November, 2004

"Bombs, Mortars, and Cutting Torches"

Poipet - Cambodia. Nearly all scrap metal in Cambodia seems to eventually funnel through the town of Poipet in Northwestern Cambodia. Huge trucks weighted down with twenty-foot tall loads of scrap metal arrive daily from all over Cambodia. The trucks pull up to scrap metal yards scattered throughout the town and unload. The scrap is sorted, and then re-loaded onto Thai trucks for shipment across the border to Thailand for smelting. It is here that we have come to discover the economics of war debris. Yesterday our appointment for an interview with a scrap yard owner was cancelled so we decided to informally drop by a few scrap yards we hadn't been to yet. We thought we might be able to grab a short interview and shoot some footage of the yard if they had a mortar or two sitting around. This was our thinking.

Our conception of the scrap metal trade in Poipet changed quickly when the owner of the yard walked us beyond the huge piles of rusted metal to an entire ordnance section where hundreds of rockets, mortars and bombs lay in varying states of decay. A mother was rocking her child to sleep fifty feet away. Children walked through the piles to get to their huts. Dogs slept nearby.

We interviewed the owner of the yard with a pile of mortars in the background and quickly discovered that workers at the yard cut open ordnance on site. When we asked to speak to the "specialist" who works with ordnance to prep it for shipment to Thailand, an amputee (one leg) hobbled out and walked us around the various piles describing each type of ordnance, and what they could sell it for.

Today we returned and mounted a lipstick camera on the head of the chief ordnance worker. To our surprise, one of his primary tools for disassembling ordnance was a cutting torch. After adjusting the gas flow for maximum heat, he would begin cutting the bombs and mortars lengthwise, sparks and sometimes flames spewing liberally from the item. Every once in a while, he would have to pour water on the item as the TNT inside began to burn. Once, he picked up a burning mortar and ran thirty feet to toss it into a small pond to prevent it from exploding.

During much of the cutting torch work, another worker balanced mortars on a bomb casing between his feet and methodically pounded them apart using a large hammer. If you didn't know better, you could easily have mistaken him for cracking open a particularly tough piece of fruit. By the end of the day, there was a sizable pile of newly cut bomb