The border town of Poipet provides few opportunities for its inhabitants to make an honest living. Cambodia’s very own Thunderdome, this soulless outpost located in northwestern Banteay Meanchey province is renowned for its shady characters and lingering sense of menace.
“I knew the danger. But put yourself in our shoes. We have nothing here, nothing at all,” says Roeum Tha, a 53-year-old father of five who lives in the area.
The smorgasbord of illicit activities to which Tha might be referring is limitless. Prostitution, gambling, drugs and human trafficking are just some of the moonlighting opportunities available in these parts.
Yet Tha’s field of expertise was far more dangerous. For five years, he scraped together an income by working as a scrap metal prospector, which involves scouring fields for unexploded ordnance (UXOs) such as artillery shells and aircraft bombs, which are usually made from good quality steel and copper. The metal content of landmines is usually minimal – to make them harder to find using metal detectors – thus rendering them useless in this hazardous hunt for cash.
Once the UXO has been procured, the usual process involves cracking open the shell to access the explosives inside, which can be used or sold on for fishing or commercial mining. The shell can also be sold as scrap metal, with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) estimating that much of it ends up in Vietnam.
The lure of a slightly better life came at a high price for Tha, who lost both of his legs while scavenging in June 2010. “I have no job. I have no skill and no money. I had to go on the minefield. I knew the danger… This was survival,” he says.
Making ends meet was difficult for Tha and his family even before the accident. The role of primary provider is now a burden placed on his eldest daughter, who receives a minimal income as a construction labourer across the Thai border.
“When we speak to the people out there, they are aware of the danger and know people that have had accidents themselves,” says Clare O’Reilly, a programme officer at MAG. “We are trying to provide people with choices so they will not have to go to dangerous areas and turn to scrap metal collection, [but] these people have to find ways of feeding their families and financing their existence.
“So if the solution is to go on a minefield, then you will go on a minefield if it is your only option in order to have an existence. People are forced into taking certain actions as a result of that, [but they] take the risk themselves and are not pressured by anybody to do it.”
In return for taking these risks, scrap metal scavengers are rewarded with approximately $0.25 for a kilogram of steel, while copper fetches about $2 per kilogram. On average, a collector can hope to reap a profit of up to $3 a day.
In 2006, the Cambodian government passed a law banning the UXO scrap metal trade. It has proved largely ineffective.
“Once a mine or a cluster bomb is dismantled and put in pieces, how can the metal be traced back to it?” asks Sem Sovantha, director of the Angkor Association for the Disabled (AAD), which partners with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre on various projects. “Who will check around here?”
Despite the government ban that came into effect the same year, in 2006 Théng Kanha accompanied her father on a hunt for UXOs, which he used to make bells and collect explosive charges for dynamite fishing in their home province of Kampong Cham.
As her father dismantled a device, he accidentally set it off. He was killed instantly. Kanha, standing next to him, was mutilated and required a leg amputation. She was six years old.
Sok Chhum, Kanha’s 45-year old mother, says her husband knew the risk but would not listen, nor take any precautions. “I told my husband countless times not to go, but to no avail. His friends were luckier,” she says. “In 2013, they’re still alive. And still picking up all that stuff.”
An amputee himself, Sovantha knows some of these foragers personally through his work with the AAD.
“Collecting scrap metal and risking everything you have is a perfect illustration of having nothing to lose. Let me give you a similar example. See those girls over there? They’re from around here,” he says, pointing out a group of three teenagers in Poipet. “They’re young, probably 14 or 15 years old, and are going towards a dead end. No education, no exit. From there, it is either begging or the sex trade.”
It is a shockingly blunt appraisal. Surely the options available to these young women do not end there?
“Options?” he sighs. “Around here, there are no options.”