STAFF STORY- SOPHEA MAO
An APOPO female deminer is proud to be helping return safe land to her community.
“I have worked with APOPO for two and a half years now. Before this I was a deminer with The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). It is very tough work. I slowly and carefully checked the minefields with a metal detector but with all the heavy gear and the helmet, it gets very hot. Plus you are concentrating very hard because you are standing in the middle of a minefield! Deminers work for twenty minutes before having a break to cool down and rest our minds. And then we go back out again. Normally we work from six in the morning to four in the afternoon.
Before I came to APOPO I didn’t like rats. But I wanted to work with them because I had heard so many good things and I wanted to try something different. The first time I saw the HeroRATs though I was terrified!! They were so big!
But actually they are very nice and docile little animals. They have been through nine months of training in Tanzania and they are very used to people. They sniff you all over, looking for a snack! I have grown to really love them because they are so clever. Seeing them finding the landmines so quickly is a pleasure. We work on zones the size of a tennis court, and they take about 30 minutes to check it. This could take me up to four days with a metal detector because of all the false alarms from scrap metal, which of course we have to check in case they are actually landmines.
To find landmines, APOPO uses an ‘integrated approach’. First of all we use machines to prepare the land, get rid of scrub and brambles, and sometimes turn over the earth that can be very compacted, making it impossible to extract the landmines. Then a deminer creates ‘safe paths’ around the rectangular zones so the rat handlers can walk around safely. A guideline is strung across the zone and the rat is attached by a harness, and off they go. When a rat thinks it has found a landmine, it scratches on the ground and we mark that spot at the edge of the zone. Then a deminer comes to verify the spot, checking for landmines on his way there. If it is a landmine, he carefully excavates it and it is either destroyed where it is, or taken away if it is stable.
The integrated approach makes mine action very fast because CMAC and APOPO can decide which combination of machines, men and rats to use for each task.
Mine Action is a mainly male profession. There are lots of ex-soldiers and military personnel. But my colleagues are my friends and really take care of me. I can do the job as well as anyone and they see that and are very supportive.
Of the HeroRATs, Mary is my favorite rat because she is the fastest, but she is always very polite and patient. She never squirms or runs off when we are getting her harness on, and on the zone she gets her head down and does the job, just like me!
I am very glad to do this job because landmines have affected my own community. For many years until they were cleared, we were stopped in our tracks. It was dangerous to farm, or to build and grow the town, or even to travel on the paths to water and schools. Everywhere you look in Cambodia you see people with landmine injuries. This is our life and there are still so many landmines left. I wanted to help so I joined a demining team and now it is my biggest pleasure to see communities finally getting back their land and back on their feet, and to know that one day, Cambodia will be free from landmines for our children.”