A child survivor of an anti-tank mine explosion restarts school

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Seangchin and Seiha with their mother at her work place in Pailin © UNICEF Cambodia/Chhaya Plong/2015

By Plong Chhaya

On 2 July 2014, Seangchin, 17, and Seiha, 12, set out on a journey with their father that changed their lives forever.

Seangchin and Seiha’s family is originally from the south eastern province of Svay Rieng on the border with Vietnam. They moved almost 500 kilometres to the predominantly farming and lumbering village of Koy Mountain in Pailin province, to work as seasonal labourers. Pailin is a province infested with countless landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) left over from decades of civil war between 1979 and 1992.

Landmines and ERWs are primary significant causes of deaths in Cambodia. An estimated 64,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines between 1979 and 2015 causing countless families to live everyday with the fear of being fatally hurt by a landmine. In spite of the successful progress of programmes aimed at creating awareness of the dangers of landmines and ERWs, the rate of casualties in Cambodia is still considered one of the highest in the world.

Seangchin and Seiha’s father used to drive a tractor, earning about five dollars per day. On the ill-fated day, after their school break, the boys set off with their father to work as labourers harvesting corn and rice. After the day’s work, the brothers sat on the roof of the tractor as their father drove them back home.

‘‘When the tractor got half way to our home it ran over an anti-tank mine, causing a huge explosion and injuring all of us. Our father was unconscious and seriously injured, as his head had hit the roof of the tractor. We also lost consciousness,” Seangchin says.

When the villagers heard the blast they came to the accident site and immediately transported the father and the two boys to Pailin Referral Hospital on motorbikes.

“After three hours in the hospital we regained consciousness and realized that we both had only some injuries as we had been sitting on the roof of the tractor,” Seiha explains. “Our bodies had flown 20 metres into the air before hitting the ground. However, our father, who was unconscious, never returned home. That was the moment we lost him forever. He used to take us everywhere with him and bring back whatever food he had so that we could all share. He loved us so much and we loved him too.

After the accident, the boys received food and financial emergency assistance from Pailin Red Cross and UNICEF’s partner organization, local NGO, Operations Enfants du Cambodge (OEC), to improve their family’s living conditions. But the impact from the explosion runs deep. Seiha still has a piece of metal in his left cheek that needs to be removed, and Seangchin has scars on his face, arms and legs. Seangchin also feels pain in his chest when coughing and sometimes he even coughs up blood.

The accident also affected the boys’ schooling. Seangchin used to study in Grade 8 but he dropped out of school after the accident. He explained that he abandoned his education as he found it difficult to listen, as well as needing to share the family burden and help his mother earn a living.

Unlike any other weapons of war, landmines and unexploded ordnance continue to harm communities long after the conflict has ended. Landmines not only turn the lives of families up-side down, they also represent an impediment for the progress of communities and the country as a whole.

Fortunately, Seiha was reintegrated back into school with the help of OEC staff. He joined Grade 4 in Koy Primary School and is doing very well. In the previous quarterly exam he was ranked 12th among 45 students in his class. Seiha says that he now has many friends both at school and outside school.

Seangchin wants to become a good farmer in the future while Seiha hopes to become a teacher. However, both their futures remain uncertain due to their deteriorating health, as they have difficulty breathing, especially when they sleep at night.

The boys’ mother now works as a cook to support her family.

‘‘Every day I make about five dollars working as a cook for a small company. I would not have been able to cope with my family’s needs and buy school materials with this income,” she says. “OEC has helped us in many ways.”

OEC not only provided food and school materials such as school bags, books, pens and a bicycle, but they also provided vocational skills training and a grant to set up a home vegetable garden, raise chickens and grow mushrooms.

“Because of this my living conditions are getting better and one of my sons is able to continue his schooling,” the boys’ mother explains.

UNICEF is working proactively in partnership with organizations such as OEC to raise awareness of the dangers of landmines and ERWs and to strengthen prevention of accidents and protection of vulnerable children, including those who have been affected.

In 2015 the number of casualties decreased to 111 compared to 154 in 2014. Additionally, self- help initiatives and vocational training are helping those affected reintegrate into their communities.