Cambodia’s debut squad of elite divers safely plucked their first lethal explosive from Cambodian waters. Editor Marissa Carruthers was on hand to watch. Photography by Charles Fox.

UXO-underwater-clearance-sYor Duob was gripped with fear when his hand touched the cold metal of the 500lb bomb that was almost completely submerged in the sludgy bed of the Mekong River. The fisherman had dove into the murky waters to free his net after it became snagged last month only to discover he had landed himself an explosive catch in the form of a bomb.

“I tried to untangle my net and when I touched it, I knew it was a bomb. I was scared,” says Yor, who has been fishing on the stretch of river skirting his small village in Kandal province’s Lvea Em district for more than two decades. Yor’s fears were founded. For the last 40 years, an American MK82 bomb has been sitting seven-metres deep in the waters where he and his friends fish daily.

The two-metre long deadly device is just a fraction of the estimated 2,000 tonnes of munitions that still litter the country’s waterways – a leftover from the 2.7 million bombs the US dropped on Cambodia during the civil war. Up until recently, Cambodians stumbling across underwater explosives have had nowhere to go, with the elite skills necessary to safely extract them non-existent.

However, two years ago, the Cambodian Mining Action Centre (CMAC), which works tirelessly to rid the Kingdom of the three to five million remaining landmines, and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a US government-funded demining charity, recruited a team of Cambodians to carry out the mission of clearing the country’s waters of unexploded ordinance (UXOs).

Since then the team has been whittled down from about 40 to nine through gruelling, military-style training, led by Golden West experts. This has equipped them with skills to swim and scuba dive in the harsh conditions that are common in the Mekong, such as zero visibility and strong currents carrying debris, as well as to locate, safely extract and make safe lethal underwater ordinance.

On May 21, their intense training was put to the test when the unit set off on its first operation to safely extract the explosive Yor found and secure it onland. “This is a first in the world for humanitarian UXO underwater clearance,” says Allen Dodgson Tan, Golden West Cambodia county director, adding that other countries have military divers. “I have the utmost respect for these guys.”

Kitted out in diving gear, Lorn Sarat plunges into the water and sinks to the bottom, his every move captured on a GoPro camera. He carefully scrapes away the mud the bomb is embedded in to prepare it for lifting. About 15 minutes later, he rises to the surface and boards the slender wooden boat that has transported them to the site, which sits a few metres offshore.

Minutes later, Sok Chenda plunges into the water and attaches ropes to lift the bomb when a balloon-type device inflates, raising it to the surface. It’s hard to believe two years ago the humble dive team leader, who previously worked as a CMAC deminer, could barely swim. “Before I could hardly swim; just a little bit, not at all really,” he says with a smile. “It has been very difficult learning [to dive]. I am very happy that this is the first time we have picked up a bomb from the river. I feel good.”

The team, supervised by Mike Nisi, Golden West dive technical advisor and chief of underwater operations, then carefully towed the bomb to a safe area onshore, where the condition of the fuses were inspected.

It took just a few minutes for the team to deem the M82 live, with an estimated blast radius of up to 250 metres, according to Dodgson Tan. The next step was to transport it to a secluded and open field about a kilometre away, where the nose and tail fuses were cut using high-tech machinery to saw them remotely from a safe distance.

After about 20 minutes to complete each fuse, the bomb was deemed safe – mission complete. “There were some challenges, such as current and other boat traffic, which we can’t anticipate,” says Nisi. “But it was a success, and everyone did a really good job.”

Again paving the way globally, once secure, the bulky cylindrical middle section that is packed full of explosives is taken back to CMAC’s Kampong Chhnang centre. Here, it is recycled along with other recovered landmines and UXOs, and transformed back into explosives. These are then used by deminers to carry out controlled explosions of located landmines.

Despite the day’s success, the team’s work has only just begun, with recent reports being received of another potential underwater ordinance found by fishermen in Kampong Chhnang province. And Yor, who drove the team’s boat to locate the bomb during the operation, is confident there are more lurking beneath the Mekong. “Me and the other fishermen worry we may find more,” he says. “But now we know we can report them.”