Every year, millions of tourists visit Cambodia (in 2013 it reached over 3m). They sink up the warm sun on the Sihanoukville beaches, they experience the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat, and then they move on to Vietnam, Thailand, Bali, continuing their back-packing gap years or honeymoon excursions.
I just returned from a different type of trip to Cambodia, working with a programme that uses football to educate and raise awareness across the rural provinces about the danger of landmines.
Recognising the power that sport has to engage, inspire, and empower young people, Spirit of Soccer has been running in Cambodia for nearly eight years, its trained coaches traveling from school to school in the most mine-ridden parts of the country, teaching kids first how to have fun with the soccer ball, and then providing them with key lessons around mine awareness and avoidance. Active in Bosnia, Iraq, Jordan, as well as Cambodia and Laos, Spirit of Soccer has succeeded in educating more than 250,000 young people about the dangers of landmines and remnants of war.
It's estimated that there are still 4 to 6 million landmines and ERWs (explosive remnants of war) scattered across the northern belt of Cambodia. A country whose rural regions rely on farming rice for survival, small communities stand amongst clusters of yet to be unearthed, making it impossible to work the land without risk of coming across an unexploded weapon placed there decades ago.
I travelled with Spirit of Soccer's founder, Scott Lee, and his five talented coaches to Poipet, located on the Thai-Cambodian border. As we rumbled up the narrow road, flying past huts squatting on stilts above stagnant swamps, and old ladies selling rice stuffed into roasted bamboo straws, he tells me that this region sits in the middle of the 'T5 mine belt', where an estimated 4 million mines were laid. There's a high casualty rate even today in the area, but the numbers have been coming down slowly over the years.
The school we visited has been identified by the CMAA (Cambodian Mine Action Authority) as one in a high-risk zone for mines. Each month, Spirit of Soccer staff work with the Authority to identify these places and which schools to visit. They change constantly due to monsoon flooding picking up old mines and sweeping them to new zones, posing new threats. It's a constant game of chase, with young lives on the line.
As we pulled up to the school, the sound of kids screeching with laughter reached us about the exact same time a red sign printed with the sinister white skull symbol and a headline 'Danger!! Landmines!!' came into view, reminding us how close these kids are to a field yet to be cleared. Without the red sign, it looks like an ordinary, innocent stretch of land, waiting to be farmed.
That day, Spirit of Soccer's incredible coaches provided nearly 120 kids with FIFA-approved skills and drills. The youngsters - donned in Man United and Arsenal jerseys, their feet bare - have been looking forward to this day for weeks. Boys and girls play together, cheering for each other when they score a goal. By the end of the hour long training session, the entire group are in full admiration of the coaches, all of whom are Cambodian, most of who come from similar backgrounds as these kids.
Under the shade of a giant-leafed tree, the students gathered, sweating from running and kicking, eyes shining bright with expectation of what's next. One of the woman coaches then led an energetic learning session, likening lessons about landmine awareness to those of football drills. Teamwork, trust, communication. Most of these young people have come across a landmine, or worse, know someone who has been injured or died as a result of tampering. Having gotten them into a place of trust and respect from the football training, the coach us properly getting through to these kids with her lessons. They stand or sit, arms around each other, excitedly raising their hands to say the right answer. The hope is that these young kids will tell their parents what they've learned, their siblings who aren't at school, their aunties and uncles who are working the field. The hope is that Spirit of Soccer is, slowly but surely, helping decrease the amount of deaths as a result of a tragic history that has long since scarred this beautiful country.
To understand the importance of Spirit of Soccer's work, and the massive risk that plagues the rural communities of the Cambodian countryside, one has to understand its complex history. After thousands of landmines were dropped on the country during the Vietnam War, the Cambodian-Thai border continued to be used as a fighting ground, until the nation was swallowed in 1974 by the Khmer Rouge, led by dictator Pol Pot. Through an enforcement of social engineering (the elimination of everyone who hinted at having the slightest bit of wealth or education), millions were tortured and massacred, with citizens forced to attempt an insular agriconomy, resulting in widespread famine and disease. Although the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, the Party continued to wage war from border provinces, triggering a further surge of landmines being dropped. In the area where the school we visited for instance, the millions of mines were laid by slave workers for the Khmer Rouge.
About 20 minutes down the road from the school is an open-aired shack. It's basically a roof on stilts - no walls - under which five aging men sit, their skin leathery from the sun, their eyes tired from a lifetime of hardship. They are all missing legs. One has a prosthetic, smudged with grime, the metal bent from overuse, the skin on his thigh where the contraption attaches is blistered and infected. These men are all victims of landmines. Three of the four men have over six children each. The government provides little support, and even if they could get a subsidiary, they live deep, deep in the rural jungle, the closest town about a 45 minute drive.
As I spoke with these men, I began to understand why this country has been referred to as the Heart of Darkness - so much pain, so many deep-seeded issues. And yet, there is a form of love, a tinge of forgiveness that sits within these people. Victims of the Khmer Rouge live next door to the soldiers that caused the strife. People who have lost loved ones to ERWs continue to work with the government to get their land swept and cleared so they can once again farm safely, and coaches who lived through the darkest of times find hope in the young kids they teach.
In the eight years since Spirit of Soccer first set up the Cambodia programme, the amount of casualties to landmines has decreased a whopping 75.3%. The majority of accidents happen in rice paddys and crop fields. There are still hundreds of thousands of acres to clear. But there is a sense of hope, a sense of healing. You've just got to explore beyond the beaches, beyond the temples, to feel it.
Learn more about Spirit of Soccer at spiritofsoccer.net