Villagers hope for an end to the blight of chemical bombs

Ven Rathavong and Ros Chanveasna / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Mondulkiri villager Plam Suoy has been exposed to chemical bombs. KT/Ven Rathavong

Plam Suoy, an indigenous villager from Mondulkiri province, gave up his farmland about four years ago.

He made the difficult choice after he was exposed to barrel bombs believed to contain toxic chemicals; potentially CS or mustard gas.

His plight is synonymous with locals in several provinces, where barrel bombs continue to be unearthed as a result of the weather and elements taking their toll.

About 340 kilometres from Phnom Penh, many chemical weapons, which were dropped by the United States during the Vietnam War, have been discovered in Mondulkiri’s Ou Reang district.

Mr Suoy, 52, is an ethnic Phnong, and lives in Senmonorom commune.

He has been coming across these kind of bombs since 1993, when he would go into the forest hunting for animals.

At the time, he had no idea what they were. He was yet to start clearing the land for cultivation, and as such, the bombs laid undisturbed.

Mr Suoy began clearing land around the bomb sites in 1995.

By 2005, he had cleared part of the forest and took two hectares for cultivation.

“Back then, one chemical barrel bomb was exposed because I burned the forest to clear my plot of land,” he said.

He was directly exposed to the chemicals at the time, which he recalled felt similar to rubbing spicy chilli on his face.

Mr Suoy said the poisonous substance inside the bomb was a yellow powder, but he did not know what it was.

He reported his find to the authorities in 2005, and continued to cultivate the land, growing rice and cassava.

Mr Suoy abandoned his wish to plant mango trees, because the area he had earmarked for the fruit contained many barrel bombs.

According to the Foreign Ministry, there are 34 locations known to contain chemical barrel bombs throughout the country.

These include two chemical bombs discovered in Tboung Khmum’s Choam Kravien commune, and 29 chemical bomb sites in Svay Rieng’s Korki commune, close to villagers’ homes.

In Mondulkiri province alone, ten chemical bomb sites have been discovered, covered by forest and crops planted by indigenous villagers.

Most of the barrel bombs there have now been unearthed and only two remain buried in the ground.

Some of the bombs found were located in valleys, making them difficult to remove or dispose of. Others still have boosters attached to them, which means they could explode if they were touched.

“I planted my rice and cassava and nothing else happened until 2012,” Mr Suoy said.

“At the time, I burned my rice field after the harvest, and the fire spread to the bomb sites. The fire exposed the barrels and I was affected by the chemicals again.”

The bombs are surfacing after decades of being buried in undergrowth. KT/Ven Rathavong

“I gave up cultivating this plot of land four years ago, because foul-smelling fumes have enveloped the area since 2013,” he said, adding that his six family members and relatives including nieces and nephews had also suffered from exposure. “When the weather was hot, the chemical bombs would start leaking or emitting their fumes,” Mr Suoy said.

The farmer cleared a new plot of land this year, close to the bomb site where he had cultivated rice and cassava. He said he was aware of the risks, but hoped the bombs would be disposed of soon.

“I had no choice. I have to endure the suffering and continue with my crop cultivation. This is survival to feed my family,” he said. Early last month, Cambodia asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague for assistance in clearing chemical bombs from Cambodia.

In response, four chemical experts from OPCW came to inspect bomb sites in the country.

The experts, accompanied by the Cambodia Chemical Authority and Cambodian Mine Action Centre, started their operations in Mondulkiri province, before moving on to Tboung Khmum, and lastly Svay Rieng province, in an operation that took one week to complete.

In each province, the experts took samples from bombs for testing with their own equipment.

They later confirmed that the barrel bombs were chemical weapons.

In October, ten villagers fell ill after being exposed to chemicals in a bomb they mistook for scrap metal.

Out of the ten affected, eight were sent to the provincial hospital.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered the Health Ministry to investigate the well-being of villagers living within the vicinity of the chemical bomb sites in Svay Rieng province’s Korki commune, and announced that all villagers in the area where the bombs were discovered would get free care.

Up until now, 153 villagers in Svay Rieng have found to be suffering from the effects of chemical bombs and sent to hospitals for treatment. Most had skin and respiratory complaints, while some babies have been born with abnormalities thought to be linked to bomb exposure.

The government began building a health centre for villagers on Monday in Korki commune to aid in the ongoing treatment of villagers exposed to the bombs.

Mr Suoy said that he feels weak and is on the verge of collapse each time the weather turns hot and the barrel bombs start leaking. He is very concerned about the long-term health effects.

He also said he has lost at least $500 per year since he stopped cultivating rice and cassava near the bomb sites.

“I want to plant mango trees, but I am worried they would not grow well and I am also afraid the mangoes would be affected if the trees were to grow and yield fruit,” he said, adding that he was elated when he saw the experts coming to check the bombs on his land plot.

After talking to Khmer Times reporters, Mr Suoy walked to the bomb site wearing a surgical face mask to prevent chemical exposure after CMAC personnel installed “danger” signs in the vicinity.

“If the bombs are left here, I will have to give up,” he said.

“I want them to dispose of the bombs as soon as possible, because I do not have other land plots.”

Serei Kosal, vice-president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, said Cambodia would tell the world about the presence of US chemical bombs at an anti-mine convention in Austria earlier this week.

Lieutenant General Ke Da, deputy-secretary general of the national chemical weapons authority, said the experts completed their inspection of the chemical bombs sites on Sunday and returned to their workplace in The Hague on Tuesday.

Official results from their findings are expected in the coming weeks.

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