Yor Deuob's fishing boat glided into the greenish waters of Cambodia's Mekong River, early in the morning of April 26. He cast his net and it snagged on something unusual — an unexploded Mk 82 bomb. Dropped during the Vietnam War it had lain, rooted in the riverbed, for over four decades.
"I dived in to try and free the net," Deuob told VICE News. "I felt the fins of the bomb and immediately went and reported it to CMAC." The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) is the country's leading demining and unexploded ordnance organization.
CMAC has been trying to clear Cambodia of explosives left by decades of war. The country was heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam War, then the Khmer Rouge regime came to power in 1975, and were responsible for the deaths of around two million people.
When the Khmer Rouge fell to an invasion by Vietnamese forces in 1979, the country descended into civil war which dwindled on up until 1997. Today, CMAC estimates there are still four to six million pieces of explosive remnants of war (ERW) littering the countryside.
Walk down any given street in Cambodia and this poisonous legacy can be seen. Many amputees are destitute, forced to beg to survive given the lack of government welfare. Over 64,000 people have been injured or worse by landmines and ERWs according to a report by a Cambodian agency.
Cambodia, then, is an appropriate setting for the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation — an NGO partnered with the US government — to launch a bold pilot program from their base in Kampong Chhnang province.
It tried to take a team from the chronically underfunded CMAC and train them in underwater bomb disposal. The only problem was none of the employees could swim — some had never even immersed themselves in water before.
That was two years ago. On May 21, however, looking at the cool operators in their sleek wetsuits and shades, you'd think they had been doing this since childhood. They squatted on a wooden boat stacked with equipment, as the motor chugged into life. Deoub drove as he knew the bomb's location better than anyone else. VICE News and other press followed in a commandeered party boat.
"This is the first national program of its kind anywhere," Allan Tan, country director of Golden West, told VICE News. "[Training] a humanitarian explosive underwater clearance team from scratch has not been done before." The first diver then splashed into the water.
"This is the first time they have had to remove a live bomb," added Mike Nisi, chief of underwater operations.
The program was funded by the US Department of State and Defense Department. "I don't want to quote you exact figures," said Tan. "But it's safe to say the project cost several million dollars." This is a mere slice of the $100 million the US has invested in clearing Cambodia of ERWs since 1993.
But seeing as the US is responsible for a lot of the ERWs littering Cambodia (indeed, this is an American bomb being dredged today) perhaps this kind of funding is motivated by a sense of making reparations. "I can't speak to that," said Tan. On the US Department of State blog, however, US Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Perez wrote that America still has to "clean up our brass" in Cambodia — a military term meaning to pick up shell casings after firing.
Today the "brass" is buried in Mekong sludge. "Most of the time you can't see your hand in front of your face down there," said Tan. "During training we paint their goggles black so they learn to do everything by touch." The team also had sonar equipment to help locate the bomb.
Divers scooped out the surrounding mud to prevent suction from dragging the bomb back into the riverbed, before it was gently elevated by tying it to a large floating balloon. The team then dragged it ashore where it lay on the bank.
It was an Mk 82 bomb weighing 500lbs (227kg) in total and packing 250lbs of explosives. The blast radius depends on a number of factors but according to Nisi everything within 220 yards would be in danger. "These things were built to level buildings," he noted.
The bomb's nose had been sheared off by the impact of hitting the water, damaging one of two fuses capable of detonating it. "The tail fuse is still intact," said Tan, appraising the device. So it could still go off? "Oh, sure."
The bomb was then loaded into a van and driven with extreme care out into the nearby rice fields, dried up and crusty due to the hot season. CMAC and Golden West operated a remote-controlled saw to cut the tail fuse and what remained of the nose from a safe distance, finally separating the explosive from the detonators.
"I was nervous because there was a lot of mud," Sok Chenda, the dive unit leader, told VICE News. "But it went okay." He smiled, speaking in calm, broken English. "I felt happy and normal throughout the operation."
'These guys will protect their communities like firemen or policemen.'
Nisi was more emphatic with his praise. "It was textbook," he said, while observing the dismembered bomb. "It was not an easy operation and the team did amazingly well."
Parts of the bomb were taken to Golden West headquarters as part of their Explosive Harvesting Program. This initiative recycles recovered explosives into small charges and uses them to safely detonate and dispose of landmines and ERWs. "This way we are not responsible for the production of even more explosives," explained Tan.
Yet there is still much work to do in clearing Cambodian fields and rivers of limb-shattering explosives. "My older relatives told me that 40 years there were explosives everywhere," said Deuob. "Now the ones left are hidden and we can't see them."
But, after today's success, hope are high for this new team of experts. "These guys will protect their communities like firemen or policemen," said Tan. "They're a national asset, no one else in the country can do what they do."
Follow Nathan A Thompson on Twitter: @NathanWrites