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The UXO salvage diver team lines up ahead of a sea swim for training on the island of Koh Rong off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in April 2013. The divers were previously de-miners with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre and were selected by the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation from a group of over 40 applicants.
The UXO salvage diver team lines up ahead of a sea swim for training on the island of Koh Rong off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in April 2013. The divers were previously de-miners with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre and were selected by the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation from a group of over 40 applicants.Charles Fox
The UXO salvage diver team lines up ahead of a sea swim for training on the island of Koh Rong off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in April 2013. The divers were previously de-miners with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre and were selected by the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation from a group of over 40 applicants.
Heang Sambo, 38, collapses during an intense training session on the beach at Sihanoukville, Cambodia in April 2013. At the beginning of the training, many of the now divers could not swim. Now divers swim regularly and conduct daily physical training. Sambo, who is not a full-time member of the team but trains alongside them, works as a detection specialist and has worked all over the world identifying UXO.
Members of the UXO salvage dive team share breakfast together ahead of a training exercise in March 2014. The divers live together in barracks and eat and cook together, every aspect of their daily life is aimed at creating a tight and cohesive team.
UXO salvage diver Leng Channak, 33, enters the Tonle Sap river at the location of a french barge thought to contain UXO in Feb. 2015. The barges where sunk by the Khmer Rouge and American Military.
The UXO salvage dive team handles an unexploded 1000 pound bomb found in a river in Kratie Province, Cambodia in April 2015.
Team Leader Sok Chenda carries a 105mm round from the banks of the Tonle Sap River in March 2016. The team was informed of the round whilst conducting reconnaissance in the area.
A plume of water shoots into the sky after liquid explosives are detonated underwater. The explosives were tested to see if they would be a viable solution to detonate UXO underwater. The test took place at the divers’ training centre in Kampong Chhanang Province, Cambodia in Feb. 2014
Members of the UXO salvage dive team take part in a mission brief in their dive shop in Kampong Chhanang, Cambodia in Sept. 2014.
Marcel Durocher and Heang Sambo, employees of Golden West Humanitarian Organization, board a boat ahead of a river survey on the Tonle Sap river in April 2015. Using Sonar Marcel and Sambo are able to map the riverbed identifying sunken boats and potential UXO.
Marcel Durocher and Heang Sambo, employees of Golden West Humanitarian Organization, spend up to six hours a day on a boat when on a river survey. Using Sonar, Marcel and Sambo map the riverbed identifying sunken boats and potential UXO in April 2015. The Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers move vast amounts of sediment, making the process of scanning the river beds difficult, what is identified one year can be covered by sediment the next.
Members of the UXO salvage dive team prepare dive equipment on the banks of the Tonle Sap river overlooked by local villagers in Dec. 2014.
The diver team carries an inflatable boat down the banks of the Tonle Sap river in March 2016.
Inside of the divers’ boat. The team carry all the equipment they need between two boats while on a mission in March 2016.
UXO salvage diver Leng Channak, 33, takes part in the training program devised by the USA 7th Engineer Dive Detachment off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in July 2014. The divers train to identify UXO (inert for training purposes), wearing ‘black-out’ masks to simulate the zero visibility they will encounter in the rivers and lakes of Cambodia.
An inert piece of ordinance is attached to an inflatable lift bag. This technique will be used to move and remove large pieces of ordinance which cannot be safely detonated in situ. July 2014.
UXO salvage diver Piseth Dara, 24, prepares to dive in July 2014. Dara is taking part in a training programme devised by the USA 7th Engineer Dive Detachment off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Mike Nisi and Sok Chenda manoeuvre a boat as they drag an inflatable lift bag which is attached to a MK82 Bomb. The divers attached the bag to the bomb and raised it to the surface and dragged it to shore. March 2015.
UXO salvage divers and members of the USA 7th Engineer Dive Detachment take part in the training program off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in July 2014. In this exercise the team was learning how to recover large inert ordinance using airbags to raise the item from the sea bed.
Members of the UXO salvage dive team practice removing a stricken diver from the water in a training exercise off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia in July 2014.
Journalists report on the MK82 Bomb which the diver team raised from the bottom of the Mekong River in March 2015.
Detonation of UXO at the “Elephant Range” in Kampong Chhanang Province, Cambodia in May 2014.
The UXO salvage diver team lines up ahead of a sea swim for training on the island of Koh Rong off the coast of Sihanouk
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Charles Fox
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Meet Cambodia's Underwater Bomb Squad

May 18, 2016

Nine men line up on a deck along the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia. The directive is clear. They are to dive blindly into the murky depths of up to 100-feet, against the strong river currents, to find and recover undetonated explosive devices. Barring the safety hazards of a potential underwater blast, there's one glitch: none of them can swim.

"There was a lot of flailing around in the water during those first training sessions," British photographer Charles Fox tells TIME. "Cambodians generally aren't taught the skill of swimming and some struggled just to keep their head above the water."

It has been over 30 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million people. Ships carrying large stockpiles of explosives to supply the Khmer Republic were sunk in the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers in the 1970s. The small country also became the stage for a massive carpet bombing by the United States during the Vietnam War. Today, Cambodia is still picking up the pieces of this dark legacy—literally. Abandoned land mines remain a deadly and hidden threat that still kill or injure more than 100 people each year.

Three years ago, Fox picked up a newspaper in a coffee shop in Cambodia, where he found an advertisement from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) calling for mine action sensors to be trained to search rivers for bombs. “I thought 'this is it,'” he says. “This brief, ridiculous 100-word ad is the beginning of my next story."

Forty hopeful volunteers responded to the ad, from which CMAC selected a team of nine de-miners to become Cambodia’s first elite salvage diving unit. Three years later, Fox says their swimming skills have improved dramatically.

"They went from a group of guys in swim trunks to the greatest underwater diving team in the region,” Fox says. “They have a remarkably cohesive unity and take pride in what they do."

The de-miners undergo a rigorous military boot camp. Through drills, diver tests and competitions, they learn underwater detonation, explosive identification, rescues and surveillance. They train to dive blindly into water that is black just six feet below the surface, identifying explosives by touch alone.

The dangers of tampering with explosive devices that have been dormant for 40 years elude no one. If a device goes off beneath the surface, shock waves would travel faster than the speed of sound, instantly killing anybody in the water.

“You gain confidence from the divers," says Fox. "You read their level of assurance because they know what they’re doing.”

Fox has been following the divers for three years, swimming with them and staying after training sessions, learning more about the reasons why each of them dives. Many see it as a patriotic duty. Others have cleared explosives from the land and feel the responsibility to finish the job in the rivers. All hope to use these skills for a similar line of work in the future.

"This story took an unexpected turn,” Fox says. “Beyond the environmental aspect, I became drawn to the human aspect of the piece. As the threat of explosives decreases, I hope this project helps offer these guys a realistic future for work in Cambodia or internationally.”

Charles Fox is a photographer currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Rachel Lowry is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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