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To love a rat Shadow stories and interspecies relations in a Cambodian minefield


Author: De Angelo, Darcie
Under the direction of: Margaret Stevenson
McGill University
English Language English text

Keywords: Anthropology, Cambodia, Mines, Deminers, Rats, NGO.


Read the thesis.


There are approximately 4-6 million landmines in Cambodia leftover from wars that ended decades ago. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the Cambodian deminers who walked across this unstable ground. Examining the minefield as a workplace, I found that the potential violence of the minefield was not limited to the explosives in the ground, but included a past that has left traces in the present—such as former enemies, dangerous spirits, and state surveillance. Many of these deminers had planted the mines when they were soldiers—their military skills now repurposed for peacetime careers. Some deminers had even fought on opposite sides during Cambodia’s decades of conflicts. Like the landmines, this violence was also concealed, although its hidden presence intrudes into people’s lives. Deminers I knew curbed their speech and communicated a sense of uncertainty about any potential violence from the current government, from spirits, and from each other. They told me stories about this violence indirectly, with oblique hints that spoke to their suspicions about the potential dangers surrounding us. In contrast to the indirect suspicions they portrayed about the state, their supervisors, colleagues and spirits, the deminers were clear about their affection for a new technological innovation in the minefield : mine detection rats. In 2015, a state-NGO partnership implemented mine detection rats as a new method of mine detection in Cambodia. Working in pairs, deminers on cleared pathways transecting a minefield, learned how to guide a Giant Gambian Pouched Rat over the uncleared and dangerous ground. The deminers loved these rats. But even this love had secrets. In this dissertation I show how the violent past made its presence known obliquely in the present. In a context where violence and guilt were not addressed directly, I ask how love for a rat might have been able to "make a cruel person kind," or somehow mediate a violent past.