The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

After almost 40 years, submunitions are still a blast

During the US’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973, the US dropped about 80,000 cluster bombs on the Kingdom, littering the ground with over 26 million submunitions, according to Handicap International. About one third of these submunitions failed to explode resulting in more than 8.5 million explosives dotting the Cambodian landscape. Even after nearly four decades, these submunitions, or ‘bombies’, still pose a serious threat to Cambodians.

While land mines in the western part of the country have received the spotlight of the international community, the dangers of submunitions in eastern Cambodia have been largely ignored, but this is changing with an international campaign to ban cluster bombs.

Cambodia is at the forefront of a campaign to convince countries to sign a clusterbomb ban in Oslo, Norway this December. Cambodia has sent representatives to conventions on the submunition ban in Norway, Peru, Austria, New Zealand, Ireland and Laos.

“People turn to Cambodia to hear about its experiences with cluster munitions. Cambodia is sharing its history with the world,” Alex Hiniker, a communications and advocacy officer at UNDP, said.

Cambodia was the first country who pledged to sign the cluster bomb ban, which would ban the production, sale and transfer of these weapons as well as require signature countries to meet victim assistance standards and clearance regulations. Cambodia, along with Laos and Vietnam, is on of the countries most affected by cluster bombs, and victim assistance and submunition clearance up to the standards of the treaty will be costly.

“A huge part of the bus ban is to raise awareness for international donors and to show that this is still affecting Cambodia. We’ll be able to say, ‘Look thousands of Cambodians have signed this treaty’ and to share the stories of the victims with the donors,” Hiniker said.

Alex Hiniker along with representatives from Norwegian People’s Aid, the Cambodian Red Cross and Religions for Peace have been traveling around Cambodia for the last week in the “ban bus” to collect signatures to support the cluster munitions ban and record the stories of cluster munition victims.

In Kratie province, the ban bus never had to travel very far to hear from a submunition victim.

About twelve years ago, Rom Veth walked about 25 meters from her house into the forest to collect firewood. She saw her neighbours and younger brother playing with a metallic sphere the size of a petanc ball. She knew about the dangers of land mines but knew nothing about submunitions. The metal ball exploded while they were playing, killing her younger brother and one other child and leaving Rom Veth with only one leg.

She still lives in that house and is constantly worried about setting off another submunition. Even though the plot is still laden with bombies, she cultivates rice and vegetables on the land. The explosion affected her strength, and she’s not able to work efficiently. Her father called her a “burden.”

“I have no choice but to risk my life everyday,” she said.

Long Tinh, 35, a farmer in a neighbouring village, says that since the accident, no one else goes near Rom Veth’s fields for fear of submunitions.

The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) has started to remove explosives in the area, but Long Tinh and other farmers from the village say they will still avoid the area.

“Cluster munitions aren’t just an accident issue, they’re a land issue. People know where the cluster munitions are now, but they don’t use those fields. Just because accidents are down doesn’t mean it’s no longer a problem. They’re victims, because they can’t use the land,” Hiniker said.

But not every village knows enough about cluster munitions to stay away from affected areas. One village in Kratie province, Phum Thom, is still filled with submunitions, which are concentrated near a small bridge that the US bombed during the Vietnam War. Today, parents send their children down to the river searching for scrap metal.

Though the children know not to use the bombies for scrap and the local police have informed the villagers that the submunitions are dangerous, they still pick up and carry them. Two children, aged 8 and 10, enthusiastically showed us how they carefully handled bombies.

“I want to collect them [cluster munitions] in one place so I don’t confuse them for scrap metal,” Man Hoeung, aged 10, explained.

Hiniker said that one of the dangers of submunitions is their unpredictability: “You’re never sure if it’ll be the first time you touch them or the hundredth when they’ll go off.”

Keo Kunthea, 42, estimates that children in the village find about one hundred cluster munitions every year.

Hong Sophea, the senior monk at Wat Roka Kandal, when he learned about the campaign said he would help educate people about the dangers of submunitions and about the campaign itself.

“I think this campaign is very good for the people. These bombies hurt people. I will share this information with the monks and will inform lay people about this issue” Hong Sophea said.

The victims themselves, who were educated about the dangers of submunitions the hard way, were glad to hear about the attempt to rid the world of cluster bombs.

“The ban on cluster munitions is not just important to my family, but other children around the world. I feel proud. I feel happy, because the campaign prevents kids from being in danger,” Yoeun Sam En, who was blinded and lost both his arms in a submunition explosion, said.

For now, more than fifty countries have pledged to sign the treaty, but the world’s largest producers of cluster bombs are conspicuously absent. The US, Russia and China have given no signs that they will sign the ban. Many of the victims found the weapons producers responsible.

“I want to say to the governments that produce bombies that they should help take care of the victims,” Talang Taoeun, a victim who lost a leg in a submunition blast, said.

On this trip, the ban bus has collected around 400 signatures, but in total, about 16,000 Cambodians have signed a petition supporting the ban.

Penh Vidol, a Buddhist monk who is a member of Religions for Peace, said, “This country has been victimized by bombies. Cambodia is tired of war and bombs. The legacies war like cluster bombs should be eliminated.”

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