A Ukrainian deminer, left, holds a mine detector as he listens to a Cambodian demining expert, right, during a training session in Preytotoeung village, Battambang province, Cambodia (Heng Sinith/AP)
19 January 2023

Ukrainians learn mine-clearing skills from Cambodian experts

19 January 2023

Experts in landmine-plagued Cambodia have been teaching clearing skills to Ukrainian soldiers.

They hope their decades of experience will help the Europeans in their efforts to remove Russian mines at home.

Wearing protective armour, helmets and visors, the group of 15 Ukrainians was walked through a minefield being actively cleared on Thursday.

They were guided along cleared routes through a former battlefield in the north-west Battambang province by trainers with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (Cmac), a government agency overseeing the clearing of landmines and unexploded ordnance in the country.

Captain Arsenii Diadchenko, who led the Ukrainians, said the training has so far been “quick and fast” with some good lessons.

“It will be very helpful in clearing our area of Russian mines,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the exercise.

Cambodia is still littered with mines after three decades of war and internal conflicts, which ended in 1998, with an estimated four to six million unexploded devices still uncleared.

The NGO Landmine Monitor in its 2022 report listed Cambodia and Ukraine among the nine countries with “massive” mine contamination, meaning they had more than 38.6 square miles of uncleared fields.

In Cambodia’s case there were more than 276 square miles of uncleared fields, while the NGO has been unable to reliably verify the extent of the contamination in Ukraine.

Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine, and Myanmar are the only two states with documented new use of landmines in 2022, according to Landmine Monitor, while non-state armed groups have also been confirmed to be using them in at least five countries.

While Ukraine is new to demining, the problem has beset Cambodia for so long that it transcends generations.

Since the end of the fighting, some 20,000 people have been killed in Cambodia by mines and unexploded munitions and about another 45,000 have been hurt.

Thanks to the demining and educational efforts, however, the average annual death toll has dropped from several thousand to fewer than 100.

Cambodian deminers are among the world’s most experienced and several thousand have been sent in the past decade under UN auspices to work in Africa and the Middle East.

Cambodian trainer Voeun Chhorvy, 23, has only been clearing minefields for a year but learned her skills from her father, who was also a deminer.

The Cmac expert told reporters she is “proud that I can show what I have learned” to the Ukrainians.

“I’m happy that I could share my experience with them,” she said.

Japan’s Sato Motoyuki, a professor at Tohoku University who has been working on innovations with ground-penetrating radar, was also on hand to coach the Ukrainians on using the Advanced Landmine Imaging System (Alis) he developed in his lab.

The handheld device consists of a metal detector with an integrated ground-penetrating radar which can help deminers detect and identify buried mines.

He said the soil conditions in Ukraine and Cambodia are very different but he has not yet been able to organise travel to Ukraine to train deminers there. He hopes the Ukrainians will learn enough in Cambodia to be able to use the devices effectively at home.

“After they learn the very basic operation of Alis, I think they also can think about how they can apply it in a Ukraine minefield,” he said.

The Ukrainian team arrived in Cambodia on Monday and have been receiving training all week from the Cambodian deminers in a programme supported by the Japan International Co-operation Agency.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged in a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in November to send Cambodian demining experts to help train their Ukrainian counterparts.

Hun Sen has said the Cambodian deminers will be sent to Poland, a staging ground for much assistance to Ukraine, but the number of deminers to be sent and their destination have not been finalised.

The offer came after Hun Sen, in an unusual move for a nation which usually aligns itself with Russia and China, condemned Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, saying: “Cambodia is always against any country that invades another country.”

Cambodia was one of nearly 100 UN member countries to co-sponsor a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

Several other countries, including the US and Germany, have already provided Ukraine with demining assistance.

After their training in Battambang province, the Ukrainian team is to travel to Siem Reap province, home to Cambodia’s famous Angkor temples, to tour a museum dedicated to land mines and unexploded ordnance before they return home.

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