Forty-six-year-old Phon Chet, who lost his left leg to cluster bombs 14 years ago, sits with other impaired people at a rehabilitation center in Kampong Cham province during a media tour on Thursday.
Due to unexploded ordnance left over from the civil war in the 1970s, his wife and six children lost the chance to go to school.
The cluster bomb that hit Mr. Chet also struck his wife, who lost her vision. Despite having an artificial leg, he is not considered “disabled” since he is still able to support his family.
Mr. Chet is one of nearly 65,000 Cambodians who have become victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), of which 70 percent are permanently injured and will need lifelong assistance.
More than 1,720 people, of which 80 percent are living with disabilities, have received assistance from the Kampong Cham Physical Rehabilitation Center, according to Handicap International (HI), which has been working since 1982 to support provincial rehabilitation centers.
Doung Chetha, director of the Kampong Cham center, said there were about 1,500 landmine and ERW victims among an estimated 7,000 others at his center.
“The center gets 88 percent of its support from Handicap International and 12 percent from the government and has been providing free assistance to affected people such as body movement treatment, artificial limbs and social services,” he said.
Kimberley McCosker, the advocacy program manager at HI and the person who organized the media tour last week, said HI hopes to raise awareness about clusters bombs, since most people don’t understood them, and to encourage the Cambodian government to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The Cluster Munition Coalition explains that cluster munitions, or cluster bombs, are weapons containing multiple explosive sub-munitions dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground or sea. They open up in midair and release tens or hundreds of sub-munitions, which can disperse and cover an area up to the size of several football fields and can remain a fatal threat to anyone in the area long after a war ends.
These sub-munitions do not explode on impact, but sit on the ground and can explode if touched years later.
Under Article 2 of the Convention, a cluster munition is defined as “a conventional munition that is designed to disperse or release explosive sub-munitions, each weighing less than 20 kilograms, and includes those explosive sub-munitions.”
“Cluster munitions or bombs affect both people and government. When people are accidentally hit by the bomb they might lose some parts of their body, get injuries, or death,” Ms. McCosker said.
“The conflicted areas by cluster munitions remain problems because the government cannot build roads or schools, especially agriculture development on those fields even if the war has ended for a long time.”
Not only Cambodians are affected by leftover cluster bombs, but a much wider population.
“An estimated 98 percent of victims of cluster munitions worldwide are civilians, mostly due to the weapon’s continued contamination of land long after the first bombing,” the HI publication on the convention wrote.
The convention prohibits all “use,” “production,” “transfer” and “stockpiling” of cluster munitions. Furthermore, it creates a framework for cooperation and assistance to ensure adequate care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk reduction education and destruction of stockpiles, the publication added.
Say Sokun, the deputy director of regulation and monitoring of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), told reporters that 1,412 square kilometers had been cleared of landmines from 1992 until 2016.
“In the first six months of 2016, there were 20 deaths and 29 injured compared with 11 deaths and 55 injured in 2015,” she said.
When asked why it has taken nearly six years for the Kingdom to decide on the convention’s ratification, she explained: “It is the decision of the [Cambodian] government with a clear plan and we [CMAA] support the government’s decision. If Cambodia ratifies the convention, but neighboring countries do not, this is why we need to protect ourselves too.”
As a result, she wants international encouragement to help in the ratification process.
“We [CMAA] would like to ask international organizations to encourage [Cambodia’s] neighbors to ratify the convention together,” she suggested.
The Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia official website wrote: “The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) has concluded that Thailand used cluster munitions on Cambodian territory during the border conflict in 2011 based on two separate on-site investigations. Thai officials confirmed the use of cluster munitions in a meeting with the CMC on 5 April 2011.”
There are two reasons that cluster bombs are unacceptable.
“Firstly, they have wide area effects and are unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Secondly, the use of cluster munitions leaves behind large numbers of dangerous unexploded ordnance. Such remnants kill and injure civilians, obstruct economic and social development and have other severe consequences that persist for years and decades after use,” the Convention on Cluster Munitions explains.
Ouch On, deputy planning officer at the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) said that 29 mines, one landmine, 7,525 cluster bombs and 146,414 pieces of shrapnel had been collected in 484 villages out of 633 villages in six eastern provinces during a 13-month project.
“We have local networks to inform the people about information on unexploded weapons. People understand about this better because we get notifications from them about remaining weapons,” he added.
Cambodia is not known to have ever produced, used, or exported cluster munitions, however the Kingdom has not signed on to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but has participated in almost all of the convention’s meetings, according to the Cluster Munition Monitor (CMM) 2015 report. On the other hand, the country is a state party to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Conventional Weapons.
“Lao PDR is the only state party; the Philippines and Indonesia are both signatories but ratification lacks momentum in both countries. Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam are severely contaminated with cluster munitions remnants,” the publication added.
Since 1998, at least 194 Cambodians have been exposed to cluster munitions in a total of 220 square kilometers in eastern provinces, according to an HI statistic.
The CMM reported: “The United States used some 80,000 air-dropped cluster munitions containing 26 million sub munitions on Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War, mostly in the east and northeast of the country.”
A total of 34 states have at one time developed or produced over 200 types of cluster munitions, the CMM reported in 2013.
The Convention was adopted in Dublin, Ireland, on May 30, 2008, and was signed on December 3-4, 2008, in Oslo. It entered into force on August 1, 2010, six month after it was ratified by 30 states. Today marks the sixth anniversary of it coming into force.
By mid-2016, 119 states have joined the convention, of which 100 are states parties and 19 signatories haven’t ratified yet.
Mr. Chet said he was unlucky to be born at the beginning of the civil war in the 1970s.
“It’s not only me who hates war, other people too. Especially the war with bombing from aircraft or mines, because those weapons will remain even though the war ends,” he said.
When asked what he has experienced from life as a civilian living through the war, he closed his eyes revealing hopelessness and slowly said: “I and my fellow villagers did nothing wrong but we became victims of the war until today.”
Cluster bombs that have been collected in Cambodia can still explode after many years. Supplied