In June 2000, I was sent to Cambodia by Handicap International, one
of the founders of the 1992 International Campaign to Ban Landmines
(ICBL), to document the effects of landmines on the population. I
discovered a country in extreme poverty, ravaged by thirty years of
civil war as a result of the successive French and American
wars in Indo China and Viet Nam - and the vicious Pol Pot and Khmer
Rouge regimes. I traveled on almost nonexistent dirt roads accompanied
by an interpreter and driver provided by Handicap International. I
slept in grass huts, or in a room I would rent from a farmer who had
no income other than what I paid him for the night. Like everyone
else, I learned very quickly to stay on the well-worn paths.
When I visited
him with his wife and five children Sem sat casually on the sticks
that made up the floor of his grass hut, balanced on the two stumps
that had been his legs. He hauled out a battered, spineless dictionary,
the pages held in place by string, and explained that he was learning
English because he knew it was important today to be able to speak
and understand the language.
of my interpreters had only one leg, because he had blown up
on a mine when he was a child. He took me to a twelve year old
girl, another amputee, who was also missing some fingers. I
photographed Savy sitting on the rickety ladder that led up
to the door of her family's grass hut. She told me that she
had blown up on a mine just 5 meters from that doorway in 1998.
After the accident, Savy's father began to investigate. He took
a long stick and burrowed under the earth around the family's
house. He found 35 landmines. No one had imagined there were
mines there, because no one had blown up on one before. I learned
that this is often the only way people in areas affected by
mines become alert to their presence. I met Than Svay, a farmer
with four children, who lost his leg when he was a soldier.
He fashioned a makeshift limb from a tree branch and used it
for years before he learned of the existence of Handicap International
and the possibility of a true prosthesis, free of charge.
Srey Savuth drove me around on the back of his scooter to visit
mine victims living in a refugee camp near the Thai border.
Lena, a twenty year old amputee, crossed the border into Thailand
every day to sell trinkets to support her mother and sister;
Sem Sovantha lost both legs in a mine explosion near Phnom Penh
that killed four of his friends and wounded two others.
© Jane Evelyn Atwood
As we made our way through the refugee camp on my last day, we heard
chanting. Srey told me it meant that someone had died. When we approached
the sound, we could see an emaciated body laid out in front of the
lean-to that served as a house for a family with four children. Neighbors
and friends were building a coffin out of wood and covering the sides
with newspapers. Monks dressed in flowing orange gowns, their shaved
heads shining, sat around the body and ate a meal provided for them
by the women. Underneath the cot where the dead man lay was a prosthesis.
The man had died of AIDS but was a mine victim from years before.
His wife had already died and his mother, old and poor, had come from
Thailand for the funeral. She told me she was unable to care for her
son's four small children, now orphans. I took many pictures -- of
the children washing their father's body, of the monks praying and
burning incense, of the coffin being built, and finally, of the body
being picked up and lowered into the coffin. I watched as the man's
prosthesis was carefully placed on top of his skeletal form which
lay wrapped in a sheet at the bottom of the crude wooden box. Then
I followed the family members and monks who trailed after the coffin
in a procession out onto the dirt road that ran above the refugee
camp to the bare field where the cremation would take place.
The most recent
models are made out of plastic, on purpose, so that the metal detectors
used by deminers are unable to discover them. They are often brightly
colored and attract children who pick them up. They don't single out
specific victims, but mutilate indiscriminately. In 2002, more than
85% of all landmine victims were civilians, many of them children.
Landmines are conceived to mangle rather than kill. People who survive
mine accidents are amputees. Thus disabled, they cannot work and become
a burden for the society. The psychological effects of mine accidents
are as traumatic as the physical. People so severely handicapped often
find it hard to participate in the life of the society. They may be
ostracized because of their disabilities. Families are weakened, people
are marginalized, and the health-care system precarious if
not nonexistent in countries so poor is monopolized by mine
accidents to the detriment of other serious health problems such as
polio, malaria, AIDS, or tuberculosis. When so many people cannot
work, when the land cannot be farmed, the economy itself becomes disabled.
Everything needed to rebuild a country irrigation, infrastructure,
resettlement of refugees after war all becomes vastly more
complicated if the country is mined.
© Jane Evelyn Atwood
the next three years, in collaboration with Handicap International,
I traveled to four more of the countries most ravaged by the
presence of landmines. When I started working, I was ashamed
to find to what extent I was repelled by the amputations. Stump
-- even the word is repugnant. At first, I couldn't see past
those knobs of limb that ended so abruptly. I found myself avoiding
photographing the space that was left, a frightening space because
I'd always known it to be something, an arm or a leg, and suddenly
it was not.
In the past two decades more than 360 kinds of landmines have
been developed. Once on the ground, these weapons lie dormant
until they explode, either upon contact, or under the pressure
Cambodia, Mozambique, Kosovo, Angola, Afghanistan: my work took me
deep into some of the poorest regions of the world: countries ravaged
by decades of war and impoverished by ruthless dictators or corrupt
politicians; countries mined by outside powers, then mined again by
their own people during brutal, civil wars. These places have been
bled dry until all that is left are the people, extraordinary human
beings who, against all odds, have managed somehow to survive
without legs, without arms, blind, mangled, with or without a prostheses,
their children broken and mutilated forever.
From Sentinelles de lombre by Jane Evelyn Atwood
(Editions du Seuil Paris, 2004)