This is how you clear a minefield.

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I spent the week before I visited Cambodia Mine Action Centre’s Demining Unit 6 operations site at Boeng Melea worrying about my blood type. I don’t know my blood type. And everyone seemed to think this was an essential piece of information for visiting a minefield. What I should have done was visit the children’s hospital in Siem Reap, donate some blood, and find out my blood type there (and get a free coca cola!), but I ran out of time.

Which is how I found myself standing in a cool grove of trees beside one of the unexcavated corners of the ancient Boeng Melea temple listening very carefully as the deminers explained the array of signage in front of me, hoping that I would not find myself in a situation where knowledge of my blood type was necessary. A white stake means the area is safe. A yellow stake marks a landmine or other ERW to be neutralized, with a label describing it. A red stake means an uncleared area: a danger zone. Don’t walk past the red stakes. No problem.

It’s easy to forget living in Siem Reap that explosive remnants of war are a very real threat. I go on Saturday morning bike rides with a group of expats most weekends, and part of me always has an eye on the undergrowth, to make sure that we’re not heading down an unused, and possibly dangerous path. I think I drive my friends crazy, with a constant refrain of don’t step off the path.

But when I was doing research for our handbook on disability services, part of my examination included scrolling through the endless spreadsheet put out by CMVIS (Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System) that documents every ERW/UXO accident in the country: who the victim was – what they were doing – where they were from – how old they were. Just hundreds and hundreds of names of people – of civilians – who were just going about their lives until one day the unthinkable happened. When you see a list like that – and you work with people every day who have lost a part of their lives to a mine or other ERW – you can’t help but think about the threat that’s around you all the time.

Of course, I’ve never gone actively seeking out this threat. Until I found myself in DU6’s minefield.

Under the quiet canopy, and satisfied I was following the explanation on the meaning of the various stakes, we walked across to the cache of discovered and neutralized ERW. For the month before the election in Cambodia, the government strictly forbade any explosions – this actually included fireworks (and made for a frustrating Canada Day/4th July) as well as any ERW found by demining operators throughout the country – so any ERW found in the weeks before were carefully placed in a pit between the tent housing what I’ll call the command centre, and the path to the minefield. I peered into the shallow hollows and looked at the various explosives nestled inside. This one was a typical plastic mine, this other one a Chinese tripwire. Pieces of other UXO, mostly unexploded artillery were stacked neatly in a separate hollow. As I leaned over to look in the small plastic container that held the fuses separate from the explosives, CMAC explained how they could still blow off your fingers even separated from the mines if they were jostled around too much. I casually took a small step back.

After I’d been instructed on the various types of mines, most of which I am familiar with, but, when quizzed, I couldn’t entirely name (“You work in mine action!” I was admonished, though was vaguely redeemed when I could explain detonation), we walked down the small forest path to the minefield itself.

Minefields to be cleared are chosen based on a direct request from a village that believes it is in danger – either because mines or other ERW have emerged from the earth as seasons change in the paddy fields, or because there is an accident. Villages can then prioritize their community based on these factors, and these inform all of the demining operators conducting clearance across the country. This particular minefield was different because it is on ground that the local authority hopes to incorporate back into the nearby temple (a tourist attraction), and so, clearance here has become a priority too.

It is very quiet in a minefield. The only noises in the one we were visiting – which was about 12 hectares long – was of the grass cutter, clearing away the undergrowth, and a vague background buzz of insects and birds. Deminers work in teams of two with most organizations (including both CMAC and HALO Trust), spread out along the length of the field. Their first job is to measure the length of the area they are demining. These are usually about one meter wide and 15-20 meters long. They mark it with the red stakes, between which twine is stretched to mark the edge of the danger zone. While they clear the brush, they stand on the safe side – that’s why it’s only about a meter wide, it needs to accommodate the reach of the deminer.

We stopped at the first strip being cordoned off. Once the area was sufficiently clear of foliage, the deminer tested his equipment. A small square surrounded by white stakes marked the testing ground, and he ran his metal detector over the area once, satisfied when it stayed silent, then inserted a small piece of metal in the empty ground and ran his detector over it again. This time the detector made a wailing sound: indicating the equipment was in order. He walked over to the first square meter of cleared ground and ran the detector over it. Almost immediately, it wailed. Something was in the ground. First, he used a heavily magnetized trowel and ran it over the same area. Within a moment, something was stuck to the bottom of the trowel: an old bullet casing from a machine gun. Harmless. He ran his detector over the area again. It wailed again. This time, the trowel doesn’t pick up anything, which meant the item below the surface might be a landmine. He used a triangular ceramic tile to mark the spot the detector indicated. Then, on hands and knees, and protected by a chest cover, face cover, and helmet, he quickly dug through the soft dirt beside the tile, straight down. If it was a landmine, this was the safest approach, as they are detonated by weight on top of them, and can instead be approached from the side.

But within a moment, he could see it was safe: again, not a landmine, but a huge old chunk of shrapnel.

Deminers on average find about 500 pieces of shrapnel, bullet casings or other scrap metal for every landmine they find. This makes the process of demining incredibly tedious. Though humanitarian deminers can have any background, this particular demining unit finds merit in training people with military backgrounds: simply because they have the discipline required to spend full days in the heat, the damp, covered in insects, to do their job right and act as though every piece of metal they find could be a landmine. It takes incredible focus and patience. It’s uncomfortable as hell. And any minute, if you make a single mistake, you could lose your life, or be grievously injured. Every platoon of deminers has at least one medic on the team, in addition to the team leader, who also has to have medical skills. These two can never work on a team or in the same area, in case an accident causes the platoon to lose one

I learned all of this within moments of walking into the minefield, and dotted along the edge of the forest I could see more teams working carefully to clear the area, cordon off strips with variously coloured stakes, and focus on testing and scanning with their detectors. As we walked along over the rough ground – the area we were walking in had been cleared in the weeks prior – CMAC pointed out various yellow stakes sticking out of the ground. That one marked an old Chinese tripwire. This one beside the tree is a piece of UXO. They still had to be neutralized and pulled out of the ground. All of the area I was walking in was only safe because the guys I was with had spent months making it so. This minefield was 12 hectares, and would be completed in a few weeks. Then, people will finally be able to walk safely through it again.

As we neared the end of the cordoned area, a deminer waved us over to the long grass where he was working. He had just detected something. We watched as he dug beside the marked spot with his trowel, and then carefully cleared the earth on the side of the small pit he had dug to approach the tile-covered area from the side. Within moments we could see that it was, in fact, an anti-personnel landmine. It was time to back up. We took a few steps away from him (you can stay oddly close, the blast range isn’t more than a few meters for these small mines) and watched him move the mine from the side. It was about 5 inches across, dark green, with the familiar black pressure pad breaking through the top of the ground that would cause it to explode if anyone weighing more than about 40 or 50kg stepped on it. There are two fuses on it, one on the side, and one in the bottom. Both had to be pulled out before the mine could be considered neutralized, and safe to touch. The deminer worked quickly, it was only a minute or two before he stood up and walked over to us, the mine in one hand, and the fuses and springs in the other. There it was. Safely out of the ground. Later, he would transport all of the pieces carefully back to the entrance of the minefield to be deposited into the pit for destruction after the election. Normally any ERW found are destroyed immediately, to save from creating potential stockpiles. But in election season, the rules change.

There was something quite thrilling to watch this patient, careful man pull an explosive out of the ground and take it apart to make it safe, to have the power to destroy it safely. I have only admiration for these guys, who know exactly the dangers they face in their job every day.

In addition to the civilian casualties Cambodia has every year, at least two deminers have died in accidents in 2013. One made a mistake in training and was killed. Another was transporting ERW for destruction in a vehicle and something went wrong, causing an explosion. And these guys are the very best at their jobs. It makes you realize how small of a chance civilians have when they encounter landmines.

In the CMVIS spreadsheet I mentioned above, there is one line that describes the activity the victim was doing at the time of the accident. Too often, it says something along the lines of “transporting to village chief” or “trying to destroy.” Villagers live with the threat of AP mines (and other UXO and ERW) on a daily basis, leading some to believe that, if they come across something, the only option is to move it or destroy it immediately, not waiting to call HALO or CMAC or MAG. The reach of landmines laid 20 or 30 years ago is devastating, and in Cambodia, we see the consequences of them every day.

Last week was the anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I meant to write this before, but I ran out of time. I’m writing it now because I still think that understanding how mines work and how we get rid of them is important – and I think it’s so easy in places like Siem Reap to forget about them. We shouldn’t. We can’t. Cambodia has until 2019 to fulfill its Article 5 obligations of the Mine Ban Treaty regarding clearance of all contaminated land. Funding is decreasing, and there is a worrying rumour (that is actually not election related) that the United States is cutting all of its mine action funding to Cambodia. Don’t let that happen, because those guys on their hands and knees on the edge of a minefield are putting their lives in danger every day for the men and women and children and tourists who they will never meet. They think it’s important. I think it’s important. And so should you.

UXO storage area before detonation

UXO storage area before detonation

Using the detector to scan for metal

Using the detector to scan for metal

Found: one AP mine

Found: one AP mine

Showing the neutralized mine with detached fuses.

Showing the neutralized mine with detached fuses.

Demining kit.

Demining kit.

**Disclaimer: this post isn’t meant to be, you know, a guide to mine clearance. It only is a reflection of what I witnessed at this specific site.

Field Visit to Dang District

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Sweating, muddy, but in awe of my surroundings, I dunk my foot in a rice paddy with the vain hope the water will be cool. It’s not, with the sun beating down at 38 C, but at least the top layer of mud comes lose from my skin. We have traveled here by jeep, then by wooden boat to cross the river, and are now making our way shoes-in-hand through the muddy maze of rice fields that separate us from Rajpur village. The lush green and serenity of this place are a welcome break from the polluted concrete of Kathmandu. Savoring a rare breath of fresh air, I trudge on.

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#WhereInTheWorldAmI?

A recent development grad, this is the first time I have ever been this remote, this far removed from urban life, this lost in my surroundings. Rice paddies stretch in every direction, stopped only by the mountains that engulf the valley, glowing with an impossible blue that deepens with each range. We have been trekking with mud in our toes for well over an hour, slowly picking our way past women planting rice seedlings and men guiding herds of cattle through the muck. As we walk, my colleague teaches me the Nepali words for buffalo – rango for males and bhaisi for females – as well as helo mato – “watery mud.”  Rightly so.

Today is our fourth day in Dang district, in the mid-west of Nepal’s Terai region, where NCBL is conducting trainings for a goats livelihood program in five conflict-affected villages. Here, poverty remains one of the most visible and destructive scars of war. The 10-year conflict in Nepal claimed not only individual victims, but also impacted entire communities who lost farmable land and agricultural labourers. NCBL has partnered with a local livestock expert to establish goat farming cooperatives as a sustainable form of income generation. This week, 50 families are receiving skills training on goat shelters, nutrition and disease prevention. In September, NCBL (and, with any luck, yours truly!) will return to distribute the goats themselves.

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The trip has been challenging, but not in the ways I expected it to be. I am happy to report I have made much improvement on drinking and eating “the Nepali way” – that is to say my suspended-air drinking and scoop-hand-flick eating skills. I am also working on my fashionable rice belly with a strict diet of two-a-day dal bhat, Nepal’s national dish of lentils and rice. In a moment of heat exhaustion last night, I did make the unfortunate mix-up between my tube of toothpaste and tube of mosquito repellant cream. My taste buds will never let me live it down. Oh, and our jeep got stuck for 3 hours on a washed out road. We had to call in the big guns to get out of that SNAFU:

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Of course, I didn’t really expect creature comforts to be the most difficult part of this trip. Instead, I have been confronting a general feeling of outsider-ness and the accompanying thought-flurry on this thing called ‘development’ and the role of foreigners therein. After two months of comms, grant and report writing at NCBL’s main office, I have been eager to get out “into the field” and am thankful for the experiences I have had in Dang – from learning about agricultural lifestyles, to returning smiles and a broken Mero name Katie ho, Ma Canada bata aayako hu to the stunning, sari-clad women in our trainings. These experiences are rewarding in themselves, but I have also felt the full weight of my lack of local knowledge and Nepali language skills.

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Ice Breaker: Get-to-know you singing game!

Maybe at two months in Nepal I am overdue for the disenchanted-development phase of culture shock, but the trip to Dang was a well-timed and humbling reminder of how little university can prepare you for fieldwork. A degree in development does not teach you who to trust as community partners, or how to empower and educate through local humour, or where to draw the impossible line between those-in-need and those not-quite-needy-enough. The presumption that a fancy masters from a Western school will teach you more about ‘development’ than the knowledge of local practitioners would be comical if it wasn’t so arrogant… and so common.

Seeing how much value my Nepali colleagues bring to the field has only deepened my frustration for a backwards system where local NGOs scramble to squeeze their mandate into the square pegs of donor funding criteria. Of course, not all donors are created equal, and many are actively working to form partnerships that harness the experience and expertise of local NGOs. But on the whole, donors remain impatient and trend-focused. Even without the barrier of English as a second, third or fourth language, weaving the right combination of logic frames, needs-based justification, and emotive anecdotes is a delicate form of art. Not to mention the perception that many grants are dolled out based on personal relationships – call it corruption or by another name. Just this week, there have been stories of tens of staff being fired from an embassy in Kathmandu for taking kickbacks from grant applicants.

On a personal note, the trip has pushed me to re-think what I can offer as a foreigner working for NCBL. Back in the office this week, it’s time to move forward on some of the more long-term projects on my work plan. Stay tuned for updates!

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I shall name her Tinkerbell

Democracy Now! Election observing in Cambodia’s wild east

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I’m napping in the cool air-conditioned 4×4 when we finally pull into the frontier town of Snuol in the afternoon the day before the election. The vehicle was a haven from the heavy humidity of central Cambodia, but the a/c is unnecessary up in these hills. It took me the better part of two days to get here and I’m tired from a week of work, then more early mornings of travel. I’ve been invited here by Sorya, a friend of my father’s who works for the ECCC (the court conducting the Khmer Rouge war crimes trials) and Khmer Institute for Democracy (KID) to monitor Cambodia’s national election with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL). It’s an exciting opportunity for me and my first experience as an international election observer. And with the current politics in Cambodia, there is a feeling across the country that anything could happen.

Snuol is a sleepy place on top of a hill only a few kilometers from the Vietnamese border. When the sun sets, the lack of light pollution makes the darkness complete around you and a thunderstorm the night we arrive reverberates through it into my room. There is something oddly comforting about this but Sorya worries if the rain stays no one will want to come and vote.

But we worried unnecessarily and the morning of 28 July dawns cool and bright. At 6:30am we arrive at the polling station we are observing, a few kilometers outside the main part of town. The majority of the population are members of the ethnic minority and hill tribe groups who live in the small villages here.

The area outside the polling station is the yard of a brightly painted pagoda and it takes on the air of a festival in the early morning – the constant hum of arriving and departing motorbikes fills the damp quiet of Snuol’s otherwise green, forested landscape. This is rubber country and the trees stretch out for miles amid the gentle rolling hills around us, north to Kratie and the Mekong, and east into Vietnam. At 6am an entrepreneurial couple set up a shop selling rice packets and soy drinks, individually wrapped in plastic cups and bags. Rambutans are in season and the bright furry husks of the fruits tumble out of baskets across the yard. Women in brightly coloured pajamas with worn kramas around their heads will squat here for the much of the morning, chewing the small fruit or peeling them for their children.

The polling station is housed in a small, two-room school on the pagoda grounds and before it opens at 7am a small crowd of people has already collected – scanning the list posted outside for their names, or simply perched on their motorbikes or the relocated desks from the school waiting to vote, or perhaps just waiting to see what happens. After we examine the interior of the station, noting the empty ballot box and witnessing it sealed, the polls open.

Our scrawny security guard lets one person at a time into the station while a dozen or so curious, patient faces peer into the dark room. I sit at the side of the classroom watching quietly, and trying not to bump my head when I stand up – strings crisscross the ceiling of the room, holding up coloured pictures of animals and paper lanterns hung by the children who study here during the week. Each voter enters the room, checks at the registered list, receives their ballot, marks their vote, and then pops it into the box. Many grin when they finally have their finger dipped into the bottle of indelible ink and watch the stain spread – there is much shaking of the finger after, purple drops marking the scuffed floor.

By mid-morning, everything seems to be going smoothly – smoother than expected – and we drive to one of the more remote polling stations to speak to the people voting there. These people are mostly farmers or labourers in the rubber plantations. Many are illiterate, and it is unlikely there was much political campaigning here in the month leading up to the election. However many of them are voting anyway, holding up their fingers to show the deep purple dye. We ask them what they think about the day. A few shrug and say it’s the same as last time, but they still vote. A tiny, wrinkled old woman chewing betel says nothing will change but her finger is marked like everyone else. Out here, we learn that people lined up as early as 5:30am to cast their ballot. After, they lounge in hammocks or stop for breakfast noodles – there isn’t much else to do today as they wait for the predictable results. As the morning wears on, the whole area takes on the feeling of a holiday. When we pull over to visit a small shop, a group of men in the yard across the lane crouch shirtless on the ground across from each other holding flapping, angry roosters.

As we visit people in the hill tribes, we hear from observers in the capital that the indelible ink isn’t as indelible as expected. Some of our colleagues believe it is easy to rub off and, possibly, revote. This is a major issue, as events leading up to the election have warned of a wildly inaccurate voting list that may allow ruling party supporters to vote more than once at different stations, and leave out the opposition completely. We decide to test the ink and buy plastic water bottles full of rubbing alcohol, diesel from a roadside stall, and fresh limes. We test on four different volunteers from three different polling stations: people who have voted within an hour, within twenty minutes, within five minutes, and one person who had just stepped out of the polling station. We immediately call the result to Phnom Penh: the ink is indelible after all, despite enthusiastic scrubbing by our test subjects.

As the day stretches into afternoon the activity around the voting areas dwindles. The air is growing hot and heavy and dark thunderheads in the east indicate the humidity is about to break. The only sign of activity is in the thousands of dragonflies that fill the yard outside, cutting through the haze. For the last two hours the polls are open, only a few people come to cast their ballot. Our polling officer chain smokes on the porch outside the office in the downtime, the girl in charge of the register sits hunched over her desk, doodling on an unimportant piece of paper.

Then it’s over. Three o’clock and across the country the ballot boxes are closed. The day has gone unexpectedly smoothly. I was warned of intimidation, of threatening from local police and soldiers, of the likelihood of campaigners giving out bribes to local people: apparently my Siem Reap boss’s final words to me “Don’t get killed in Kratie” were unwarranted. I’m still waiting for something to happen, and eye the soldiers sitting on their motorbikes across the pagoda yard. They’ve watched us all day but look more bored than anything else. There have been minimal problems at our station. That’s not to say there weren’t some: there were issues with identification, and locating polling stations – these will be noted in our report – but I doubt it was a concerted effort by the polling officer to give anyone trouble, and expect it’s more likely simply a result of general issues in this area of illiteracy, or poverty, and unawareness of the issues. When our polling officer made mistakes, I believe it was because he was inadequately trained not because he was trying to prevent people from voting.

But once the ballot box has been closed, we sit down with the six officers at our station and agents representing the ruling party and the two next biggest, and we witness the count. One major problem erupts when a small, unpopular party is left out of the count because of a mistake made while numbering all of the parties at our polling station. No one seems to be concerned when these few ballots disappear into the “spoiled” pile. As an observer this was a travesty, and will be a priority in our report. But despite all of this, the final count is finally made, and results are expected: overwhelmingly, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party has won.

With the end of the day, we head back to town. My election has been a quiet affair, but it has indicated to me how much more attention must be made to the hill tribes and ethnic minorities in this area who are not given proper information about the issues by the campaigning parties, because no one seems to remember they’re there.

We wait to hear about national results, but it’s difficult. I keenly feel the unavailability of the internet and English-language television when one of our Cambodian team members receives a phone call from Phnom Penh: violence has broken out in the capital after an altercation during the count, resulting in gunfire. No one knows what is happening.

Almost immediately, I start receiving text messages from friends across the country, that, contrary to the expected results in Snuol, the CPP wasn’t winning the landslide everyone predicted. In fact, the Cambodian National Rescue Party – led by Kem Sokha and the recently-returned-from-exil-but-not-allowed-to-participate-in-elections Sam Rainsy, is starting to win in some of the bigger provinces.

This is wildly unexpected. Despite excitement and massive political rallies in places like PhnomPenh, Siem Reap, and Kompong Cham supporting Sam Rainsy’s return, no one thought his party would actually win anything – in fact media reports have indicated that with the suspected issues with the voter lists and identification issues, his supporters were unlikely to be able to vote.

As the evening progresses, more calls from around the country: my boss in Siem Reap warning me avoid the capital on my way home – the military is apparently massing, and there are protests in the streets, more violence. In Siem Reap something is on fire and cars are being rolled. The National Election Committee is calling a secret conference with no media allowed. What is happening?

I suddenly deeply regret forgetting to pack my passport (who does that?).

But all was quiet in Snuol, on the eastern frontier.

But before I fall asleep, I receive the final numbers via phone call and text message from friends: the excitement was short-lived: the CPP wins with 68 parliamentary seats, barely ahead of the CNRP with 55: Sam Rainsy’s party has doubled their parliamentary power.

The closeness of this election is a breakthrough for Cambodian politics. It shows that the youth of Cambodia – who make up a massive amount of the population – care about what happens here, and are not afraid to demand change. To have these voices reacting against the longest serving political leader in southeast Asia shows Hun Sen’s hope to create a family dynasty may not happen after all.

And my experience in Cambodia’s wild, green east shows something too. If there is a chance for real dialogue in the country between two parties that both have some political power and political clout, then the people who live in remote, rural areas can no longer afford to be forgotten or ignored. If there are two major parties, they will have to engage each other, they will have to face the reality of life in rural Cambodia, and work to increase literacy, to ensure every citizen has a national ID card, to expand land title projects. And the people I have spent the last 5 months working with will be an essential part of that process. My time in Cambodia has been working with the very poor, the disabled, the illiterate, and the stateless.

If the government has been shocked into realizing that every vote does, in fact, matter, then maybe it’s finally time Cambodia will begin to see some change.

The election was yesterday, and I write this from the bumping front seat of our vehicle as we make our way back down from the hills, through misty rubber plantations in the early, pre-dawn day. So I don’t know how to finish this, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But we should keep watching.

Outside my window over Snuol

Outside my window over Snuol

The polling station I was deployed to.

The polling station I was deployed to.

A couple from a minority hill tribe group outside Suol shows their marked fingers after they vote

A couple from a minority hill tribe group outside Suol shows their marked fingers after they vote

Snuol town.

Snuol town.

rambutans in season

rambutans in season

Men show their dyed fingers

Men show their dyed fingers

Don’t be clothes-minded, understanding the impact of donated clothes

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There is something very disturbing happening in a number of developing countries, and what makes it so troubling is that it is being done under the auspices of charity.

Donated clothing has long been a way for people to get rid of their unwanted clothes and other household items, giving them to someone who needs them more.  Frequently these goods are dropped in a bin at the corner of a grocery store parking lot, or are picked up by a truck from your front door. Often done with the best of intentions, what happens next is where the story turns ugly.  The CBC had a well-written expose on the topic last winter so I hesitate to re-write their words, but in short, these goods are sold to exporters at a per-kg rate, packed into shipping containers heading back to Asia, and dropped in African, Central American and Asian markets along the way.

To properly describe why this trend is disturbing it must be examined on the micro and macro levels. From a macro (country) level perspective, bulk-clothing exports are a way of increasing a country’s exports and thus negating some of the effects of being a net importer (Canada runs a small trade deficit, aka imports more than it exports to the displeasure of many)

Here is a crash course in trade balances: trade surplus is good; trade deficit is bad.

Broadly (and very simplistically speaking) higher exports mean that there is a greater demand for a country’s goods abroad – read: economic growth. Higher imports mean more consumption, higher debt, less savings – read: economic stagnation/shrinkage.  Economists, bankers, and stock traders use the figures to evaluate the health of an economy –both domestically and internationally– and make determinations on investments, and interest rates.

As I am sure you have deduced, these signals can be easily manipulated. Namely, by exporting any excess product (at a value as high as possible) that a country may have to boost export figures and reduce a trade deficit.  There are (theoretically) very strict rules from the World Trade Organization (WTO) regulating this practice to protect against dumping and export price manipulation. However, as any Canadian knows (remember softwood lumber), WTO litigation can be costly, time-consuming, unfair, and likely out of reach for any developing nation.

Figuring out the export price per kg was something that was not readily available. However, through some deduction it would appear within the US it is roughly $1/kg (total exports in USD divided by total number of KGs exported). This figure may seem low. Yet when you consider the level of wastage that will never be sold because items are of such poor quality, or because supply far outweighs demand, this price is staggeringly high.

All of this says nothing about the diplomatic pressure put on smaller nations to accept unlimited imports, forcing nations to run massive trade deficits of their own (with knock-on effects that impact international loan rates, inflation, currency exchange, as well as the impact on local markets.) For example, Tanzania (a popular destination for used clothing) currently runs, on average, a $297.25 million dollar trade deficit every month. This is despite steadily increasing and promising export figures. Since 2006 they have not once carried a trade surplus, despite exports of many western consumer goods (tobacco and coffee among them).  This in part has resulted in interest rates of 12% (compared to 1% in Canada), an inflation rate of 7.6% (0.7% in Canada), and a debt to GDP ratio of 47.7. In addition, Tanzania suffers from an unemployment rate of nearly 11%, figure that likely doesn’t truly represent the number of unemployed and underemployed, or the roughly 1/3 of the population living below the poverty line (2002 estimate).

At a micro level these imports have a devastating effect on local clothing markets.  Prices for used clothes in large markets in East Africa (where my experience has been) vary from anywhere $0.20 for a t-shirt, to $2-$5 for a dress shirt. These prices represent a washed, perfectly maintained, designer shirt.  Where then does the local clothing maker fit into the equation? Likely she or he will abandon her business and open a store or booth to sell these imported clothes.  But what about the fabric maker?  Or the person who makes the dye for the fabric?  Or the farmer who grows the cotton for the fabric?

The supply chain is nearly endless and these individuals are all either out of a job, working in a different industry, or continuing their work and living in poverty.

A side effect that most don’t ever consider is the working conditions these clothing vendors work in, which would horrify many who think they are giving their clothing for charitable means.  In Kampala (where I currently live) the main market, Owino burns down so often it barely makes the news anymore (it has burnt down twice since I arrived in March).  This not only endangers people’s lives, but also burns thousands of dollars in merchandise, creating desperate individuals needing cash to restock their stalls. This doesn’t even touch on the issues of riots and fights that arise on a regular basis when vendors find themselves disenfranchised or being taken advantage of.

Understanding this, it is fairly evident how dangerous Canada’s exports of $192, 133, 000 (CND) in “worn clothing and other worn textile articles” is (2012 figure). Most of these clothes are dumped in foreign developing world economies (Tanzania representing 12.5%, Angola 10.9%, Kenya 10.3%, Pakistan 6.4%, India 6%, Ghana and Congo 5.8%). Americans tend to send much less of their $636 million exports of used clothes to Africa, instead shipping more to Central America. Tanzania is only their 6th most popular destination. However, for reference the US exports roughly the same amount to Tanzania as Canada despite an overall export market being 3.3 times larger. The combined total of this is a staggering $60 million (for ease I am considering equate parity between the USD and CND).

Even worse are stories like this one about Romney giving t-shirts away in Africa. It shows how out of touch western businesses are with how their actions impact global communities.  In places where an individual may own one or two shirts, flooding the market with free merchandise equates to taking money out of someone’s pocket and destroying their livelihoods.

We can critique the failures of development dollars, the role of corruption in underdevelopment, and how to make aid more effective till the cows come home but until we consider how our trade policies and practices impact these countries we will always be limited in what can be accomplished. There is a great blog post from Fraser Reilly-King in the Ottawa Citizen Development blog that argues that unfettered trade liberalization does not aid development. Rather, a certain amount of protectionism is necessary for countries to grow.  In this light, many developing countries have banned the importation of used clothes.  It’s time we stop punishing countries for protecting local markets, and stop dumping our unwanted items on other countries all the while calling it “free trade”.

But then again, don’t we always love to see our favorite Toronto Maple Leafs shirt when we travel abroad…

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*Because I know many will very legitimately question the alternative, or ask which charities are the best, my suggestion would be to ask the charity where the clothes go.  The Salvation Army for one sells its merchandise in its own stores.  Many homeless shelters or shelters for abused families donate these clothes directly needy individuals in your communities.  While not a charity, Value Village won’t accept materials it cannot sell, and is a good way to determine if something is worth donating in the first place (sometimes garbage is just garbage).  Generally speaking it is best to do some research, ask some questions and make sure that your actions are what you intended.

Bogotá Life and Victim Assistance in Southern Colombia

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The last month has truly been a whirlwind of so many different changes, wonderful and memorable experiences, and many lessons learned. I moved from Medellín to Bogotá a little more than a month ago, and am now feeling really settled and at home here. It was truly a great feeling to move into my new apartment and be able to finally unpack my bags again (hopefully for the last time for a long while!). Aside from missing Medellín’s efficient transportation and comfortable size, I am really enjoying life in Bogotá and my work at this office has been going very well.

This past weekend I returned from nearly a week of fieldwork in a southern department of the country called Caquetá. The department sits on the edge of the Amazon and is wonderfully hot and suffocatingly humid. The scenery of the whole area is just breathtaking. Every inch of this country that I’ve seen so far is amazingly beautiful. One thought that kept creeping into mind as we travelled through Caquetá’s countryside, though, is that it’s hard to believe when looking at the gorgeous, lush mountains and pastures that so much of the seemingly serene landscape is home to guerrilla camps and is littered with all kinds of remnants of war. It definitely casts a somber shadow over the beauty of the country.

Caquetá countryside

As for the work, we had many objectives for our week in the area. These ranged from assisting with the medical assessment of victims, to conducting monitoring and systematization of victims’ experiences, to following up with CCCM volunteers who run Mine Risk Education (MRE) workshops in the rural areas of Caquetá. It was a truly valuable opportunity to meet and talk with landmine survivors, assist them with accessing their rights, and to meet with volunteers who take a big risk in training community members in MRE amidst the conflict. We went to a number of rural communities – San Vicente del Caguán, Puerto Rico, and Lusitania. CCCM has volunteers in each of these communities who have been trained in delivering MRE workshops and who do this on behalf of CCCM with school children, community members, and their families. We were there to interview them about their experiences, as the project (conducted in partnership with UNICEF) is wrapping up in a few months. Overall, their experiences seem to have been quite positive, and community members very receptive. It was shocking to discover how little rural inhabitants really know about the real danger of their surroundings in relation to the conflict until people like our volunteers provide MRE workshops and the likes. We also heard from a number of volunteers that guerrilla leaders had approached them after hearing about the MRE training and would question them; asking them who they are, what they’re doing, etc. The guerrillas then warned our volunteers that they could  continue training on prevention, but not to get involved in any way. I really began to understand just how much the presence of guerrilla control is felt in these rural areas and how much it is a daily reality with which they must learn to live.

In Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, we assisted with a medical assessment conference for victims from all over the department. The conference was organized to aid survivors in accessing their medical rights under the Victim’s Law 1448 of 2011. Many landmine survivors are not educated or are simply unaware of the rights that this law assures them; for example, a prosthetic leg costs nearly a year’s salary for a rural farmer, but the State is actually responsible for covering this cost if the survivor is officially recognized as a victim of the conflict with the State. Many who attended this conference needed their prosthetics replaced, more surgeries, or to see specialists about ongoing health effects from their accidents. While the victims waited for their appointments, we had set up an interview setting in the hospital where colleagues and myself interviewed the roughly 60 survivors about their experiences from the time of their accident and on. This was largely for monitoring and systematization of CCCM, but also so that we can have accurate information to report to the State to hold them accountable to their responsibilities under the Law 1448.

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These interviews were truly the most memorable, valuable and difficult experiences I have had so far in Colombia. I formally interviewed roughly 15 victims and had many opportunities to talk with the others while they waited for their medical appointments. It’s difficult to even begin to sum up how much of a more in depth, personal perspective I gained about the conflict from these interviews. The honesty and raw emotion that the survivors shared with me was touching and also heart wrenching. I learned that many victims suffer severe depression and a number who attended the conference have attempted suicide multiple times. One gentleman with whom I spoke lives alone, has no support, and has had a very difficult time getting his prosthetic, as his initial surgery was not properly done and he needs another before he can be fitted for a prosthetic. I had also noticed a striking difference in the kind of injuries that victims in Caquetá seem to have compared to other victims I have worked with. In Antioquia, victims had a variety of injuries – hands, arms, vision, skin lesions, etc. Whereas in Caquetá, the majority of victims have not had vision loss and most have at least one if not bilateral amputations of lower extremities. I mentioned this observation to a colleague, and I was told victims in Caquetá have the most amputations out of all victims in the country. This is due to the fact that almost all explosives used in the department are landmines, whereas in Antioquia, for example, a much wider variety of explosives are used. Many victims also expressed the challenge of being from a farming background and feeling that they have been stripped of their ability to generate income by not being able to do manual labor anymore.What shocked me probably the most of all was when multiple survivors told me that after their accidents, guerrillas came to their farms and threatened them. The guerrillas apparently demand a fine of  roughly 2 million pesos from many landmine victims, because they stepped on “their” landmine which was meant for the military; essentially saying that the innocent civilian messed up the plan. There are so many things that enrage me about this. First of all, 2 million pesos is more than a rural farmer would earn in almost a year, and if it is not paid, the guerrillas forcibly displace the family. Second, the values on which the FARC and other guerrillas base their movement are supposedly precisely for the peasant farming population; to regain popular power and restore the people’s rights. It is shockingly evident just how far the movements have strayed from these initial motives.

The one survivor case that really struck me was that of a man named José. He is from the countryside, and like many others, has always lived on a farm, doing manual labor and living closely with his family. In September of last year, he was working in a gold mine in a rural area of Nariño. The night before his accident, there had been combat between paramilitaries and guerrillas all around his community. The next day, he was walking on the typical path heading home from the gold mine, but stepped off into the bush for a moment to go to the bathroom. As he was walking back towards the main road, he took a narrow, wooded path and stepped on a landmine. His work friends had continued walking up ahead, but turned back to rescue him when they heard the explosion. He said he then spent 4-5 hours in a makeshift boat to be transported to a bigger centre, Tumaco, Nariño. When he arrived, the military met the boat at the port and transported him to the health centre. In Tumaco, they amputated his left leg above the knee, as it was in very bad shape. He was later transported to the capital of Nariño, called Pasto. There, his right leg was also amputated above the knee. As José relayed his story to me, he kept repeating that he never should have had to lose both his legs. He said that the medical professionals who attended to him had been negligent. The injuries to his right leg were apparently relatively minor, but no one attended to him, and particularly to that leg for so long, that it was too late to save it by the time they got to it. It was evident that this was still a very hard reality for him to deal with, as he told me that for a farmer, for someone who loves to get on his horse and do manual work, his life could have carried on much differently if he had been able to keep at least one of his legs.

José’s case is also a very challenging one, as the official story of what occurred was changed in his hospital files when he arrived at the first medical centre. This was because his coworkers from the mine and the hospital staff were afraid to report the incident as guerrilla activity. Instead of reporting what was clearly a landmine incident, it was written that it had been an accident at the gold mine. Due to this, he has experienced innumerable challenges with the legal process of his case, with being officially recognized as a victim of the conflict, etc. He has received zero support from the State, because of not having official status as a victim of the conflict, so the State claim to have no responsibility to him. He has paid out of his pocket for his wheelchair, physical rehabilitation, and psychological support and was forced to displace his family in order to access better health services. He couldn’t dream of affording two prosthetic legs without support from the State, so he is confined to the wheelchair until and if his case gets worked out. This was a very difficult story to hear, and brought up so many emotions. I can’t imagine the patience, strength and positivity that it takes to get through the challenges that José has and will continue to face.

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The whole week was very emotionally charged and the work was intense, but these experiences with victims are what I have valued most about my time in Colombia. Now I’m back in Bogotá, but preparing for another monitoring and evaluation trip with Marie-Josée next week to Neiva, Huila. I’m really appreciating the work that we get to do on these trips.

Until next time,

Rhian

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Why Zambia? A Primer on the Fourth Meeting of State Parties in Lusaka.

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After a long absence from this space, I’ve finally returned with my second blog post. In exchange for my regretted silence, my readership will be able to gain some insight into the motivation behind my Zambian stay.  In this week’s post, I’ll also provide background on the history of the Cluster Munition Convention in addition to a short glimpse of life in this fascinating city.

So what exactly am I doing in Southern Africa? I have been dispatched to Zambia to help set the ground for the 4th Meeting of State Parties (4MSP) to the Cluster Munition Convention, a diplomatic conference that will negotiate, discuss, and update global efforts in reaching a comprehensive ban on cluster munitions. Entering its fourth year, the Cluster Munition Convention marks another major breakthrough for efforts of disarmament in the arena of international conflict. Cluster munitions can be best understood as large bombs that transform into dozens of smaller submunitions when dropped through the air. They have been particularly fatal in recent conflicts, including the ongoing Syrian war, where they have contributed to scores of casualties. Much like anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions have a disproportionate impact on non-combatants living within war zones. As a number of studies and analyses have shown, clusters have little military utility and are not effective in conventional warfare.

It is within this backdrop that the international community and key civil society partners were able to hammer out an agreement to unequivocally ban cluster munitions and move towards a path of their eventual destruction. Although international consensus has been achieved in the signing of the treaty, several major powers have opted out of the convention, and there have been issues with its ratification. This is most relevantly displayed in the Canadian government’s less than satisfactory ratification legislation, which has been the target of our “Fix the Bill” campaign(photos and details of the campaign can be found here)

But yes I know, the question remains…why Zambia? Although Zambia has had little incidence of armed conflict throughout its history and is widely regarded as a bastion of stability in the region, it did have limited incidence of cluster munition contamination. As a host of numerous regional liberation movements including the ANC and FRELIMO, Zambian territory was the target of armed operations headed by opposed colonial authorities and the South African apartheid-era regime. These incidents included the use of cluster munitions in the South African case, which were recently successfully cleared.

Lively Sunday Market in Lusaka.

Lively Sunday Market in Lusaka.

In addition to its limited exposure to cluster munitions, a key motivation in Zambia’s willingness to host the Meeting of State Parties is in it’s ambition to become a regional leader in the area of security.  Africa has been notable in its nearly universal adoption of the convention, with more ratifications than any other continent in the world. In light of this breakthrough and as an early adopter of the Cluster Munition Convention, Zambia serves as a fitting host with capacity for a conference of this scale.

Lusaka, the site of the meeting, is a sprawling lively metropolis of over 3 million people. As the largest urban settlement in Zambia, it has long served as an economic draw for people all over the country, far and wide.  Contemporarily, Lusaka is in the midst of rapid urban development with its fast changing landscape beginning to be dominated by large modern shopping complexes and structures. Despite this frenzy of construction, the city continues to retain a unique flair, best highlighted by its blue, noisy traffic defying minibuses. The renowned Zambian spirit of inclusiveness and generosity is abundantly on display throughout Lusaka and will help provide a cheerful backdrop for conference participants.

A bonus for visitors in September will be the chance to experience Lusaka in the midst of football frenzy. Zambia’s national team is slotted to face off against Ghana in a crucial World Cup Qualifier, an event that is sure to leave the city with a memorable ambiance. I had a preview of what to expect two weekends ago in attending Zambia’s closely contested qualifier with Sudan. I’ll leave you with photos from that affair:

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Chipolopolo supporters stream into the stadium in the lead up to the match.

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Crowd celebrates Zambia’s goal.

Happy 18th Birthday NCBL!!!

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Yesterday, NCBL celebrated its 18th birthday. As I sit here, in day two of Operation Food Poisoning, it seems as good a time as any to gush about this amazing organization that I have the privilege to work with for 5 months.

Development is a dirty business like any other. Of course, there are heroes; but if you peel back the layers of fancy words and high-res pictures of smiling children, it can be tough to find even a handful of organizations that are having a tangible, let alone sustainable, impact on the ground. Pick your poison: power, corruption, poor planning, good-intentions-gone-wrong. Or blame the obvious, but sorely overlooked fact that development is a contested and damn right difficult thing to “do”. I often picture development as an ecosystem, made up of social, cultural, economic and political webs that are more complex and interdependent than we could ever imagine or begin to understand. Playing god in this environment is risky business. It means a cascade of unintended consequences. And the bottom line is not profits – it’s people’s lives, which are made better or worse.

Disenchanted development rants aside, I have been incredibly impressed by the accomplishments and action-oriented approach at NCBL and in the broader mine action community. There is something powerful in uniting for a common, singular purpose: to rid the world of inhumane weapons. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a Canadian-led initiative of which NCBL is a proud member, stands as an unprecedented example of what can be accomplished with cooperation, leadership and a dose of common humanity. In 1997, with the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) in Ottawa, the world took a stand against the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of landmines. This piece of history now has 161 signatories and counting. That’s a whopping 84% of the whole wide world.

Unfortunately, Nepal is of the remaining minority of countries that have yet to sign this life-saving treaty. As fate would have it, NCBL was founded just one year before the outbreak of a decade-long civil war in Nepal (1996-2006) that killed more than 15,000 people and ripped 10x as many from their homes. Despite relentless advocacy efforts with government officials, the Nepal Army began using landmines against Maoist forces in 2002. To this day, the Nepal government claims it only used landmines for defensive purposes around key military sites – but even on the defensive, a landmine cannot distinguish between a soldier and a civilian, a tank and a school bus, time of war and time of peace.

Over 10 years of conflict, and in the years since, landmines have claimed at least 860 victims in Nepal (Landmine Monitor). Other estimates place the number killed and maimed closer to 1,500 (IRIN). Of these victims, over 60% are children, who often mistake explosives for toys. Many others are farmers who go out in the fields, trying to rebuilt their lives after conflict, only to leave their families burdened by the loss of a breadwinner or the high cost of medical fees. During a recent interview, a female survivor described how she was shunned in the community after her accident, due to the belief that disability is caused by past sin. These intersectional forms of discrimination have a compounding effect that keep victims poor, alone, and living a life without dignity.

Survivors with disabilities are not charity cases. They do not need pity or a well-meaning handout. They deserve acceptance, respect, and the opportunity to live a sustainable life in the way of their choosing. Upholding rights to medical services, equipment and rehabilitation is a means, a first step, but not an end in itself.  Part of NCBL’s core work involves livelihood programs, which range from goat rearing to computer skills development. These programs help survivors regain a sense of independence, purpose and dignity for themselves and their families. NCBL also supports children affected by conflict through an education scholarship program. Most importantly, NCBL recognizes survivors not only as victims, but also as leaders who have a voice and deserve to be heard. With this wisdom, NCBL sends survivors to national and international conferences on landmine issues: “Nothing about us, without us.”

In fact, it was due to the united advocacy efforts of survivors that the Nepal government admitted to using landmines after active denial to diplomats and international organizations. NCBL also brought survivors to the table throughout peace negotiations and won an important victory in 2006 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict and included explicit clauses to ban landmines in Nepal. The government made good on its promises to map, fence and post signage around affected areas. Finally, on June 14, 2011, Nepal was officially declared landmine-field free after clearing 53 landmine fields and 341 fields of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

But reports this past Thursday on the discovery of 70 socket bombs in Rolpa district are a timely reminder that the fight against explosive remnants of war is far from over. Although landmines have been cleared, IEDs, or home made bombs, still pose a dangerous threat in the country. Unstable government and lack of political will have also road blocked the effective implementation of national victim assistance. A Mine Action Joint Working Group (MAJWG) was established but remains inactive and a National Victim Assistance Strategic Framework developed but not implemented. Victim assistance programs that do exist are insufficient to meet even the basic needs of survivors. And it is common knowledge that the government-issued colour cards for persons with disabilities are riddled with corruption and inequality.

These are the challenges that keep NCBL in the fight for survivors in Nepal after 18 long years. The dedication of NCBL’s founder, a dynamic woman and my boss, is incredible. She has told me a couple times that “I work very hard” – no small compliment from a woman who regularly spends evenings and weekends working for the cause. I was honoured, on Friday, when I congratulated NCBL staff on “their 18th birthday” and was quickly corrected with: “you mean our 18th birthday.” Thanks, NCBL, and many more to come!

For more info on NCBL, check out our June 2013 newsletter.

One of the greatest days of my life…

Setting the stage.  Fans prepare for the teams to hit the field

There are days in your life where you wake up and say today will be special: first day of school, the beginning of big trips, graduation day, your wedding day, the birth of a child (the latter two are only something I imagine and have taken from hearsay but I feel pretty confident that it is true.)  There are other days still where you wake up not expecting much but go to bed thinking, I was super successful today.  Greater than any of these days are the days where life surprises you with something bigger and better than expected.  I had one of those days…

As I woke from a daze, I began my daily routine of slowly planning out my day, certain things needed to be done before I left for the football match, others could be put off.  Shower, brush teeth, charge my camera battery just in case, find extra memory cards, check Facebook, see who won the hockey game last night, don’t forget cash, breakfast.  Quickly I was awake and late.  As I rushed around the house excited to get downtown and see all the Ugandan fans blowing their vuvuzelas I realized I needed to hustle.

1:35 After buying a Red Bull, bottle of water and a Mars bar (breakfast of champions), my Boda driver and I race through the crowded streets of Kampala.  There is a buzz in the air already and the game is still hours away.  Horns, flags, are everywhere as zip through traffic.  I am stuffing the last half of the mars bar in my mouth with one hand, texting with the other and clenching the bottle of water between my legs hoping there are no quick swerves or bumps in the road.  As we pull up to the taxi stand I rip open the bottle of water and guzzle it back; it’s cloudy but still hot.  I have no small bills, “Solomon, I will pay you tonight, I will pay you extra….”, he smiles and replies “Okay, GO CRANES”.  He zips away through the gridlock of motor cycles, police officers and ‘taxis’ (Matatus in Kenya, Dallah Dallahs in Tanzania, Mini-buses in Canada).

2:00 As we board the taxi, it fills with a mix of commuters and football fans alike. Several fans are wearing jerseys and have flags ready to go, others are just trying to get home through the madness.  Despite the near constant noise coming from the streets outside the taxi the two woman next to me fall asleep almost instantly. “Clearly not Cranes fans” I think to myself.  As we wind down the road through the markets and past the slums, the smells of Kampala waft through the open windows as a light rain began to fall.  As we got closer to the stadium the smell of popcorn (a cheap and very common snack in Uganda) mixed with burning trash, and fish from the market created an interesting and intense aroma.  We finally arrived and ran up the hill.

2:30 Due to some miscommunication (my fault) we realized that we were without tickets.  Quickly we located one of the many men selling tickets outside, for a slight ($1) markup for mzungus.  No market for OttawaHockeyGuys here.  As we go to enter the stadium grounds it is clear that there are too many people in a small area, we extract ourselves to the sides as best as possible as three military guards shove the gate closed, pushing people forward, and back almost simultaneously.  As one can imagine the security at an event such as this is a mix between heavily armed military police in riot gear, mixed with civilian police, and general venue employees.  As such the security was much different from the week before when I saw Liberia play.  Last week, no water bottles and all bags were searched, this week a mere pat down and I was allowed to enter with my jug of now warm water.  Oh well!

A young fan celebrates

A young fan celebrates

3:00 As we have all now made it into the grounds, we begin to look for the media accreditation office.  Really we were looking for a guy who had the power to let us in somewhere where we would otherwise not get into.  Using the back story that my friend Liz was working for Kampala Magazine (completely true) we were able to secure seats in the main VIP section, next to the radio announcer.  He was doing amazing play-by-play on his phone throughout the game.  I decided to explore, I had seen a door open to the pitch as we passed through the VIP area and figured I might be able to sneak a few shots from field level before kickoff.  A very timely tip from my photographer uncle Bill, gave me the confidence to “Bring a big lens, and walk quickly,” right onto the field.  At this point the stadium is filling up, the most dedicated of fans have been there for over an hour.  As I look up, and around, my hands begin to shake and my body is instantly covered in goosebumps.  Having played soccer as a teen, and being a somewhat (read: overly) competitive person, there is always that place in the back of your mind that dreams of walking out in front of 40,000 people. “Quick take your camera out and pretend like you belong” I said to myself.

The peace keepers stand guard

The peace keepers stand guard

3:50 As the teams had retreated to their dressing rooms, the anticipation grew, the feeling inside the bowl of the stadium was one of excitement, and passion.  The noise was loud, but not nearly as loud as it would get.  The buzz of vuvuzelas roared through the stadium as if a giant killer bee was trying to sneak up from behind you. I approached one of the other photographers who had obtained a green bib for shooting during game action. Asking him where he got it, he pointed to a gentleman sitting just in the stands.  I approached him with my driver’s licence in hand, yelling as loud as I could just to be heard.  He handed me a sheet of paper to write my name and handed my a bib!  TO THE FIELD WE GO.

Fans wait for kickoff

Fans wait for kickoff

GO CRANES

GO CRANES

Enjoying the pre game celebrations

Enjoying the pre game celebrations

Dancing and getting ready for the fun

Dancing and getting ready for the fun

A little boy finds cover during pre-game warmups

A little boy finds cover during pre-game warmup

This guy went section to section for 2 hours before the game started just to get people excited

This guy went section to section for 2 hours before the game started just to get people excited

4:00 As the teams are introduced I stand with the horde of photographers trying to get “the shot”.  Today the Prime Minister has come to welcome the teams and wish them good luck. With all the pomp and circumstance that comes dignitaries, national anthems and FIFA’s own protocols I found myself running from one side to the next, still in the back of my mind thinking, “is this really happening?”  As the teams took their places for kick off, I quickly ran behind the Angolan goal, I was not going to miss the opportunity to get up close to a Ugandan goal celebration (my one and only goal for the day!)

Team Uganda!

Team Uganda!

4:30  The game had started well, there was action at both ends, and the refereeing had been quite good.  The Angolan coach had been warned twice to stop harassing the linesman, the Angolan and Ugandan captains had been told to cool their teams down after a yellow card had been given for an ugly tackle. I had become more comfortable in my position.  No one had kicked me out yet, so what were the chances it would happen?  I figured it was time to take my seat for a while, and be social with the friends who had joined me for the game.

The ref was on top of the play all game long

The ref was on top of the play all game long

First corner kick of the game

First corner kick of the game

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4:59 The half time whistle had gone, the teams departed the field, the crowd had quieted and I was off to find a couple of beers and use the “bathroom” (read: wall in a dark room with 1000 men trying to get as close as possible).  After obtaining some cold $2 beers and returning to the my seat just in time for the second half, it was time to make a plan.  We knew we wanted to be on the field at the end of the game, and knew the likelihood that 3 of us would make it down the stairs past the security guards right at the end of the game was very unlikely.  Liz would go first with the photographers bib, then Jenn and I would follow the rest of our equipment 10 mins later.

Doing play-by-play on a phone in a stadium of 40,000.  I am pretty sure that he probably caught me yelling a few times

Doing play-by-play on a phone in a stadium of 40,000. I am pretty sure that he probably caught me yelling a few times

5:20 Liz had just left to go to the field, the atmosphere was tense because Uganda had yet to score and the game felt like it was slipping away.  Within minutes of Liz hitting the field, Angola scored a beautiful slicing goal from just outside the box.  1-nill.  As the bottles flew over our heads, I realized this was certainly not a good spot to be if the final score ended in a loss for the home team.

5:30  As we go to got out of our seats to make our way to my favourite Ugandan Military Solider Guarding the stairs, Uganda scored a freak goal! The crowd erupts! The noise coming from the 40,000 people (minus 250 Angolan supporters) was so loud that you couldn’t have heard the person next to you scream.  People were jumping, pushing and hugging in a fury of happiness.  The day seemed to be saved.  Once the crowd had settled (but not quieted in the least) and the ball was back in play, Jenn and I moved down the aisle (accidentally kicking some woman’s leg… sorry mystery woman, but you’re language and attempt at striking me was maybe a bit over the top don’t you think?)  “MEDIA!” I yell… the gate opens.  As we walk down the stairs into the bowl of the stadium the noise incomprehensibly

became louder. You can feel the sounds through your chest as if someone was standing in front of you with a bull horn.

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Many would have been happy with this as a final score

Many would have been happy with this as a final score

5:39  We are standing in the corner of the Angolan end, one eye watching the game, one eye watching the crowd for flying water bottles. Since the goal Uganda has been controlling the play, and Angola is clearly holding on for dear life.  A free kick is awarded and an Angolan player is sent off.  18.5 yards from goal, this is Uganda’s best chance to take the lead.  As the ref begins to sort out the wall, and the players argue over the merits of such a call in the 37th minute of a tie game, one Ugandan player (near and dear to my heart) starts playing mind games with the Angolan keeper.  Standing directly in front of him 6 yards from goal, he is yelling something (I couldn’t hear, and probably couldn’t understand).  I run over with my camera to capture the moment, thinking in the back of my mind “I would never have this composure, I would have confronted the striker after about 10 secs”.  This, among other performance based reasons is why I am not the keeper of the Canadian National Soccer team.  The teams line up for the set piece…. the ball zips over the bar.  A wasted chance.

Mind games!

Mind games!

5:41 The final whistle is near and it seems like Uganda might run out of time.  They are controlling the left side of the pitch and are getting chance after chance but just can’t finish.  I am now watching the crowd more than I am watching the game.  The faces, the sounds, the smells are all so intense.  There is a sense that nothing else in the world matters in this moment to each and every one of the people in attendance.  As I turn my eyes to the field, I see the ball hit the netting.  The roar from the crowd was like a wave hitting me in the back of the head.  I watch as the striker streaks by me to the edge of the stadium, hands reaching to heaven.  Mobbed by his teammates, his countrymen and a number of police officials the glory that is felt is indescribable.  Liz runs behind him as he continues to celebrate.  I think to myself, “Dave, Jay and Charles would want me to streak across the field here…. my family may not understand why I got deported.”

The Winning Ugandan Goal!

The Winning Ugandan Goal!

The winning goal celebration

The winning goal celebration

Here he comes! Goooooalllllllll

Here he comes! Goooooalllllllll

5:45 The final whistle goes.  The crowd somehow gets louder still.  Every time it felt as if it had become louder than the time before it would only become more intense, more screams, more vuvuzelas, more happiness.  People are pushing forward trying to get as close to the players as possible.  As I looked up at the crowd, hundreds of water and pop bottles come raining down.  In any other circumstance I would expect a riot to start, but not here, not now.  These were happy water bottles.  After taking in the sights for what must have only been seconds, we run onto the field where several Ugandan players had fallen to the grass crying in celebration.  Others hugged each other.  As the Angolan keeper walked past, I shook his hand.  You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy.  The music began to blare.  All the songs I have heard hundreds of times playing at 3 am from the bar next door somehow seemed less annoying.  The sight of seeing the sheer joy on the players and coaches, faces made the experiences of the whole day unforgettable.  We walked around to every corner of the pitch following different players as they celebrated with different sections of the arena.  I had my picture taken with the game ball as the crowd roared in the background. Unbelievable.  No other emotion could express how I felt during these moments.

This was taken nearly 45 mins after the game ended

This was taken nearly 45 mins after the game ended

I wanted to buy his big flag

I wanted to buy his big flag

Striker who scored the winning goal with the Ugandan coach

Striker who scored the winning goal with the Ugandan coach

He was inconsolable for about 10 mins after the game

He was inconsolable for about 10 mins after the game

Ugandans celebrate at the end of the game

Ugandans celebrate at the end of the game

Uganda Soccer,

End of the match message

The scene at the end of the game

The scene at the end of the game

6:15  As we jumped on the back of Boda’s we were quickly swarmed by thousands of fans leaving the stadium and just celebrating on the street.  During the 25 min ride back to town we passed thousands more who had come out of their houses, and bars to celebrate on the street.  Speakers were set up every half kilometre with people dancing everywhere.  The sight of a muzungo driving through the crowds with a Uganda jersey on, resulted in hundreds of high fives, fist bumps and cheers.

9:00 As I sat on my balcony looking out over the empty street, the ice-cold Nile Special flowing smoothly, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  Trying to recall every intricacy of the day was impossible, but somehow it felt like I needed to commit every sound, sight and smell to memory.

How bad is the violence in Syria?

Reacting to pressure to “do something” in Syria, the U.S. has approved plans to start shipping SALW to Syrian opposition groups. One of the arguments of pro-interventionist hawks which has contributed to this pressure is that Syria may come to be regarded as a humanitarian disaster on par with Bosnia, Sudan, even Rwanda.  Are these analogies valid? See here for my brief and (very) non-rigorous assessment.

On World Refugee Day there are 45.2 million refugees worldwide: this is why disarmament is an essential part of the story

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In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed at the United Nations. Today, with 190 signatories, it is one of the most widely-adhered to treaties in the world. The Non-Proliferation Treaty was unique in its time because it recognized the devastating humanitarian consequences of war.

Its success would provide a template for advocates seeking to prohibit the use of other weapons of war that have a greater humanitarian impact than military one. It created a model for the successful campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines that resulted in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty (161 States Parties), and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (83 States Parties). Earlier this month, another landmark piece of international law opened for signature: the Arms Trade Treaty will ultimately limit the transfer of conventional arms to regions where it is suspected they will be used in violation of the Geneva Conventions or against civilians.

In the almost 20 years since the signature of the Mine Ban Treaty, disarmament has lost some of its sense of urgency in the international arena. Funding for landmine clearance in Cambodia is steadily decreasing as fewer accidents occur (notwithstanding the fact that an accident happens in a moment, and a survivor may need assistance for the rest of their life). Earlier this week the United States pledged it would be providing arms to the rebels in Syria (where reports of the use of landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons by the state are rife). A few weeks ago, there were accusations that Yemen was laying landmines. Yet, this morning I got an email that a 10-year old Bosnian child was killed in a rifle grenade explosion outside Sarajevo.

Advocating for disarmament just isn’t sexy when there are wars to fight.

But here’s the catch: there are 45.2 million refugees in the world, and the continued use of landmines, cluster munitions, and the unregulated trade of conventional weapons of war are contributing to that number.

45.2 million refugees.

Let’s just think about that for a second. Imagine if the entire population of Canada was homeless. Then add, like, all of Belgium. That’s what 45 million people would look like. And not only are they homeless. They’re likely ripped from their home by conflict, environmental disaster, or persecution. They often arrive in their place of asylum with nothing. 45.2 million. This is the highest number of refugees the world has had in 19 years. Or, looking at it another way, the highest number since 1995, which was right in the middle of one of the most violent decades in terms of civil war and genocide in modern history.

The organization I work for in Cambodia is Jesuit Refugee Service. In light of World Refugee Day on Thursday, June 20, we are engaged in a weeklong conference with international delegates from Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Thai-Burma border, Indonesia, and Colombia to talk about displacement and reconciliation. Their purpose this week is to try and discern what reconciliation means in a world torn apart by violent conflict, and determine the best way to practice it in these very dangerous regions.

And when we talk about displacement and repatriation and exile and reintegration and reconciliation, disarmament is an important part of that conversation. Because irresponsible and illegal use of weapons directly perpetuates the refugee crisis. And it is a crisis. This week the Guardian wrote an article insisting the time has come to invest in refugee camps to make them more live-able. Which on one hand is a long overdue suggestion – as disease, hunger, infant mortality, and violence are widespread – and on the other, a desperate reality check that maybe it’s time to address the fact that people are forced to live in limbo, displaced, often stateless, for sometimes generations in refugee camps ill-suited for any kind of fulfilling life.

Thursday, June 20 is World Refugee Day. Sign this petition asking the Canadian government to tighten its legislation on cluster munitions. If you’re in Winnipeg, go to this fundraiser to help build a school for children near Dadaab Refugee Camp. Ask your government to sign this treaty on the Arms Trade. Because it’s all part of the same problem. And we can change it.

For a copy of the press release on JRS International’s conference on reconciliation in Cambodia, please email me at devin@minesactioncanada.org

The Khmer Rouge reservoir at Trapeang Thmor, Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia. Thousands died digging this by hand after being displaced from their homes during the Pol Pot regime. Today, it is a bird sanctuary and home to the rare Sirius Crane.

The Khmer Rouge reservoir at Trapeang Thmor, Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia. Thousands died digging this by hand after being displaced from their homes during the Pol Pot regime. Today, it is a bird sanctuary and home to the rare Sirius Crane.