Unearthing bombs is old hat for Sok Chenda. For nearly 20 years, he’s been removing unexploded ordnance from his country’s fields and forests as an employee of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). But a May 2015 mission in search of an MK-82 warhead had the veteran, in his own words, “worried about everything.” It was the team’s first underwater operation, and the Mekong River didn’t make the job easy. “We couldn’t see anything. It was difficult to identify and to figure out when to pull it up,” Chenda, now 39, recalls.
Cambodia is littered with active weapons: During the Vietnam War, America dropped some 500,000 tons of explosives there. The Khmer Rouge’s reign and a subsequent civil war left the country among the most heavily mined in the world. Since 1979, around 64,000 people have been killed or wounded by the dangerous remnants of 20th-century conflicts.
The CMAC, formed in 1992, destroyed more than 2.3 million explosives in its first two decades of operation. This all happened on land, however. In 2013, the CMAC partnered with the U.S.-based demining charity Golden West Humanitarian Foundation to create an 11-person underwater unit. Chenda was tapped to lead it. After two years of training, his team ventured onto the Mekong—and despite Chenda’s anxiety, the mission was a success.
In August, after retrieving another MK-82 from a flooded quarry, Chenda spoke with Foreign Policy about what he uses to flush weapons from Cambodia’s waters.
Wetsuit boots — This is my standard-issue footwear. I also have a pair of boots from a military supply store in Hawaii. I stopped there on my way to a mission in the Marshall Islands. You can’t get sturdy ones like those here. They’re great in rainy season.
Mask — We normally use these to connect to a radio so that we can communicate during an operation. If the radio fails, we have a rope-signal system: A diver pulls a rope connected to team members at the surface to say, “Everything is OK” or, “Found it.”
Lifejacket — It’s a safety precaution. We keep the lifejackets around because sometimes when we go on an operation, we have journalists or others who come along and can’t swim very well. But for us, we don’t need them. You have to be a good swimmer to do this job!
Wet suit — Cambodia is hot and the water here definitely isn’t cold, but we need very thick wet suits to protect us from rocks and wood. We’re also wearing 40 kilos of gear when we’re preparing to dive; I have to pour water down my back to stay cool.
Medical kit — There are lots of dangers underwater, including cuts from sharp objects and air embolism. So far, there haven’t been any accidents, but if there are, we’re ready. We even did a practice medevac, dragging a nonresponsive diver out of the water.
Metal detector — I was a general surgeon, but it wasn’t until my father died in 2001 that I began performing abortions. Women who were his patients started coming to me for advice on reproductive health, and I decided to follow in his footsteps.
Casio G-Shock watch — This is built for diving. It can go in the water, and the pressure won’t affect it. Everyone on the team has one, but most only wear it on dives. I always keep it on; I have to check the time to make sure everyone is doing their jobs efficiently.
Lift bag — When we find a bomb, we assess its weight — heavier bombs require bigger bags. We’re not just matching weight, though. We’re also evaluating suction. For example, if a bomb is stuck in the mud, that will be incorporated into the calculation.
Commemorative coin — This is to mark that we’re all on the same team. It reads, “CMAC Salvage Dive Unit, 1st of its kind.” We have a game with it. If someone pulls his out and you don’t have yours, you have to buy beer for everyone. I always carry mine.
Grill — This is an M117 bomb defused several years ago. I thought the shape would make a good grill. I designed it and hired someone to make it. It’s been a big hit. After a successful operation, we usually have a little party at our headquarters and grill meat.
Waterproof sack — Everyone gets one to hold their things. I usually just have my wallet and phone, which I use to keep in touch with my two children. They live with my in-laws, because my wife and I both work as deminers and are traveling constantly.
Air tanks — These last various amounts of time, depending on the diver. Everyone breathes differently — some use a lot of air quickly, some spend very little. Divers keep close track of how much air they have left and make sure not to exceed their limit.