Un­likely Heroes

Asian Geographic - - Environment -

try not to talk about pol­i­tics too much,” says Suon Rotanna, look­ing at me from be­neath his cam­ou­flaged cap. His eyes glaze over for a mo­ment, locked in mem­o­ries, be­fore a shake of his head and a long ex­hale of smoke. “Pol­i­tics took my par­ents. And it took my leg.”

Suon is one of an es­ti­mated 40,000 Cam­bo­di­ans who lost limbs in one of the most sav­age civil wars in re­cent his­tory. From 1975 un­til 1979, the Kh­mer Rouge – led by Pol Pot – at­tempted to trans­form Cam­bo­dia into an agrar­ian utopia, an ex­treme move­ment based around ru­ral life.

Up to two mil­lion skilled labour­ers were mas­sa­cred, along with the ed­u­cated; wear­ing glasses or speak­ing a for­eign lan­guage was enough to con­demn you to death by star­va­tion, tor­ture, dis­ease or ex­e­cu­tion. Many oth­ers, of­ten of a young age, were forced to fight in Cam­bo­dia’s jun­gles.

Suon was a child sol­dier. His fa­ther was killed in front of him in 1976, and at the age of 14, his grand­fa­ther – a leader in the Kh­mer Rouge – sent him into the jun­gle near the border with Viet­nam. It was here that Suon trained to be a sol­dier.

“Ev­ery day we were scared for our lives,” he re­calls. Friends and col­leagues were slain, ac­cused of be­ing “lazy”, or spies for the CIA. It was kill, or be killed. And so, Suon shot his boss. “Oth­er­wise, I knew that one day, it would be me.”

He spent the next 14 years in the wilder­ness fight­ing against the Viet­namese, un­til one mis­placed foot turned his world on its head. Suon had stepped on an anti-per­son­nel land­mine. De­signed to se­verely de­bil­i­tate rather than kill, the land­mine blew off his foot and lower leg, dis­abling Suon, as well as those who loy­ally stuck by his side.

It might sound like the plot of a hor­ri­fy­ing Hol­ly­wood movie, but Suon’s story is an all too fa­mil­iar one in Cam­bo­dia. It is thought that up to 10 mil­lion mines were laid over a 30-year pe­riod, leav­ing be­hind ap­prox­i­mately 40,000 dis­abled peo­ple – and count­ing, as dozens more peo­ple are still killed ev­ery year.

Whilst Cam­bo­dia’s war of­fi­cially ended decades ago, work con­tin­ues to free the coun­try of ex­plo­sives. But as one of South­east Asia’s poor­est na­tions, the is­sue to­day is how to do this quickly, safely, and cost-ef­fi­ciently.

“I “I try not to talk about pol­i­tics too much. Pol­i­tics took my par­ents. And it took my leg”

A rat works a field just out­side of Siem Reap. Whilst it ap­pears to be at­tached by its nose, this is a trick of the cam­era and the chain ac­tu­ally leads to its col­lar

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