Living about 3000 metres above sea level in sub-Sahara Africa has given members of Task Force East Africa (TEFA) a new appreciation for high ground.
"We have got an absolutely fantastic location here. (It's like) sitting on the Grand Canyon," said Major Roger Barrett, officer commanding of Hotel Company Group of 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. "The camp here is the best that I have ever seen. It is the best I have ever experienced." The panoramic view from the Canadians' base camp-named Camp Dunn after the first Canadian-born person to win the Victoria Cross-belies the area's difficult terrain. CF members serving in Senafe, Eritrea, are responsible for an area that is littered with mountains.
"We are pretty high in the mountains here," said Sapper Rodney Tatchell of 4 Engineer Support Regiment (4 ESR), attached to 2 RCR's Hotel Company. "There is not a lot of vegetation and it's really dusty, but it's really nice country. It is a really nice view in the morning."
Camp Dunn is named after Victoria Cross winner Lieutenant Alexander Dunn, who died in Senafe, Abyssinia, in 1868 as a result of a hunting accident. He accidentally discharged his rifle and shot himself.
The Canadian TEFA, a Company Group, will eventually be made up of three mechanized infantry platoons, a reconnaissance platoon, an engineer troop, a combat service support platoon and a company headquarters. Roughly 450 CF members will be in Ethiopia and Eritrea for six months.
Hotel Company, a beefed up Infantry Company with an engineer field troop and a combat service support platoon, is based in Eritrea's mountainous region. Steep and rugged mountains with winding roads and few flat areas underscore the area they patrol.
Although the camp's view is breathtaking, working from a base so high above sea level has its disadvantages. Driving up and down the mountain to patrol the area or responsibility is extremely time consuming. The mountain roads are narrow and not built for heavy traffic. To avoid steep grades, there are numerous switchbacks. The zigzag roads add extra kilometres to the day's travel.
A 50-km trip can sometimes turn into an all-day affair. Drivers of the
light armoured vehicles used by the Canadian soldiers to patrol the area
of responsibility not only have to ease their way through the mountains,
but also be prepared to share the roads with pedestrians and livestock.
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In the spirit of innovation and partnership, the Tsewultun Police Service, with National Defence's Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC) Naval Construction Troop (NCT), built summer-camp facilities for Aboriginal youth on Valdes Island near Ladysmith, B.C.
The goal of the camp was to provide a place where community youth could visit with the police in a culturally significant environment.
The land once served as a small, remote settlement, which was vacated in the early 1990s. Since it had been abandoned, the land was over-grown and littered with garbage, requiring a great deal of dedication and hard work to rebuild.
Bob Aitken, Chief of the Tsewultun Police Service, approached Chief Rick Thomas of the Lyackson First Nation, who gave the police service permission to use the land. Cliff Turner, a health inspector from Health Canada, surveyed the land to determine safety and health standards.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Marine Section assisted by taking workers to examine the site.
National Defence's Pacific Naval Construction Troop, a deployable group of military engineers based out of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, were instrumental in helping to rebuild the area. Deploying by ship, they spent a week at the site building showers and outdoor latrine facilities, re-roofing classrooms, and conducting site preparation for a future tent city. Through donations of equipment, labour and expertise, the Troop also built a water supply and distribution system for the camp.
First Nations Emergency Services (FNES) assisted in obtaining a contractor, Saltair Marine Services, to help the police and the Pacific Naval Construction Troop in garbage clean-up. Together they removed eight abandoned vehicles and twenty tonnes of garbage for recycling and disposal.
Chief Aitken anticipates that the camp will provide an opportunity for Aboriginal youth to develop a mentoring relationship with the police, and will help youth to view the police as approachable role models.
Cpt. Ken Brooks of the Pacific Naval Construction Troop said that the
Troop, who were recently deployed to East Timor, viewed the experience
as a deployed exercise that would increase their skills, as well as provide
an end result which would benefit Aboriginal children. Cpt. Brooks states
that the Troop was pleased with their ability to contribute, and that "a
great deal of pride was involved with the people that worked on it". The
PNCT is looking forward to being involved in future site improvements.
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ZUMALAI, EAST TIMOR – Twenty-four members of the Pacific Naval Construction Toop worked under the searing equatorial sun, as a convoy of six white UN trucks brings a load of returning refugees into the centre of this small town. A crowd of laughing, barefoot children runs along beside the trucks, welcoming their families and neighbours home from their unwilling exile in camps in West Timor. The canvas-sided trucks roll to a stop beside an old soccer field and wait for a backhoe to clear the road so they can continue to the town square, one hundred metres further down the dusty street.
The backhoe is dumping enormous piles of fill into a two-metre deep trench that is part of a septic field for a new camp that will soon be home to about 200 Canadian troops. The Canadian military engineer driving the backhoe manoeuvres his machine off the road and out of the way of the UN convoy.
Across the street is the playing field swarming with the activity of 65 Canadian military engineers. It is the location for the new Camp Maple Leaf. The soccer pitch was once shared by the children of the Zumalai school and Indonesian army troops who occupied barracks that used to front the field on two sides. All that remains now of the school and the barracks are charred, roofless ruins, the legacy of a month-long orgy of violence and destruction that followed the Aug. 30 independence referendum here.
But while the town of Zumalai is being re-born as many of its 4000 original inhabitants return, the former soccer pitch is undergoing its own metamorphosis. Within a month, four rows of pre-fabricated, elevated steel buildings will be sitting between the goal lines. The 28 structures, each about the size of a two-car garage, and built to sleep eight, are the brainchild of engineers from 1 Construction Engineering Unit of Moncton, New Brunswick.
Maj. Pat Heffernan, 35, of Ottawa, is the officer charged with designing and building the camp. His 68-member crew has been brought together from across the country, with a wide variety of skilled tradespeople from bases in Moncton, N.B., Halifax, N.S., Valcartier, Que. and Victoria, B.C. There are civil engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, surveyors, draftsmen, combat engineers, and heavy equipment operators. Technicians are also present to deal with water, fuel, refrigeration, electrical generation systems and to monitor the environment.
"We did the design based on the materials available in Darwin to maximize the speed at which we could get it over here," said Heffernan. "The key is simplicity of design and ease of construction no matter what the conditions are and repetition in the construction phase. All of the structures are the same. I’m looking at building a structure a day. My intent is to wrap construction up by mid-December, get the troop and its tools back to Darwin, and on a plane so that they can be home for Christmas."
"The first one might take a little bit. They’ve been walked through it in the construction yard back in Darwin. Now they’ll take their time with the first one, but after that it’s just going to get faster and faster."
In full stride, Heffernan plans to have three crews erecting the steel-framed buildings, laying down the plywood floors, and attaching the corrugated iron walls and roofs. The sides of the buildings will be one-metre high pony walls with drop down waterproof fabric coverings. "It provides a very airy, open structure that the guys can bed down in, that at the same time gives them protection from the elements when it does rain," explained Heffernan.
When finished, the camp will have offices, a food preparation area, a medical examination room, a vehicle maintenance bay, and a dining hall. A portable, New Zealand Army field kitchen will be set up beside the dining hall so the soldiers will no longer have to rely on hard field rations for their meals. Three 25,000-litre water storage tanks, and four separate septic fields will be used to deal with fresh water produced by the Canadian water purification unit that is drawing water from the nearby Mota Mola River. Electricity will come from a 200-kilowatt diesel generator. The whole camp will be surrounded by a barbed wire fence and guarded by sentry posts around the perimeter.
"Another challenge is the distance from Canada, the logistics lines, moving the materiel from the mounting base in Darwin to here. And that has certainly brought its own challenges, just getting the materials to the site," said Heffernan. "Like the whole operation, trying to support something on a southeast Asian island is not an easy job to do."
The Canadians used shipping and aircraft from their coalition partners to move the 15 sea containers needed to bring the materiel here from Australia. From Hercules heavy lift aircraft to the French naval vessel Scirocco and a variety of helicopters, it took almost two weeks to get the gear to East Timor.
"This site’s great," added Heffernan. "It was barracks for the TNI (Indonesian military) and the town of Zumalai school was also on the site, so it’s all ex-government land which is what we’re trying to occupy so we don’t displace any of the local residents. From that standpoint it’s a good site and it gives us a chance to fix up some of the structures that the town will make use of after we’re done."
With the Canadians currently planning to remain until next spring, options
are already being examined for the disposition of the $700,000 camp once
the Canadian troops return home. While no decisions have been made, and
the camp in the earliest stages of construction, Heffernan explained that
many groups already have their eyes on the site.
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The commendation letter is as follows:
Cominco Limited has for over 50 years given the Canadian Forces a massive amount of support which has contributed to the success of 44th Field Engineer Squadron and the CF.
Beginning in 1949 when 44th Field Engineer Squadron was formed, Cominco provided the unit with it's first Armoury at their Tadnac site. This home lasted until the new armoury was constructed in its present location in 1952. Cominco's support continued over the years by providing the unit with a large area, 10 Kilometers from the armoury, for a demolition range at a nominal lease rate. When the unit wished to construct a rifle range, Cominco provided the land at a location 10 Kilometers from the armoury. These two ranges have saved the unit thousands of hours of travel time to the nearest other ranges at Chilliwack BC and provided inestimable amount of quality training. Cominco has also provided a 4 kilometer by 15 kilometer area along the Columbia River as a dry training area, through an annual Right of Use.
In addition to land and property use, Cominco has regularly provided space at their Guest House for military guests and saved the crown many thousands of dollars in accommodations. During exercise WESTERN CHALLENGE 92, Cominco not only provided other training areas for the joint US / Canadian exercise, but also made many of their facilities available such as shower facilities and vehicle washing facilities. A recent example of Cominco's support occurred when the unit needed to reconstruct a road in the demolition area and Cominco supplied a grader at no cost.
Cominco has also directly supported training by providing outstanding opportunities. One example occurred in the early 1980's when Cominco provided the unit with an opportunity to conduct a major training exercise in northern British Columbia to demolish a large dam. Not only did they cover the cost of explosives, meals and incidentals, they also paid for transportation of the unit. This is but one example of the training opportunities Cominco has provided.
Cominco's support has also extended to other units of the CF. Before
they were disbanded in
1964, 24th Medium Anti-Aircraft Regiment RCA of Trail and 17th Field Squadron RCE of Kimberley also received much valuable support.
Cominco has provided their employee's with opportunities to attend training exercises and encouraged them to belong to the Army Reserve.
There is no doubt over the past 50 years or more, Cominco's support
to the CF has resulted in savings of many hundreds of thousands of dollars
and contributed to the success of the Canadian Forces in the Kootenay region
of British Columbia.
We bring this matter to your attention as we believe Cominco should be recognized for it's outstanding support to the CF for over 50 years. Their support is an example which needs to be recognized at the highest levels, as it demonstrates a true partnership with the Canadian Forces.
The Award will be presented at an awards dinner in Ottawa, sometime in the spring.
Echo Two Webmaster note - Congratulations and thank you to Cominco for
their many years of support, and to 44 Field Engineer Squadron for making
the effort to honour their friends at Cominco.
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In the aftermath of World War II, nationalism, communism and decolonization combined to plunge Indochina into decades of warfare. In Cambodia, war has been part of the landscape since the early 1960s, particularly during the Vietnam War when various armies used the country to advance their military objectives. Indeed, the United Nations reports that between 1969 and 1973 an estimated half-million tons of bombs were dropped in pursuit of communist enclaves in the eastern part of the country. The devastation and displacement of people sparked a civil war that resulted in the insurgent Khmer Rouge movement seizing power in 1975. The subsequent reign of terror resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million Cambodians--out of a population of six to seven million—through malnutrition, disease, murder and summary executions, the UN estimates.
After the Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnamese troops in January 1979, Cambodia was once again consumed by warfare. This time the fighting was between the Vietnamese-supported central government and a multi-sided coalition that included the Khmer Rouge and a number of non-communist factions. Throughout the 1980s, land mines were used extensively and were widely viewed as the weapon of choice.
In 1989, Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia and this led to an intensification of the war in the northwest part of the country. As the fighting increased so did the use of mines. Indeed, the organization Handicap International estimates that during the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were approximately 200 amputations per month nationwide, the result of mine accidents.
International efforts to end the bloodshed resulted in a detailed peace plan signed in Paris on Oct. 23, 1991. Just over a week later--on Oct. 31--the United Nations Security Council endorsed the plan and called on all Cambodians to co-operate fully with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, UNTAC.
During UNTAC's 18-month mission, a Mine Clearance Training Unit, MCTU, was formed to address the threat posed by millions of mines and unexploded ordnance, UXO, scattered throughout the country. In 1993, the MCTU became the basis of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, a civilian organization operating with military support and administered as a project of the UN Development Program. At present, the organization, which is almost completely funded by international donations, consists of approximately 2,600 Cambodians and more than 40 foreign technical advisers. Its goal is simple: Eliminate mine and UXO casualties in Cambodia through mine awareness training, explosive ordnance disposal and mine clearance.
* * *
By the end of June 1999, Cambodia was well into the rainy season, a fact brought home quite effectively by the drenching the five of us received as we stepped out of Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport. In compensation, the rain took the edge off the heat and humidity, at least for the moment. After wrestling barracks boxes and duffel bags into a pair of 4X4s, we set off on a submarine-like journey through the downpour. In my vehicle, our driver--Warrant Officer Rob Hamilton--explained the one rule of the road. "Might was right." This could be modified by the "quick and the dead" principle. In other words, you could challenge a larger vehicle if you were more nimble, and if you believed in reincarnation.
When the rain stopped, traffic increased rapidly. The majority of traffic consisted of small motorcycles in the 100-cc range--the ubiquitous "moto" that the Cambodians used to transport cargoes most of us associate with being on or in cars or pickup trucks. Four adults was commonplace. My best sighting was four adults, two toddlers and a baby slung over the front wheel of a moto. The amount of cargo seemed limited only by the driver's ability to balance the load or restrain it in the case of pigs and chickens.
Helmets were virtually nonexistent and female passengers generally rode sidesaddle--no mean feat in the chaos of downtown Phnom Penh. Accustomed to moto travel from infancy, Cambodians rode with ease and chatted with passengers on adjacent bikes. Quite often we saw women braiding each other's hair, men passing cigarettes back and forth and mothers nursing babies.
The city's streets were flooded thanks to the rain and a very ineffective drainage system. We saw children playing in the backed-up water and some of them laughed when splashed by the passing traffic. As we threaded our way through shoals of motos to Canada House, we learned that only the main roads were paved in Phnom Penh. Everything else was a potholed mess.
Canada House was a three-storey building inside a walled compound. It was home to the four Canadians who would be working at Cambodian Mine Action Centre headquarters. After unloading our luggage, we met with the contingent commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Verreault, and the five Canadians who would soon be returning to Canada. In deference to our jet-lagged condition, the Commanding Officer gave us a quick orientation briefing before giving us the rest of the day to sort ourselves out.
The next day we completed our in-clearance and the Commanding Officer confirmed our assignments for the 12-month tour. He explained three of us would be based in Battambang, capital of the northwestern province of the same name. The province had seen much fighting, right into the late 1990s, and it was the most heavily mined province in Cambodia. Two of CMAC's four de-mining units were deployed there with their headquarters at Battambang Town. I would be joining De-mining Unit 2 as the senior technical adviser. WO Rocky Labrecque would be the field technical adviser in the same unit while Master Warrant Officer Marcel Meunier would be the field technical adviser at De-mining Unit 3.
Two days after our arrival, the three of us, accompanied by our predecessors Major Keith Moody, WO Joe Leduc and MWO Steve Mears, flew to Battambang on a Chinese-built ATR-42. The aircraft followed the path of National Route 5 out of Phnom Penh. After decades of war and very little maintenance, Route 5 was a typical Cambodian highway. Its surface varied from potholed gravel to cratered dirt. Bridges were usually temporary replacements for those destroyed in the fighting, and the 300-kilometre road trip could take at least six hours.
With a population of roughly 50,000, Battambang was Cambodia's second-largest city. Like much of Cambodia, the airport had the air of having seen better days, but it served its purpose once the cows moved off the runway. Battambang was a more relaxed environment than Phnom Penh, but traffic was just as chaotic, although the noise level was far lower, and the air was cleaner. The Sanker River runs through the centre of the city and for us was a constant temptation to take a refreshing swim despite its thriving population of parasites.
Canada House in Battambang housed three Canadians and a Belgian non-commissioned officer who served as technical adviser for the explosive ordnance disposal teams. Our compound was shared with a small building big enough to be a one-car garage. It housed a middle-class Cambodian family of four. Our other neighbours lived in shacks made of wood and corrugated steel.
The next three days were spent familiarizing ourselves with a multitude of issues, including the organization and tasks of our de-mining units, our area of operations, government agencies, non-governmental aid organizations, police and military units. Once the handover of responsibilities was completed, our predecessors left us to get on with the job. Fortunately, I was blessed with an able interpreter, an intelligent young man who had been working for Canadian technical advisers for some time.
Battambang Province is the rice bowl of Cambodia. To the east, the province is bounded by the Tonle Sap Lake, a rich fishing ground and source of the Tonle Sap River which, together with the Mekong River farther to the east, largely defines Cambodia's interior geography. To the west and southwest are the hilly forested Thai border regions, which remained under Khmer Rouge control until early 1999, and which support significant timber and gem mining industries.
When it came to road travel, we grew accustomed to taking two hours to cover 40 kilometres. One bad trip took three hours to cover 20 kilometres of road. Some craters were big enough to swallow a vehicle. My driver proved adept at making running repairs to our vehicle, and in using the front-mounted winch to haul us out of various spots.
The province's population faces a constant threat from mine and UXO contamination. Many areas have been mined repeatedly by one or both sides over a 20-year period, and no records have been kept. There are documented cases of soldiers becoming victims of mines that they placed years before. None of the troops was particularly fussy about where they placed their mines or about retrieving them, and the Khmer Rouge had an acknowledged policy of deliberately inflicting civilian casualties.
Indeed, villages have no escape from this lethal menace. The land on which they build their homes, the fields where they raise crops and graze their cattle, the forests where they gather firewood, the rivers and streams from which they fetch water, their schools, markets and temples--all harbour the potential of random death and injury. What's more, medical facilities are virtually nonexistent in the countryside where most of the casualties occur, and those who survive the long, gruelling journey to hospital often find little help. In 1998, mines and UXO inflicted 1,558 casualties in Cambodia. In 1999, the figure was 1,022. One quarter of these victims were children, most of them younger than 14. Overall, one in five casualties are fatal, and most of the remainder join Cambodia's vast population of amputees which is estimated at one in 236.
The CMAC deploys a number of different resources to deal with mines and UXO. Mine marking teams conduct the initial survey which involves gathering information from locals in order to identify mined or potentially mined areas. The same teams mark the mined areas prior to the clearance operation. De-mining platoons conduct large-scale clearance tasks, with up to six platoons working at a given site. Explosive ordnance disposal teams deal with UXO outside the mined areas, and mine awareness teams educate the population on the specific threat in their villages. Finally, community mine teams conduct small-scale, urgent clearance tasks in order to reduce short-term casualties until a larger operation can be mounted. The scope of the task is immense. Since 1993, CMAC has cleared some 70 square kilometres of contaminated land, but approximately 600 more remain.
Although the CMAC is not a military organization, its military members wear uniforms, conduct morning parades at which the national flag is raised, and generally operate in a quasi-military manner. The manager of De-mining Unit 2 controls his 700-member organization with the assistance of a platoon-sized headquarters staff divided into operations, logistics, administrative and medical sections. The core of the de-mining unit is the 16 de-mining platoons, organized and deployed in three de-mining sites under their site managers. In addition to their de-mining platoons, each site has a medic, a storeman, a radio operator and armed guards. In order to reduce travel time to their minefield, these people live in accommodations in villages throughout the province. The remaining elements of the de-mining unit are normally based in Battambang Town and controlled directly by headquarters.
As the senior technical adviser, my job was to act as a mentor to the de-mining manager, while the field technical adviser performed the same function with the operations officer and site managers. We spent much of our time advising these individuals, as well as other members of the de-mining unit, on issues ranging from basic leadership to preparation and planning, and specific technical concerns. The de-mining unit manager and I got along very well. He drew upon my Canadian training and experience, while I benefited from his experience of humanitarian de-mining and his knowledge of local conditions.
As technical advisers we were also expected to monitor the conduct of de-mining operations, in order to confirm that work was being carried out in accordance with standing operating procedures, and to identify and act on any concerns. This meant walking each minefield on a regular basis, speaking with site managers, platoon and section commanders and individual de-miners. Some of the observations made during these visits were addressed immediately with the commanders. Others required further follow-up at the de-mining unit headquarters or in Phnom Penh.
I normally inspected each of the three minefields at least once a week. Labrecque followed a similar schedule and this meant each field received two visits a week. Since it was impossible to read or sleep in transit, I placed a high priority on the serviceability of the cassette player. In the interests of international harmony, we took turns selecting the music so that the scenery unfolded to the sound of rock and roll or contemporary Cambodian pop songs. In an attempt to widen each other's horizons, we occasionally ventured into classical music, Thai rap or Chinese techno-pop.
Whatever the beat, the excursions took us deep into the countryside, over terrain ranging from rice paddies to jungle to lush green hillsides covered in mango trees. Wherever we went, there were always crude roadside stalls whose owners were anxious to feed the hungry traveller with fried bananas, corn, mangoes, sticky rice encased in bamboo shoots, sugar palm juice, fried beetles and spiders and--most importantly--cold cans of Coke. There are also many local restaurants that serve you a palatable plate of fried rice with beef and sliced chilies, so long as you don't make the mistake of looking into what passed for the kitchen.
The beauty of the countryside was in sharp contrast to the squalor of the rural villages. Most of the inhabitants lived in what we would consider abject poverty with per-capita incomes well below $20 US per month. Their homes were usually flimsy affairs with thatched roofs and sides, many of them destroyed and rebuilt several times as the tides of war passed through. The more affluent could afford lumber to build proper homes on stilts. Garbage was everywhere, particularly near the markets, but a few households invested considerable effort in planting flowers and keeping their property tidy.
Rainwater was collected in clay pots or carried from the nearest source, except for those fortunate enough to live near a well. Bathing is a public activity and the people use pots of rainwater or convenient ponds. Women wrap themselves in sarongs, men in the traditional red-and-white checkered scarf. The more fortunate rural districts possessed a single rudimentary medical clinic. All of the larger villages had schools, although they often consisted of little more than a thatched roof and a few battered benches. Some were even fortunate enough to have a teacher. Amazingly, no matter how remote the village, the children's school uniforms--white shirts, dark blue shorts or skirts--were always clean and pressed.
Because of the continual demand for land, many of the contaminated areas
populated as people were forced to accept the risk of mine and UXO casualties in order to eke out a living. We routinely cleared through villages, around homes, through fields of crops and along well-travelled paths. In those areas that were not yet settled, the population generally started building their homes on the heels of the de-miners, and if the pressure for land was sufficiently great, they would simply move ahead of the clearance operation.
Indeed, it was commonplace for families to live on the wrong side of the minefield markings, and for children to stroll past our de-miners, stepping nonchalantly past or over the skull-and-crossbones warning signs. Villages affected a casual attitude towards this background menace, but the true feelings were apparent when mines were found. On one occasion, a woman showed us where she had been standing earlier that day, her tracks only centimetres away from the mines we had uncovered, but not yet removed. Another family had built their home over a buried anti-tank mine and planted their banana trees in a cluster of anti-personnel mines. These people were fortunate. Many others were not.
Virtually all of the mines I encountered were Russian or Chinese--or Vietnamese copies of them. The Chinese Type 72 anti-personnel mine is very popular. Its 34 grams of explosive fit into a plastic case that is smaller than a hockey puck, and it produces a barely discernible metal signature. For an adult, stepping on a Type 72 means the loss of a foot. Children, of course, suffer more damage. The steel-cased Chinese Type 69 is about the size of a soup can. If you step on one of these or brush against the optional trip wire, the device jumps a metre or so straight up and detonates a 105-gram charge that sends a lethal spray of metal fragments out to a 50-metre radius.
The Russian PMN-2 packages a 115-gram charge in a case the size of a roll of duct tape. It generally mangles everything below the knee of an adult victim. On the positive side, the mine gives off a good strong signal when the mine detector sweeps over it. There are also odds and ends of UXO, mainly artillery and mortar shells, bombs, rockets and grenades.
Like all humanitarian de-mining organizations, CMAC's main method of
attack is manual
clearance. It is slow going, labour intensive and costly, but it is the only method that can be used against all types of mines in all types of terrain.
De-miners work in pairs with one using a mine detector to locate buried metallic objects and the other probing and digging to find the source of the signal. Modern anti-personnel mines contain very little metal, and mine detectors sensitive enough to locate them will inevitably locate all sorts of debris, particularly on old battlefields littered with spent casings and various fragments. Even soil with a sufficiently high natural metal content will trigger a signal. Vegetation imposes further delay because it has to be cut to ground level so that the mine detectors can search to their maximum depth. The climate also complicates matters. The soil gets baked during dry season and so it must be softened up with water before it can be probed. De-miners also have to contend with heat, humidity, red ants, snakes, mosquitoes, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery.
With all these constraints, progress is slow. A platoon working in reasonably open country--where vegetation is no higher than a de-miner's knees--can clear 400 square metres per day, far less if the ground contains a lot of metal fragments. A five or six-platoon site averages a hectare per week, an area equivalent to two football fields.
Unfortunately, much effort is expended clearing land that is not actually mined. While mined areas can be broadly identified from local knowledge and other sources, the boundaries of these areas must be quite generous in order to ensure all of the mines are inside the marked area. As a result, it is not unusual for a de-mining platoon to work for several days without finding a mine.
Cambodia was a fascinating place in which to work. It was an outstanding opportunity, but unfortunately we were to be the last Canadian military engineers to work with CMAC. In late 1999, the UN determined that the time had come to replace the military technical advisers with civilian ones as part of a process that would eventually see the withdrawal of all foreign staff from CMAC. In accordance with this plan, we were not replaced when we left in the summer of 2000.
The 11-year involvement of the Canadian Forces in Cambodia ended on Canada Day 2000 when the last member of the contingent left Phnom Penh. Before our departure we were honoured by an audience with the king who expressed his gratitude for our efforts on behalf of the people of Cambodia.
We took those words to apply not simply to the seven of us, but equally to the staff officers, transportation company and military observers of UNTAC days, to the officers and non-commissioned officers who had been instrumental in CMAC's creation, and to those who had guided the work of humanitarian de-mining. It would be incorrect to say we left with a sense of a job well done, for the job of rebuilding Cambodia is far from over. However, we can honestly say we helped. Warrant Officer Labrecque and myself can even put a number to it: 248 hectares of cleared land in Battambang Province, 1,048 mines that won't destroy any lives.