Saturday, November 15, 2003

Wrote an audio essay for the Today'll be broadcast on Saturday Morning.

Here's the Essay as an MP3 and, for those unable to download it, here's the transcript:

Almost every aspect of the journey was identical…the same model of four wheel drive… the same rutted mud roads….I was even sitting in the same seat in the vehicle – in the back, to the right of the driver.

Heading towards a minefield………again.

The crucial difference was that at least this time around I had a good idea of where the mines were.

The last time I made this kind of journey, I was heading towards an abandoned defensive position on the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi town of Kifri with the BBC’s Tehran correspondent Jim Muir and cameraman Kaveh Golestan. Saddam Hussein’s regime was in its death throes and, sensing defeat, the soldiers manning the position had deserted their posts a few days earlier. But although the troops had fled they’d left a deadly reminder of their presence behind – a dense ring of anti-personnel landmines.

As I stepped out of our vehicle, I detonated one of the mines with my right heel. Kaveh, instinctively thinking we were coming under mortar fire, tried to run for cover. Instead, he headed deeper into the minefield and was killed instantly by two mines laid a few centimetres apart.

Doctors in Iraq, Cyprus and Britain tried in vain to save my foot and lower leg – and I watched Saddam’s statue come down in Baghdad on television from a hospital bed, recovering from a below knee amputation.

This time around, the minefield was in the village of Auchamlong, a speck on the map in a remote part of northwestern Cambodia, a few miles from the border with Thailand. The area was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and government forces. The use of landmines was commonplace during the fighting over this strategically important spot between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s. Hundreds of people were killed by them over the years – their bones are still found regularly in the forests.

I travelled to Auchamlong with a 15 strong Cambodian demining team paid for by the mine clearance charity, MAG. I was asked to become a patron of the organisation after I lost my leg – and I found my involvement surprisingly therapeutic during six long months of rehab after my accident.

Even though the area where we parked had been cleared of mines a few weeks earlier, I felt an unsettling sense of deja vu as I stepped out of the vehicle.

The feeling of foreboding grew steadily as I was guided deeper into the minefield, dressed in a flak jacket and safety helmet. Moments before I arrived, one of the deminers had uncovered a type of mine known as a PMN, buried just below the soil. It was a PMN that caused the loss of my limb – and now I was standing no more than a metre from an unexploded one.

At the end of their shift, the demolition experts on the team placed 80 grammes of TNT next to the mine and – with the press of a button – blew it to pieces. For me, it was a deeply satisfying moment.

The inherent dangers of the job have forged a strong bond of friendship between the members of the demining team. That friendship’s particularly strong between the five deminers who are themselves victims of the very weapons they now spend their days clearing.

Their nerves are stronger than mine.

During a meal break, I sat down with them on a log under a bamboo tree. We pulled off our artificial legs as others might kick off their shoes in front of the television. Inevitably, we compared one another’s artificial legs. Theirs, they explained, are specially made by the Red Cross. All the metal components have been taken out so as not to interfere with their sensitive mine detecting equipment.

Weighing my modern carbon fibre prosthesis in his hands, one of the deminers asked me how much it would cost. Somewhat embarrassed I admitted it was worth about five thousand pounds – more than three years’ wages – even for a well-paid Cambodian deminer.

My new friend laughed uncontrollably.

If I had that much money, he said, I’d buy myself a big herd of cows. I certainly wouldn’t waste it on a new leg.

What to buy? An artificial limb or a herd of cows. It’s a tough call.


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