In pitch-black waters, with only their hands to guide them, Cambodia’s first batch of salvage divers will soon start to recover the thousands of tons of unexploded artillery shells and bullets that lie at the bottom of the country’s lakes and rivers. But before they begin their perilous underwater operations, the 35 staff members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) first had to learn how to swim. More than 20 years after the Khmer Rouge regime – under which 2 million Cambodians perished – and the following civil war left the country littered with mines and unexploded ordnance, it still remains one of the most heavily mined regions. Up tp 300 ships were sunk in Cambodia’s Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the former regime received U.S. supply from South Vietnam before being toppled by the Khmer Rouge. Some of the barges were filled with up to 1,000 tons of munition, which, if recovered, could still be used today and sold by anyone hoping to make a profit. Former U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal specialists and divers trained Cambodia’s first salvage diving unit to start demining the country’s waterways. This is the story of the group of initially 35, following them through their first swimming classes, to scuba diving training on Cambodia’s coast, and ultimately a graduation ceremony honouring the ten men who made it through the rigorous training.
Thomas documented the work of Golden West as they prepare divers to clear UXO’s from Cambodia’s river beds.