- On 30/01/2013
By Denise Hruby - The Cambodia Daily
In pitch-black waters, with only their hands to guide them, Cambodia’s first batch of salvage divers will soon start to recover the thousands of tons of unexploded artillery shells and bullets that lie at the bottom of the country’s lakes and rivers.
But before they begin their perilous underwater operations, the 40 staff members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) will first learn to swim.
“We will start with 40 people, and most have never put their face under the water,” said Allen Tan, general manager for the Golden West Humanitarian Organization, an American non-profit entity that specializes in mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance.
“Recreational swimming is not really big here,” he said.
The first steps toward becoming professional ordnance salvage divers will take place in a 1.2-meter-deep swimming pool in Phnom Penh, Mr. Tan said.
“We will have a licensed Australian swimming instructor who will teach them how to swim in the first two weeks,” Mr. Tan said of the intensive program, which is scheduled to start next week and last for a month.
At the end of the two-week period, the 20 divers who show the most promise will learn how to scuba dive off the coast of Sihanoukville.
Eventually, Golden West hopes to select four fully trained salvage divers whose job it will be to recover U.S. ordnance that was lost while trying to supply the Lon Nol military government in Phnom Penh.
Tens of thousands of tons of munitions were sunk with the boats and barges ambushed by Khmer Rouge forces on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap River and lake during the civil war from 1970 to 1975.
According to Heng Ratana, CMAC’s general director, the stockpiles of ammunition, shells and other unexploded ordnance in Cambodia’s waterways continue to pose a major threat to civilians diving in shallow waters.
“If people find the [boats], they will try to collect the UXOs for the metal” in order to sell them, he said.