Rattanak Mondul district, Battambang, Cambodia – I first photographed Tith Pao just after his foot was blown off by a landmine in 1992. At the time, Cambodia was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Angola. Exactly 25 years later, I returned to visit Pao and found the district transformed, almost entirely free of landmines. Life for Pao and his young family had improved beyond measure.
By the early 1990s, various aid organisations including the Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimated there were 8-10 million landmines scattered throughout Cambodia – more than one for every man, woman and child, encumbering life for entire communities. The mines were laid during Cambodia’s decades-long war by the Cambodian army, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the non-communist fighters and US forces.
The presence of so many mines denied farmers access to their land, impoverishing entire communities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began calling attention to the sheer scale of the suffering by campaigning for a ban. These calls led to the establishment of The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a global network launched by six non-governmental organisations with the distinct goal to rid the world of landmines by 2025. Over 1,300 organisations now comprise the ICBL, active in 100 countries. The work of these organisations led to the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, a landmark legal framework for states to eliminate landmines from the world. To date 163 of 195 states have signed this Treaty.
Several humanitarian mine clearance organisations, such as HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group and more, have been working in Cambodia for more than 20 years. Currently, 50 percent of the landmine fields across Cambodia have been cleared. Thanks to these efforts, land that had been considered too dangerous to farm is now productive farmland.
“When I think back to that time, all I can remember is the fear that we lived with,” says Pao. “Now, life is like a tree that gives fruit.”
In 1992, when Pao had his accident, there were 1,573 recorded accidents in Cambodia. Last year there were just 42.