February, 2005
Kompong Cham Province, Cambodia


"Swimming for Bullets"

The bridge spanning the river is long. From the middle, if you look down, you can see the twisted remains of three train cars that somehow found their way to the bottom of the ravine from the bank above. When we ask the Khmer man at the far side of the bridge how the train cars landed in the bottom of the ravine, he replies that this site was a former munitions storage area during the war. He does not specify which war. We notice he has an enormous pile of bullets under his hut.

There is a path along the south side of the river. We follow it 800 meters east of the bridge, and hear voices, and the splashing of water. We also smell TNT as we walk down the bank towards the river. About 50 yards away there are two small fires with a gaggle of small, nearly-naked boys huddling around the acrid flames, warming their hands. They smile as we walk up, and then run back down the bank and jump into the chocolate brown water of the river.

They dive beneath the surface and come up spluttering for air. Every once in a while, one of the boys reaches down,
pulls a bullet from between his toes and tosses it onto the bank. The boys on the bank gather the bullets and drop them into ever-expanding plastic bags.

There are many plastic bags.

Four or five boys stand in the water, jabbing at the muddy riverbank with meter-long lengths of wire. They jab and listen. Jab-listen, hoping to hear the distinctive rasp of metal-on-metal. When they do, they plunge their arms into the thick brown mud, following the wire to the bullet buried deep in the bank. They wriggle their prize out, rinse and examine it and then laugh some more before dropping it into one of the plastic bags on the riverbank.

When the sun starts to retreat and the water is no longer tempting, the boys with the plastic bags carry them to a washed-up log. Several at a time, they pull the bullets out of the bags - AK47 rounds, revolver bullets, and even one or two large caliber machine gun rounds. Using sticks, and one rusted bayonet likely retrieved from the bottom of the river, they begin to hit the bullets. By holding each round firmly against the surface of the log with one hand while hammering at the tip and mid-section of the round with the other, it is possible to dislodge the head from the metal shell casing.