Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
Landmines, the soldiers that never sleep.
Twenty-four years ago, I sat on the doorstep of "Emergency," a non-governmental trauma clinic in Battambang, Cambodia. I was covering the recent surge in landmine victims.
Large sections of the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border, once controlled by the Khmer Rouge, had recently been opened to settlers. The main body of the Khmer Rouge was falling apart, leaving a massive section of Western Cambodia open for settlement. The only problem was that the area was heavily mined.
"Emergency," an Italian non-governmental organization, was a modern facility treating about 10 landmine victims a week when I arrived there to do a story. Victims would come every day, usually in the back of an aging pickup truck, usually with legs and feet blown off.
When the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh back in 1978, Pol Pot's revolutionary army fled to the border areas in the West with Thailand. Here they fought a holding action against the Vietnamese and later against Royalist Government forces. Their strategy, it seemed, was to mine areas along roads and footpaths that led to villages.
To make matters worse, they then forgot where they put the mines.
Landmines have been called "the soldier that never sleeps" and can kill for years before being discovered and eliminated.
I followed a young victim, Nil Sarak, as he arrived for treatment. He had stepped on a landmine while clearing an area near his new home. His right foot would need to be amputated, his left leg was also injured, but he would not lose its use. Cambodian surgeons operated once he had been cleaned and stabilized. His 16-year-old wife could only wait in silence with Sarak's mother outside the operating room.
I would later visit the homestead, where Nil has stepped on the mine. It was a dry patch of ground that looked like it could never produce anything but weeds. His small bamboo shack home was less than three months old. Scattered around the hut were cooking utensils, pots, and pans abandoned when the family dropped what they were doing to rush him to "Emergency." The trip cost the family the last of their money.
This story had no happy ending, and Nil lost his right foot, mid-calf. He would spend two more weeks in the hospital before returning home to an uncertain future. I bought $100 worth of rice and canned fish for them before I left. Nil's mother cried.
Cambodia today remains the third most mined nation in the world, with an estimated 10 million mines still in the ground. UNICEF reports that an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are annually killed or injured by landmines worldwide. Today in Cambodia, 50 percent of the victims are children.
Sources report that since 1979, over 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded.
Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.