Charlton steps out of comfort zone to help find safer ground
Landmines are part of the Khmer Rouge’s awful legacy in Cambodia. Now football is playing a leading role in the quest to save lives - Owen Slot, Chief Sports Reporter, Times Online (UK).
Tuesday....Ninety minutes after checking into his hotel in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Sir Bobby Charlton’s welcome was complete when he was whisked down the road to S-21, a former security prison, to see where 16,000 Cambodians were tortured by the Khmer Rouge. The exact number of S-21 victims in the late Seventies is unknown, but what is certain, as he discovered, is that almost every one of them went straight from there to the Killing Fields to be executed. To save time and space, babies arriving at S-21 with their mothers would be held by their feet and swung and smashed against the trunk of a tree in the prison’s forecourt. Alternatively, they would be slung in the air like a clay pigeon and shot. Usually with the mother watching.This was the start of two harrowing days in Cambodia. The chief reason for Charlton’s visit was awaiting him on the exit from the prison gates. As you come out of S-21, two groups greet you. The quickest are the young men selling with unrestrained enthusiasm a lift in their motorbike taxi, and they are followed by three beggars, each of whom have lost part of a leg, only one of whom is lucky enough to have a prosthetic replacement. Every year in Cambodia, these three are joined by another 850, all victims of landmine blasts. Each tragedy here seems interconnected: the Khmer Rouge regime begat a long and bloody civil war, and that begat a murderous maze of landmines planted in the outer, rural reaches of the country. Another frightening statistic: nearly 40 per cent of landmine victims here are young boys. The figure is so disproportionate because some are under the misconception if they see a landmine that it might be fun – a big firework. They spend long hours tending their family’s cattle and have been known to play with landmines or poke them with a stick. In short, Charlton has come here to tell them not to.“I really would do absolutely anything I can,” Charlton said, “to help any young child who is unfortunate enough to lose a limb to a landmine.” This was just part of his address to a reception at the British Embassy. Just recently, to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, they had thrown a party complete with ice sculptures of a London bus and Tower Bridge: just one of many incongruous images here. Another is Charlton working here alongside Tony Hawk – the venerable World Cup-winner alongside the best skateboarder of the past decade. Another is that we have a Briton and an American pitting their disparate reaches of celebrity to give air to a landmine problem to which their own nations so heavily contributed. Cambodia in the 1970s was a mess precipitated by the United States and Vietnam. And it is written, though never acknowledged by a British government, that SAS servicemen in the mid-Eighties trained Khmer Rouge rebels in their Thai border camps in landmine-laying techniques. It just so happens that funding for antilandmine agencies, much of which comes through the UK and the US, is petering out. In a decade since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, landmines have ceased to be a sexy subject. The footballer and skateboarder may not quite add up to a princess, but their efforts must be applauded.
Wednesday....Vanntha Thoeun is a 14-year-old, one of the oldest boys at Roka Poeune school in the northwest territory, not far from the Thai border, a long-term Khmer Rouge stronghold. Thoeun has just had a football coaching session from Charlton, he has kicked balls with Hawk and been presented with a T-shirt with Wayne Rooney on it holding up a sign preaching landmine awareness. He has had a great time. He does not have a clue who Charlton is. He does not know Hawk either and had never seen a skateboard. Neither did he know whose picture was on his T-shirt. He had never even seen football on television. Five times, though, when out tending his family’s cow, he has seen landmines. He could not possibly guess at the number of times he has trodden near mines that he has not seen. Only three months ago, a cow’s hoof turned over and unearthed a mine 50 metres from the school.By the time Charlton and Hawk have packed up and gone, they hope that the younger kids at Roka Poeune will be as savvy as Thoeun. The reason why belongs to Scott Lee, a 41-year-old hyperactive Paul Gascoigne look-alike who is a qualified football coach. In the 1990s, Lee worked as a volunteer, driving trucks and taking food parcels in and out of Croatia and Bosnia. One day in 1995, he was near by when three boys playing football were killed by a landmine blast. He was staggered to discover that there was no landmine awareness education programme, so he put football and landmine education together and came up with Spirit of Soccer. After Bosnia and Kosovo, Cambodia is Spirit of Soccer’s third programme. In Bosnia, Lee trained 20 coaches, here so far he has a mobile unit of five, all Cambodians, two of them women, a nonstop road trip taking their expertise to 120 schools in the area and, in the past year, getting their message to 25,000 children. What they bring is the first sports coaching session the children have had. The football is followed by a lesson in mine awareness. The repeated message is simple: “Don’t play with landmines, play football.”“I want to give them the dream,” Lee said, “that if they listen, they could become the next David Beckham.” Whether they have heard of Beckham is questionable in itself. And the dream? This part of Cambodia is so hand-to-mouth agrarian that football barely features. There are no pitches; nearby Battambang, the country’s third-largest town (population 140,000), has just one. Organised football does not exist and the only competitive football below the national semi-pro league is a tournament organised between orphanages and homeless groups. When Scott O’Donell, an Australian, took over as national coach, his first match was away to Thailand. Finances forced them to go by coach and the 16-hour drive to Bangkok was delayed at the border when O’Donell had to write out visa forms for half of his team – they could not write themselves. What is clear, though, is that there would be more football if there were less mines. Fifteen minutes from Roka Poeune, where a mine-clearing agency is at work, this becomes obvious. Each clearer has a metal detector and, in a day, will cover just 60 square metres. In football terms, that is a month to reclaim a decent-sized pitch. “As far as you can see,” Hawk said, “the landscape is beautiful jungle. But it’s inaccessible and that’s hard to understand.”For Charlton, it was the blast that rammed it home. Two mines side by side were uncovered, one a Type 72 Alpha containing 51 grams of TNT, the other a 40-metre rifle grenade with 40 grams of high explosive. The power in the controlled explosion to destroy them left no doubt as to how each could take, at a minimum, a foot off a grown man.Yet, after school, most of the children at Roka Poeune go to work. And the demand for land to farm is such that some people cannot afford to wait for the landmine-clearing teams to come though and clear their area. Their hunger forces them to start farming areas clearly marked as landmine risks. The job of Lee and his five coaches is simply to lower the odds.Behind them, they leave reminders of the message: ten footballs per school and for each child, the T-shirt, a school book and a poster of more Manchester United players – whom they haven’t heard of – bearing the awareness message. For Charlton and Hawk, their power is in spreading the word to those who have heard of them. Outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Hawk pulled tricks on his skateboard in the hope that the pictures might help him to tell people that stats show falling casualty rates among young boys since Spirit of Soccer arrived.Charlton, meanwhile, is fixated with the painstaking pace in which Cambodia is reclaiming its mined territories and the fact that there is technology available that will help them to work 15 times more quickly but that the landmine-clearers cannot afford. At the end of two days, the expression on Charlton’s face conveys his point: “You just can’t make sense of this.” Why make funding worse when technology gets better? Why make this effort for a nation whose own Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was formerly with Khmer Rouge and has spoken, with some pride, of the days when he personally helped to lay landmines? But for the footballer and the skateboarder, this project is beyond politics. For them it is about celebrity, that intangible of which we are normally so negative, and flogging it for every positive they can find.
*Sir Bobby Charlton and Tony Hawk were in Cambodia as representatives of Laureus. Laureus’s “Sport for good” foundation is one of the main funders of Spirit of Soccer.
Grim statistics of life in Cambodia
3 Cambodia’s world ranking in the list of countries with the most landmines. Only Afghanistan and Colombia have more
21,552 Landmines and unexploded devices removed last year
3,000 Deminers working in Cambodia
35 Types of explosive devices they are looking for
850 Landmine casualties annually in Cambodia
8 Percentage of amputees and landmine victims on the staff of MAG, one of Cambodia’s three landmine-clearing agencies
28 Years since the Khmer Rouge was pushed from power
5 Khmer Rouge leaders whose names were submitted last week to judges for prosecution. Before this, not one Khmer Rouge leader had been brought to trial.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Charlton steps out of comfort zone to help find safer ground