During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped nearly 550,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia through secret bombing campaigns, reaching to nearly every corner of the country. A certain percentage remain unexploded to this day, and deaths from unexploded munitions are common. More than 40% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, a situation resulting, in part to years of bombing during the Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge government. Scrap metal presents an economic opportunity for poor Cambodians, who are able to earn a little cash for their families, by selling stripped bomb casings. “Bombhunters” follows a few of these steel scavengers.
To turn the steel into cash, TNT must be removed from the shell casings. the work is generally done by hand, with few tools. As one can assume, it is dangerous work, and injuries and deaths are common. The makers of “Bombhunters” interview not only the scrappers themselves (who are sometimes just children), but also their families and mothers. The directors visit a hospital which treats bomb injuries, providing graphic detail of lost limbs, burns and death.
Steel is sold to dealers who in turn sell it to Thai recyclers. Recycled steel is turned into building products, some of which is then resold back to Cambodia. Recycled steel is also sold on the world market, paticularly to China. Rising steel prices create economic incentives for bomb scavengers, fueling a perfect storm of poor families in desperation and economic exploitation. Scap metal usually brings between 8 and 12 cents a kilo. The film has been credited which the creation of policy in Washington which provides money for professional removal of unexploded munitions, which has reduced deaths by nearly 50%. It’s easy to see why.