Of Landmines and Grief

Miss Landmine Siem Reap

A few nights ago I watched a fascinating documentary called Miss Landmine Cambodia (2009). It tells the story of a group of women in Cambodia who were victims of landmine accidents. Because of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the mines that were planted during the Vietnam war – Cambodia was involuntarily dragged into the conflict – these women have been left limbless, poor and with little or no prospects of work, marriage and family. A Norwegian photographer conjured up the idea of a beauty pageant a few years ago, to tell the story of female victims of landmines in an unorthodox manner. After a successful pageant and campaign in Angola, he set his sights on Cambodia. Despite controversy and setbacks, Morten Traavik pulled together an exhibit of photographs, left Cambodia and put together a show in Norway, a country which has a significant Cambodian refugee population. His goal was to raise awareness of the continuing dangers of landmines around the world; and to empower the women.

I’m not really sure what I think about the content of the film, because I can see it from different perspectives. Critics note that it exploits the plight of these victims of landmines; others say that it boosts their confidence and shows them in an unexpected and more uplifting light.

And then, I saw the river even before the script at the bottom of the screen read “Battambang.” It has an eerily familiar feeling to me, all the more so seeing it come back to life in a film.

Phnom Penh Bridge - Reuters.com

This morning, try as I might to keep the news at bay, someone asked me if I’d heard about the stampede and near-collapse of a bridge in Cambodia earlier in the week. My heart sunk, as if into the murky depths of the Sangker. Please, I mumbled, don’t let it be that iron bridge. Turned out it was in Phnom Penh, far from my ground zero. Still, it was an inexplicable and horrifying tragedy that shook me up, down and inside out.

One more tragedy in a country that has already seen more than its share of grief. My heart goes out to the Khmer people; those who witnessed the rampage and the families of those who were injured or died.

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