Just because Cambodia has found peace, it doesn’t mean it is peaceful. Just because the war is over, it doesn’t mean there’s no longer death. As thousands of Cambodians move to repopulate their former lands, their land is literally killing them.
From 1975-1999, the nation once known as Kampuchea was engaged in one of the most brutal episodes of warfare experienced in modern times. It was relentlessly bombed by US forces, taken hostage by a genocidal madman by the name of Pol Pot, and caught in the middle of a divisive struggle with Vietnamese forces and rogue Khmer Rouge leaders that lasted the better part of 25 years.
During this era of war, enough landmines were laid throughout the country to render 1 in every 290 Cambodians an amputee. An estimated six million mines are still waiting to be found.
Though some of the nation’s landmines are still discovered in the most grisly, unfortunate way possible, there are people out there committed to cleaning up the lingering shrapnel of the past. People who are driven to giving Cambodian’s back the land that for years has been utterly unusable. People who want to stop the suffering. People, like Aki Ra.
Like many Cambodians his age, Aki Ra has no idea when he was born. People tell him 1970, but he can’t officially be sure. In fact, Aki Ra isn’t even his real name. The name is actually a Japanese name that happened to stick, and from that point on, Mr. Ra has been known as Mr. Ra.
While many foreigners may question why someone would want to adopt an entirely foreign name, it’s understandable why Aki Ra may want to leave the past in the past; as a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who was given his first gun at the age of 10, there are many aspects of his past Aki Ra would presumably prefer to forget.On a three-wheeled tuk-tuk ride to Banteay Srei temple, an impeccably carved sandstone ruin that dates back 1200 years, I, for lack of a better term, stumbled upon the Cambodia Land Mine Museum on an unplanned bathroom stop. Located a 30-minute drive from the city of Siem Reap, the museum was actually begun by Aki Ra as a sobering window into the reality of the landmine situation in Cambodia.
And, as he is quick to point out, Aki Ra knows a thing or two about land mines. He used to place them in the field as a child soldier; now he’s defused over 50,000.
For his heroic work over the years and efforts towards cleaning Cambodia of its war-torn past, Aki Ra in 2010 was named one of one CNN’s Heroes of the Year.
The entrance to the museum itself is lined by massive, unexploded bombs which were dropped by the US military while targeting the elusive Viet Cong. Meandering throughout the small museum, everywhere you turn is an instrument associated with death.
12.7 mm machine guns, A72 anti-aircraft missiles, PMN2 anti-personnel blast mines, TM 62 fuses, nearly all of them deactivated by Aki Ra. When an unexploded device is encountered anywhere in the country, a report is then filed, and professional teams managed by a collection of NGOs are called in to clear the ordnance. It’s unfathomably dangerous work.
At the museum, there is a fenced off section of forest which contains a bevy of landmines still firmly lodged in the Earth. Though a small sign informs the visitor all of the mines have been defused, I am still wary to approach the enclosure with anything but a nimble foot.
Though most museums across the globe provide a window into an intriguing part of the past, the Cambodia Land Mine Museum is unique in that it aims to foster understanding about a harsh reality that is still very much lived in the present.
At an orphanage in the riverside town of Kampot, nearly 300 miles from Aki Ra’s museum outside of Siem Reap, a teenage girl desiring to practice her English was quick to approach the only foreigner in the room.
“You’re English is very good” I genuinely told her.
“How long have you been living here in this orphanage? Where are your parents?”
In her answer lay the reason why the work that Aki Ra does is so important to his country.
“My father went boom” she matter-of-factly stated. “My father went boom.”