to remove dive equipment when it’s dangerously tangled underwater; how to train in a zero-visibility with spray-painted goggles; how to fasten and inflate a balloon attached to unexploded ordnance to lift it to the surface; how to use handheld sonar to detect a potential bomb.
The children were most impressed by the sonar system. The waves bounced off the fake bomb in the clear, chlorinated water of Olympic Stadium, then mapped the “UXO’s” size and location on a screen. It was a simple yet effective approximation of what the divers did in Kandal, and what they would do in the future.
Later in the day, as the events were wrapping up, Tan showed up on the pool deck to scope the scene. Arms crossed and sunglasses on, he reached for a cold drink from a cooler.
“I know these guys will continue to improve their skills and will rank among the best dive units in the region and the world,” he said later. “They are world class.”