All in one: Soldier, deminer, manager

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Top and bottom left: Srey Sangha with his demining team in the field. Supplied

Srey Sangha, a deputy programme manager with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), is a veteran deminer having previously served with the Cambodia Mine Action Centre. He opens up to Eileen McCormick and talks about his days as a fighter with the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, his near-death moment, and also why robots can’t replace demining dogs in the field.

Good Times2: What made you want to become a deminer?

Srey Sangha: I will tell you truly; at first it was not my career ambition. My family background prevented me from getting a position during the time after the Vietnamese entered Cambodia in 1979. My father was a general and the ruling government in that period did not trust me. I escaped to the Thai border and joined the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. Our commanding general was Son Sann and he together with other KPNLF leaders played a big role in protecting the country at that time. I was only a private then. However, I moved up the ranks to become a cadet officer. Once I reached that status I was able to train for 3 years and began my career in demining.

Good Times2: When did you first work for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC)?

Srey Sangha: At the age of 23, I quit the military and was offered a relatively low position as chief of transport. In 1999 my boss got to know of my military background so he moved me from transportation to mine survey. Over time, I became quite proficient in reading maps and plotting GPS coordinates for survey and used my skills to train others.

Good Times2: What training did you undergo before going into the field?

Srey Sangha: As I said earlier, I had a military background and had most of my training before joining CMAC after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991. There were so many areas we were trained in – from making topographic maps to working with demining dogs and deactivating landmines. The area I excelled in was in mapping.

I was also selected by my commanding officer to undergo specialised training in communication. I learned to use the Morse code and it was a bit confusing at first because I had to learn two forms – first the international version with English letters and a second version that translated it to Khmer.

Srey Sangha in Angola. ‘This was one of my toughest assignments,’ he said. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: What are methods and tools used to deactivate landmines?

Srey Sangha: It is easier to locate government minefields because they have at least a system to protect their citizens. When governments lay down landmines, there’s always a pattern and they recycle the mines when they leave. They don’t leave them activated unlike guerrilla fighters or jungle fighters. These rebels like to scatter landmines and never remove them.

We have a protocol on removing mines. Our method in the field is that we first interview people. After that, we start to develop a general map. Once we have that, we call in the technical people and the handlers with their mine detection dogs to sniff out the unexploded ordnance.

Once we have all of these things in place, we start from the outer perimeter going into what we call the defining area were the mines are located. We must work quickly and efficiently because we want to keep people safe.

Good Times2: Are robots the future for demining?

Srey Sangha: I think there are many different situations and people have a misguided perception of landmine areas. They think of it as a wide open area that is easily accessible.

In Cambodia, often the landmines are in forested bamboo areas or places with many bushes. Even the dogs we work with can’t always reach these places. For that reason we use trained rats.

In places like Iraq where there are vast sandy places, we can send in robots to do most of the dangerous work. But this is not the case in Cambodia. In 2003, I joined a meeting and we discussed speeding up mine clearance using drones with special lasers. This method would allow for quick access to know exactly where the UXOs are and to create a real-time map. We hope to revisit this topic again.

Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: How do you and your team keep calm in the field?

Srey Sangha: We like the new guys to work with our veteran deminers. They can observe how to do things and can always ask questions. If they are having any doubts or feel their head is not in the right space to work in any situation, they are advised to follow protocol and talk with their team leader.

In the past when I look back, I was never too worried or scared about detonating a bomb or a mine. If you know how landmines function there is little risk.

Good Times2: How many countries have you worked in with NPA and which was the hardest assignment?

Srey Sangha: I have worked in four countries besides my home country, Cambodia. The four countries are Thailand, Angola, and Colombia and Myanmar. Out of the four, Angola was the hardest to work in.

The reason was that the government would not allow us to carry out demining in certain areas, even if they were of high risk to the people. Without government permission there was little we could do. Also, there were several warring factions and we did not know who was fighting who. This made our work very challenging.

Good Times2: Have you had any near-death experiences?

Srey Sangha: Yes. It was a long time when I was with the KPNLF and we were pushed back by the Vietnamese forces. We were retreating and somehow my fellow soldiers got separated. Some of us got lost and the next thing we knew was that we were in a minefield. One of my colleagues caught me just in time to warn me that I was in a place strewn with landmines and I was not to move forward. I then retraced my boot-steps backwards and fortunately nothing exploded. But I was so scared and I felt my soul had left me.

The former KPNLF fighter, front, with his CMAC colleagues. Photo: Supplied

Since working for CMAC or NPA, I have not had any big scares. In my 20 years of working only one death happened on my watch. That was unfortunate. A young deminer forgot his protocol on where to place a marker stick after detecting a landmine. This deminer then called over his supervisor who stepped on the wrong spot due to the mistake and was killed.

Good Times2: Do you have any career advice for youth wanting to do this work?

Srey Sangha: Honestly it’s hard now because there are a lot of funding cuts and positions are limited. Before we had 30,000 people working and now maybe only about 1,000. Most of the men and women who are trained stay for their entire career. Those who follow this career path are dedicated and they don’t stop until they reach retirement age. Most of the youth or younger members who work with us now join to go aboard. You don’t need graduate degrees, but you must have the heart and dedication if you want to join the team.

Many of the veterans have no formal educational background and they grew up in a war-torn country. That’s all that they know and their experience is based on that. And based on that experience, it would be difficult for them to find a job in a different sector. Because of this, youth who apply to be deminers need to understand the type of people they would be working with.

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