In 1985 I was a photographer living in Perth, Western Australia . There were jobs, cheap living, glorious summers, a Labour Government, few pressures - a million miles away from war.

I stumbled into the world of landmines quite by accident during a visit to see my mother, Margot who was working in the Site II refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border. My planned three week holiday turned into a 9 month stint of volunteer humanitarian work.  Since that time I've basically stayed working in various landmine awareness capacities, for several NGOs, Aid Agencies & UN Departments almost continuously since that first visit up until 2004.

There were 7 refugee camps spread all along the Thai/ Cambodian border that represented 3 of the 4 warring factions, ie. The K.P.L.N.F. (aligned to Son Sann), F.U.N.C.I.N.P.E.C. (Aligned to Prince Rannadrith Norodom) and the notorious Khmer Rouge (aligned to Pol Pot). More than 350,000 Cambodians were housed in these camps which were little better than prisons.

There were barbed wired fences and Thai guards who would not hesitate to shoot anyone caught outside. Free trade and money were banned as well as education above primary school and basically anything that would make life comfortable and attractive to others. Many of the refugees compared their lives to that of 'a frog trapped in a deep well with a coconut shell over its head.'

During the first initial nine months I was working with orphans and new arrivals to the camp, the threat of landmines was still a vague concept that never affected me directly. I was actually living and working in Thailand, which is a fairly modern and comfortable country and was enjoying a period of growth and prosperity. There were no landmines here, just paved roads, footpaths, playing fields and the occasional story of Thai villagers wandering into Cambodian minefields.

A few kilometres away, across the border in Cambodia it was a different story. Mines were being used as the weapon of choice with huge amounts being supplied by the super powers with their own agendas. Soldiers from both sides were laying mines like there was no tomorrow -certainly with no thought of any tomorrow. Covert operations were carried out, by the eastern and western authorities, including England, to train the Cambodian guerrillas in mine warfare. The jungle hideouts and surrounding terrain provided the perfect locations for this style of warfare.

Landmines* are insidious devices. Their main purpose is to inflict sever injury to the 'enemy', so as to hinder advance and undermine the morale. Only a few mines are designed to kill outright. For every combatant injured it usually takes out of action another one or two soldiers who carry the injuried to safety. Plus there are the psychological wounds experienced by the other soldiers as they witness their friends mangled and in writhing pain.

After the fighting has ceased or moved on, the landmines remain, sometimes in their thousands. Waiting for anyone to come along and stand in the wrong place - this could be a man, woman, child or animal. Through mainly economic reasons, many rural people are forced to live in or close to mined areas and in order to survive they are often forced to enter known dangerous areas. This may be to collect wood, thatch,  food, traditional forest medicines, water from the river or to herd the goats, buffaloes and other domestic animals.

* A 'landmine' means any munition placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area. It is designed to be detonated or exploded by the presence, proximity or contact with a person or vehicle.

       Other common situations that lead to mine injuries are :-
  • Following someone who thought the area was safe.
  • Took a risk in the belief that their karma would protect them.
  • Were influenced by peer groups to be show their 'bravery'.
  • Went off the safe path to go to the toilet.
  • Thought the wooden box protruding from the ground contained jewels.
  • Took a risk and practised unsafe behaviour.
  • Were completely ignorant of the dangers.
  • Or simply made a mistake and were unlucky.


There are more civilian casualities than soldiers. In Cambodia, there were more than 300 people being injured by landmines every month! (This has been reduced over the years to around 100 killed and maimed by landmines in 1999). Eventually the authorities were forced to concede that there was more than an 'acceptable injury rate' and in 1990 the United Nations Secretary General for the Coordination of Cambodian Humanitarian Assistance Program, in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), decided to start the first landmine awareness program in Asia.

Through my experience with photography, printing, design and video production I secured the position of Media Coordinator. My job entailed designing and producing all the educational materials (e.g. posters, booklets, silk screens, videos, school bags, etc.) for the formal training and to run an informal media campaign (i.e. mobile information offices, posters, T-shirts, audio tapes, dramas, competitions, etc.).

The Land Mine Awareness Programme's (LMAP) mandate was to provide the Cambodian (and some Vietnamese) Displaced Persons living in the Thai-Cambodian border area with sufficient sense of awareness, knowledge and skills to be able to recognise and avoid the dangers posed by Unexploded Ordnance (UXOs) and landmines.

Our task was to ensure that the Cambodian refugees were equipped with adequate knowledge of the dangers that could await them back in their country and techniques to protect themselves. As most of these people had been in the camp for over 10 years they had little experience of living with mines yet were about to return to one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. We had to attempt to get a balance between being aware of ways to avoid mines, but also being careful not to make them so afraid they wouldn't leave their huts.
Some of the materials and messages that we used to base our curriculum on came from the only other mine awareness programme operating at that time, Operation Salam in Afghanistan. These were used as references and as the baseline for data collection. But we had to be very careful not to present any inaccurate information and so a series of studies and questionnaires were carried out with the refugee camp occupants and visiting Cambodian soldiers.

We found there were many differing factors from the Afghanistan experience and conditions, such as terrain, mines types, warning signs, etc. These details all needed to be adapted. Certain teaching techniques were rejected as being too potentially dangerous, for example in Afghanistan they used wooden mine and UXO models for identification purposes. The Afghan teachers actually held the wooden mines in front of the class and used them to create simulated minefields. I decided that to be seen handling mines/ UXOs (even though they may only be models) would be seen as passing on the wrong ideas as one of our first messages was 'Do Not Touch Mines/UXOs' under any circumstances. Some children may see the teachers holding a mine and at a later time think 'If the teacher can touch one without it exploding, then I can as well.'

We hired hundreds of refugees to be our mine awareness teachers, including many landmine victims. Although because of strict camp restrictions imposed by the Thai authorities, the refugee staff could only be paid in rice rations (consisting of a few kilos of rice and some canned fish). This meagre payment provided no incentive for the refugees to spend a lot of time and effort on their job. Consequently the quality of the work was usually low, equipment was regularly stolen and demands for more supplies and resources constantly slowed down the work output.

To get the camp population to come to our classes, the refugee camp section leaders would organise the people under their supervision to attend mine awareness lessons. After the classes were over the Rice Ration Book (these were important documents that allowed the refugees to collect food and other basic supplies for their families) would be stamped to show they had attended (it was a veiled threat which was never planned to be followed up). To reinforce the messages we produced a series of videos (produced by Yannick Jorris) which were shown publicly. For several months our cars drove to different spots and played the landmine awareness videos. Later we also produced and showed human rights and UN information videos on repatriation just prior to their return in 1992. Parts of the LMAP video are still being used in Cambodia to teach mine awareness and are often broadcast on the national television network.

For the children we held classes in the schools using competitions, role plays and storytelling which were supported by posters, coloring-in books and games.


My first viewing of a mine is an experience I shall always remember. At that time it was illegal for any foreigner to enter Cambodia. As we were based in Thailand, which was not at war, there were no mines readily available for photographing and measuring. For the photographs needed for the education materials, we had to rely on viewing mines collected by the Thai Border Police which were found on the Thais side of the border.

The Thai soldiers brought out an old bucket crammed with all sorts of anti-personnel devices. It was a strange feeling to finally see these objects that we had talked about so much. For a second or two I forgot all the terror and sadness they cause and was eager to examine them closely. My colleague Anne Campbell, who had just spent 4 years teaching Afghan refugees, was quite nervous and kept reminding me of situations she knew of where experts had blown themselves up by playing with mines. 

There were old weathered wooden box mines, bakelite plastic types and the 'vintage' throwing grenade models. Then one soldier brought out their prized find, a strange looking unidentified object with tubes poking out and an elaborate triggering device on top. They all admitted that they had never seen such a landmine before and that it was a important find. I started to photograph it and as I carefully turned it around saw that it had some English writing on it. "Ahhh it must be a US mine!" I announced, feeling good that I was able to shed some light on the mystery. But as I read further I found it was actually a water filter pump used for purifying stagnant water. There were a few embarrassed laughs and it was quickly whisked away.

The soldiers were very relaxed around the live ammunition and wanted to show us how 'brave' they were and how much ordnance knowledge they possessed. One of them started to mindlessly pull, prod and turn anything that stuck out. Anne ran behind a flimsy metal filing cabinet as the young soldier started to unscrew the top of an anti-tank mine. If it had exploded it would have destroyed half of the building! 

In hindsight I realised that maybe I was a little too eager and trusting of the soldier's ability around the handling of these devices. It took a few more visits to hospitals and operating theatres before I got a more realistic view and  healthy dislike for any landmine or UXO or any weapon for that matter.

To facilitate the production of teaching materials I made many poignant photographic excursions to the camp hospitals and rehabilitation centres. The power of these experiences in dirt-floor, bamboo walled rehabilitation centres and cold concrete floored operating rooms, was at times overwhelming. Most of the victims were young men in their late teens or early twenties. Despite their suffering and traumatic amputations, many were still quick with a smile and a joke. This made the visits a mixture of pleasure and pain. Here in the hospitals, surrounded by their peers and fellow victims they all seemed to quickly come to terms with their loss. Although I knew it would be very different when they were returned to their home villages. There will be inadequate medical facilities and no free medicines, but more importantly there will be no moral support from any of their new friends.
One day I arrived to be confronted by two new victims who had just arrived from Cambodia. One of them was a woman who had recently had her right leg blown off, fortunately below the knee. We met in the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) inpatient section. She was frightened. It was all new to her. Sealed rooms with concrete floors, white-skinned people with dangling objects around their necks, plastic covered furniture - one and a half legs.

The other man was having an older wound checked. He seemed proud to have a foreign nurse show an interest in his recently sown stump which now looks like the fluttered edge of a pie crust.

A busy Doctor came in and thoughtlessly tugged on a piece of gauze that was deeply embedded in the scab. The man jumped.
 "Oops sorry" said the Doctor and patted it down again.
The man scoffed. Looked at his aching leg, glanced at a Cambodian medic for support and scoffed again. A wry grin appeared.

"How can he still find humour in the madness?" I constantly asked myself.

He was like a brave young boy with a grazed knee who didn't want to show his friends his pain. She was like a terrified little girl waiting her turn for an injection, twitching and wringing the sarong she clasped tightly in her hands.

After awhile I started to actually enjoy my visits to the hospitals because everyone there seemed to appreciate a foreigner taking more than a passing interest in their situation and welfare. It was hard at times to remain impartial and I had to 'turn-off' many times to be able to cope with the tragedies before me. They were so young and now their lives have been torn apart, more than they could possibly comprehend at that time.

I used to visit the hospital most days to try and be there to photograph a recent injury. I was given permission from ICRC Geneva to photograph in their hospital and the head nurse organised for me to be able to shoot in the operating theatre. One day I arrived and was quickly led into the theatre, very apprehensive about what to expect. A mask and hair-net were thrust into my hands as I was directed into the surgery.


A 17 year old boy had been wounded by a landmine. They already had his stomach laid out on the operating table, expertly searching for shrapnel pieces. This was my first operation other than the ones I had seen on TV. When I watched these they always left me with a cold feeling that started in my feet and travelled to the pit of my stomach. Now, here in front of me was this kid with his guts spilled out, and all I could feel was fascination as I watched in complete awe the skilled hands of the surgeon digging into the open cavity. 

They finally located a tiny piece of metal, smaller than a 5 cent piece. I glanced at the cut which started at the top of his chest and finished just above his navel, then to this tiny intruder and pondered the inhumanity of it. The docotr roughly threw the insides back in and instructed the medics to stitch him back together. "We will just close this up and do a routine check of his leg, then he will be okay." the Doctor informed me.

I was starting to feel that I must be fairly brave and that maybe I had chosen the wrong vocation, when they brought in the next victim. This guy was not as easy to handle. His wounds were older and had become infected. They had to cut off more of his stump and dress the wounds. I took a few images and decided that this time I couldn't stay for long. As I looked at that naked, drugged man with his arms and foot outstretched, he appeared as another crucified victim.

Several days later I returned to the hospital to follow up with the stories of both the victims. I found the man with his wife dutifully fanning his body - he slept, she was lost in her thoughts and hardly noticed my presence. The nurse then informed me that the 17 year old, Phon Phea, was in bed # 45.  As I approached bed #45 I was shocked to see that he only had one leg! A feeling of nausea hit me. When I had left him in the surgery there was no indication that an amputation would happen. He was after-all only hit by 2 small pieces of shrapnel. The second piece had severed a main leg artery. I wondered what he would think about seeing photographs of his insides and whether he would feel violated .......

I drove back to town and saw groups of Thai youth enjoying a football match - it didn't seem fair.

For the next 2 years I worked with LMAP visiting all the Cambodian refugee camps spread along the border, including the 3 Khmer Rouge camps. We carried out formal lectures, informal media presentations in the form of printed media, posters, audio plays, theatre productions, videos, T-shirts and other materials.

Regular monitoring and an extensive evaluation were carried out to assess the effectiveness and impact of the program. The results of these surveys showed that the refugees were receiving the messages and retaining most of the information. Although some areas such as minefield extraction techniques (prodding, retracing and first aid) needed more practical exercises and clearer details. NB. These are contraversial areas which caused much debate in the international Mine Risk Education sector.


Another day in the rehab centre I witnessed dazed men exercising their stumps. One guy laughs and asks me,
"Do you like my new leg?" as he swings the lower half of his hinged wooden prosthesis.

I forced an embarrassed laugh and replied in English, (which I knew he wouldn't understand), 
"Its fine!"  I couldn't say what I really thought. That he now looks odd with this ludicrous appendage.

One young man just sits staring out of his wheelchair. Reality has slapped him hard. He is now a double amputee. It's too sad to be sad anymore so I just smile. Some smile back. Some look at me but don't see me.

I stroll on and stop in front of a small group of guys huddled around a newcomer. With laughter and understanding they continue to advise their new friend how he can best use the two fingers that are left on his one hand. He flexes the scarred digits and studies what's left of his other arm stump, then practices picking up a piece of paper. Everyone laughs at his unsuccessful attempts, including the guy himself,– although his laughter is not as serious.

Back to Landmine Pages
Back to Cambodia Page