28 October 2011

To launch the one month countdown to the Eleventh Meeting of States Parties (11MSP), ICBL interviewed Sister Denise Coghlan - Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Cambodia and member of the Cambodian Campaign to Ban Landmines. Sister Denise has been based in Cambodia and involved in the landmine issue and the campaign for more than 20 years. Here she shares her experience, knowledge and passion for the issue and the campaign. In the run up to the 11MSP, which is being held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, between 28 November and 2 December 2011, the ICBL will be highlighting the amazing work of some of our campaigners from around the world. Read their stories in their own words and how they are working hard to Push For Progress towards a mine free world.

When and how did you become involved with the ICBL?

I began working for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in 1988 in the refugee camps on the Cambodia – Thai border. This is one of the most heavily mined areas of the world, and each day I met many people with missing legs - their legs blown off by landmines. I have a letter from 1988 in which I called for a ban on landmines, and many others were calling for the same thing at that time. In 1990 JRS moved into Cambodia to promote reconciliation and peace in the midst of the Cambodian conflict. One of our programmes was working with people with disabilities from the four different factions in a vocational training centre. Many of them had been soldiers who had blown off the arms and eyes and legs of one another.

As we built the centre we often discovered landmines and cluster submunitions in the soil. Here people hurt by mines and with other disabilities learnt carpentry, welding, electrical skills, sculpture, agriculture, and wheelchair and furniture production. In that period there were thousands of new mine accidents. News of a concerted effort to ban landmines was in the air. In 1994 I went to a JRS meeting in Rome with coordinators from around the world. There, we decided as part of our work for refugees and returnees we would contribute to the movement that would outlaw the use of mines. The JRS priorities would be:

  • To enable people affected by landmines to tell their own story;
  • To ask Jesuit universities to engage in ethical reflection and bring those arguments to the movement;
  • To work through a national campaign structure rather than be a global presence ourselves;
  • To ensure the needs of the people affected by mines were met and their rights upheld.

Around the same time representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Handicap International (HI), Mine Advisory Group (MAG), JRS and the NGO Forum met in Phnom Penh and decided we needed to push the call of the international movement on the landmine issue. We used the base of the NGO Forum which had many members. The Coalition of Peace and Reconciliation and the Buddhist monks became very involved.

The Cambodia Campaign was launched with a letter from four Banteay Prieb survivors belonging to the four different factions. This letter also launched the drive by JRS and gained more than two million signatures. Very interesting to me was that the first call from the survivors didn’t say anything about the needs of survivors themselves but was much more focused on the communities affected, clearance of mines and a ban on use and production of mines.

Why did you become involved?

The situation was dire. People were suffering, people were dying. That was why I got involved. I believe that if we act together we can do much more. The fact that Jody William (first Coordinator of the ICBL) and others had already got some coordination going meant that energy could be harnessed. I also loved our survivors, Reth, Kosal, Chreuk Kheurm and grieved for the tiny ones and was inspired by the message and life of the grown ups among them. I was determined the world was going to hear what they had to say!

As an ICBL national campaigner how would you like to see states – either your country or others – Push for Progress at the 11MSP?

We would like to have a very practical conference. We don’t want a whole lot of theory but we want countries to come very honestly and say this is what we’ve done and this is what we have still to do. Maybe they’ll even say that they need to improve and we want them to tell us how. And of course I would be totally delighted if any country at the 11MSP announced that it was joining the Mine Ban Treaty or announced that it was joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

What message do you have for anyone out there who isn’t aware of the lethal threat landmines still pose for thousands of civilians every day?

This morning our team here in Siem Reap left on two motorbikes on a flooded village road to go to another village with a wheelchair for a man who had lost his leg to a landmine. The people who went on these bikes were four men with three legs between them. On one bike was one man with the wheelchair. On the second bike there were two men with one leg between them. These survivors were leaving here to go and help others.

Second, this week I met the man whose arm was blown up by a cluster bomb in Preah Vihear in February of this year. This man cannot forgive himself because this same submunition killed two people and injured 7 others. He just didn’t know what it was.At the same time my friend Kosal went to the hospital here and met a man who lost his hand and lost his eye because he picked up a weapon very close to Phnom Penh. It killed his 10 year old nephew. He has his physical wounds to deal with but he also has the wounds of his heart. Landmines and other explosive remnants of war are still causing horrible suffering in 2011.

To end with a happy story of another friend, Sok Leng. At 12 years old she went to collect water for her mother. She stepped on a mine which blew off both her legs. In the aftermath of the Pol Pot era there were no prostheses. Years later she learnt to walk again and signed up to a course in Banteay Prieb and was the only woman on the course. But the night I remember was the graduation ceremony – somebody had made her a beautiful red silk dress and there she was dancing on the basketball court, legs wobbling and heart dancing. And that’s what inspires me - the example of this woman who spends her life now helping other young women to regain hope, get new legs, think about jobs and think about their future and working together to create a world where there will be no more mines.