When most people think of deminers – those fearless individuals who remove landmines and bombs from the ground – they assume it’s a dangerous, male-dominated job.
But Chhang Chanthy, a 33-year-old woman, risks her life every day in an effort to make the country safe and give farmers more land to cultivate without the threat of losing their limbs or their lives.
Ms Chanthy works as a deminer for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre and has achieved a lot, helping neutralise many minefields dotting the country.
A country girl from a peaceful, rural area full of rice fields, her goal is to clear mines and make land safer for the farmers she grew up with.
“Finding one mine can save people’s lives,” she told Khmer Times, from the CMAC office Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district.
While many Cambodian women prefer jobs in offices with air-conditioning, and wear the latest fashions if they can afford them, Ms Chanthy dresses in a uniform and starts her work as the sun rises over a minefield.
Her profession is a dangerous one.
She smiles as she talks about her daily tasks as a deminer, and says the reason she decided to do the job was because there were lots of mines buried in her village.
After seeing many of her neighbours and friends get injured by explosions working in the rice fields, she decided she would try to do something about it.
“I promised myself that if I had the chance I would work as a deminer to clear mines from the country, because I want to help villagers work in the fields without being scared or facing danger,” she said.
Ms Chanthy was born into a farming family with her widowed mother and one younger sister and brother in Svay Donkeo commune, in Pursat province’s Bakan district.
Before she started her career as a deminer with CMAC, her family moved to work on a farm in Kamrieng district in Battambang province, but she never gave up on her ambitions, even though she only studied up to Grade 3 at school.
One day in 2006 while she was working on a farm, CMAC announced that it was recruiting volunteer female deminers in the community. They said her level of education didn’t matter, so she applied for the job.
“I was so happy, so I applied for that job and was selected to work for CMAC. My dream had come true,” Ms Chanthy said.
“My mum was not angry, because she knew I had wanted to do this job for a long time, but some of my friends complained and questioned why I was choosing to do something dangerous, saying that it was a job for men. I told them anyone could do it.”
Before starting work with CMAC, Ms Chanthy had no idea about how to clear mines. After she was appointed, she received six months’ training on how to clear explosives safely.
On her first day at work in a minefield, she was nervous, but tried to do her best.
“I was very scared when I first went into a minefield, but I kept telling myself there was no need to be scared because my goal was to clear all the mines so the farmers could work without fear,” she said.
Her job requires her to move every three years and she recently relocated from Battambang to work in Banteay Meanchey’s Malai district. In the first week there, her group found four anti-tank mines, and she found three of the four.
Even though she’s now experienced in finding and clearing mines, she prays to her ancestors’ spirits to help her and bring her good luck before she leaves home every day, and her group always does a small traditional Khmer ceremony for safety before starting work.
“Before we were scared of mines, but now we are happy when we find mines because we can help save people’s lives,” she said.
“I am disappointed sometimes because while I am clearing mines, villagers working near me step on one and die. I promise myself that I will not let it happen anymore. I have to clear them all.”
She said the mines near her childhood home were cleared by CMAC and other NGOs, so the area is now safe.
“When I was growing up, I saw many mines in my village, but now I am so happy when I go to visit my homeland because there aren’t any more mines,” Ms Chanthy said.
Heng Rattana, the director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, says CMAC needs $20 million to continue its work this year.
CMAC’s goal in 2018 is to clear 147 square kilometres of land of mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance – including chemical weapons.
Mr Rattana added that CMAC officials would also continue educating people about the dangers of trying to remove unexploded ordnance by themselves, saying his organisation supported those who have been disabled by such devices.
In 2017, CMAC cleared more than 86 square kilometres of land, removing and destroying 37,448 landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Cambodia still has a major problem with landmines, especially in rural areas. This is the legacy of three decades of war which has taken a severe toll on people – there are about 40,000 amputees, one of the highest rates in the world.
CMAC estimates there may be as many as four to six million mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia.
The landmines in Cambodia were placed by various groups, including the Lon Nol, Khmer Rouge, Heng Samrin and Hun Sen regimes, as well as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea who, with international support, retained Cambodia’s UN seat throughout much of the 1980s.
The mines were placed in every part of the country. A common problem Cambodians face with anti-personnel mines is that often even the people who laid the mines do not remember where they put them.
Since 1979, a total of 64,713 casualties have been recorded by the Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service.
One third of the casualties have been children, almost all of them boys, with studies showing that men and boys tend to be more willing than women to play with or examine explosives. Of surviving landmine victims, 87 percent are males over 15-years-old, with a mean age of 28.
Ms Chanthy is married and her husband also works as a deminer. They have a seven-year-old son, who often has to move school to follow his parents where their work takes them.
“I know it’s difficult for my son when he changes schools, but we have no choice and when he grows up I will let him work as a soldier or policeman,” she said. “I don’t want him to work with the private sector because I want him to help the nation.”
Her day’s work as a deminer starts at 6am. At 11.30am they take a break and resume again from 12.30pm to 3pm.
After that she has some free time, so she works on farms which need hired help.
She said the difficulties faced by deminers include thick grass, which hides what they’re looking for, and the fact they often come across cobras or wild animals if they’re working in a forest.
“Our salaries are low and our jobs are very risky, but I like it because when we find one mine we know we have saved one person’s life,” she said.
Mr Rattana from CMAC said Ms Chanthy has had a very successful career at the organisation.
“Ms Chanthy has found more than 200 landmines within a 12-year period of field operations,” he said.
“We are very proud of Ms Chanthy for doing this great work.”
In Malai district alone, CMAC has found and destroyed 997 anti-tank landmines, he added.
With the country at peace, democracy and human rights can be strengthened, improving life for all Cambodians, Mr Rattana said.
Ms Chanthy believes she has found her true calling.
“My friends say women should not work with mines, under tough conditions and in the hot weather. I do not reply to them. In my mind I know that I am happy with my job,” she said.
“I will continue clearing minefields until there are no mines left in the ground.”