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Flip-Flops: Blown Away in Cambodia
Exploring the effects of unexploded landmines in Cambodia

By Chris Parkhurst

It’s approximately 1:40 a.m. and the loudest sound I’ve ever heard wrenches me out of a deep sleep. It’s a sound that sends shivers throughout your body. First, I imagine what caused it, and then an eerie thought, what resulted from it? Fear chains me to my mattress.

It’s the sound of an exploding bomb, and I know I won’t be going back to sleep anytime soon.

At approximately 6:15 a.m., I awake to a very sore stomach, slight headache and a case of the Cambodian craps. Goddamn it! Not again, it’s fucking Larium. This anti-malarial drug, known for side-effects such as nausea, skin rashes, itchiness, hallucinations and even death by psychosis, I now believed it’s at the heart of me being sick four times in the last two months. This is approximately twice as much as I’ve been sick in the past year.

I’m in Phnom Penh Cambodia doing sound for Skye Fitzgerald, director and producer for Bomb Hunters (www.bombhunters.com). We’re documenting the effects that unexploded bombs and landmines have on a significant segment of the poor population.

We’re making our way out to Kampong Speu, which is about 30 km from Phnom Penh to interview villagers who have been involved with accidents resulting from bomb tampering. I use the term ‘tampering’ rather loosely. In order to make a living these destitute and desperate folks harvest UXOs (unexploded ordnance) and landmines (god bless those lovely Khmer Rouge!). Villagers disassemble – often live - bombs with a saw or torch and sell them to the local metal recycling scrap shack.

Kampong Speau is a place that has many unexploded bombs and other such ordnance throughout the town and countryside left by Nixon and Kissinger’s indiscriminate and illegal war.

You know the war that supposedly only took place in Vietnam? In actuality a war was also waged in the neutral, once quiet, country of Cambodia. But that’s a political discussion better served for another time.

Our taxi driver, as our guide, leads us to his hometown where he had witnessed an accident. He tells us the story of an older woman trying to take apart a smallish mortar. He describes her in the middle of a beautiful, roving rice field under a lone mango tree. We interview him under that mango tree, and he tells us his story at great length and what transpired there eight years ago. He describes how a few minutes before the accident he pleaded with her not to play with the bomb.

But she assured him that she’d done it many times and to kindly mind his own business. By the time he reached his sister’s house just a few hundred yards away, he heard the explosion.

The woman’s intestines and other body parts laced the branches of the mango tree moments after she was torn apart by her inability to correctly separate the detonator from the rest of the mortar.

We start toward our next destination, a place where we’ve read a recent accident occurred. We don’t get very far when our taxi driver informs us about another, more recent accident. This accident involved a number of teenagers, and it happened only two weeks ago. It’s an opportunity to good to pass up, so we nix our original plan and follow the details of this latest event.

This accident is surprising to us because we’ve heard nothing about it. For two months, we’ve been all over Cambodia filming and interviewing everything our camera can capture about the Cambodian people, UXOs and landmines. We’re pretty in tune with the newspapers and mine action community/agencies, but no one has mentioned anything about an incident involving teenagers and bombs in Kampong Speu.

We’ve interviewed all of the de-mining groups. We’ve filmed metal recycling shops where people are selling bits and pieces from bombs and mines that they’ve taken apart. We’ve boated out to a remote town where the government and mine agencies have set fire to a stockpile of more than 3,000 guns and ordnance.

We’ve interviewed scores of legless, armless, or eyeless landmine victims who have been forced into a life of begging on the streets for a living. We’ve even gone out on an eight-day excursion with a group of villagers who took apart a bomb dropped from a B-52. But until this day we’ve never been so close to death and the true effects of what bombs and landmines have done to this country.

What I see and smell this day I can never forget.

We arrive 500 meters behind a local automotive shop, and we’re quite shocked to see everything is still as if an accident just happened a day or so ago. Shirts, shorts, a hat, pieces of two motorbikes, remnants of their metal detectors and fragments from the mortar itself are all strewn about in a 100 feet radius.

As if these things aren’t haunting enough, a pair of flip-flops, one sitting diagonally across the other, rests near the hole where the mortar had been. They’re yellow and dirt stained, and smaller in size.

I’ll most likely always carry this image with me. They look so lonely.

Even now, my heart Cries out. It’s difficult to explain what it was like seeing those flip-flops. It was a very strange feeling, almost alien, seeing them unaccompanied by the little feet that should have been walking in them.

The villager who we’re interviewing and who has taken us to the site does not go near the items. He’s extremely afraid of them. When we ask why the flip-flops haven’t been cleaned up, he can only mumble something about disturbing the spirits.

Then the smell hits us.

I’ve often heard about the unmistakable smell of a dead body in documentaries or those late-night, cable crime-scene shows, but I’ve been lucky in my life never to have witnessed such a thing first-hand.

I now understand the necessity for smelling salts and masks at scenes of gruesome crimes. It’s an invasive pervasive smell. It’s unlike anything I’d ever smelled before.

The road kill-ish smell coupled with my lovely Larium side effects (anti-malarial medication) forces me to lay down the boom-mic, and hunch over at the waist. How I don’t vomit baffles me. The idea of puking on the ground where such a terrible, devastating accident has killed people somehow stops me. Sacrilege is the only way I can explain it.

Then we see two large white, burlap sacks used for carrying rice tucked into the bushes, about fifty feet away from the site.

I think, “This can’t be happening”, as we slowly walk over to investigate. The closer we get, the more it becomes apparent that the awful smell is coming from the rice sacks.

For the first time in two months I question what we’re doing. Even as journalists or documentary filmmakers or whatever, I’m not sure we need to see this. I feel awful and I’m ready to hurl, and I don’t want to do it here. I head back toward the car.

Truth be told, I never made it all the way over to the burlap sack. Sky and Monie, our translator, investigated it. For fear of sounding like a total chicken-shit, I can honestly say that my sickness forced me back to the car.

Ten minutes later they return to the car. Skye describes the sight of a decomposing dog’s leg and its bloated testicles. Much to my relief it’s the carcasses of a couple of dogs instead of another Cambodian.

I’m happy that I don’t have that image to re-live. I’m also happy that I don’t have the image of the body that once filled the pair of flip-flops.

Later, before succumbing to a full-on fever (fucking Larium), I ask Sky if he’d been awakened to a loud sound around 1:45 a.m. the night before. He says he hadn’t heard anything. I’m left wondering two things:

I wonder whether I imagined a bomb exploding or had a premonition, if you will, of what I would see later on this day. I also wonder if I had experienced some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome, not unlike what veterans of war have been known to experience, simply by being around so many bombs, landmines and victims.

Either way, I no longer wonder what a bomb or landmine looks like when it explodes. It looks like a pair of flip-flops. One crossed over the other.

Filmmakers, Chris Parkhurst and Skye Fitzgerald spent six months in Cambodia, documenting the effects of unexploded bombs and landmines. Parkhurst and Fitzgerald found that there was a significant segment of the poor population harvesting bombs and taking them apart – often still live – to sell as scrap metal. Visit the official film documentary web site for ‘Bombhunters’ at www.bombhunters.com.

 

 

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