Renegade deminer alerts world to legacy of Cambodia’s mines

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Cambodia’s ubiquitous rice paddies and lush green jungles provided a stage for three decades of war, genocide and civil conflict until peace finally took hold in 1998 and tourism began to sprout. But the legacy of those years of bloodshed stubbornly lurks under the surface of the picturesque scenery in the deadly form of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Aki Ra, a Cambodian in his early 30s, was conscripted into the brutal Khmer Rouge regime as a child soldier and helped lay innumerable mines himself. Today he works to clear those same timebombs and to remind the world that Cambodians still suffer. He recently showed Phnom Penh correspondent Samantha Brown around his homespun museum that showcases the weapons and highlights the carnage they cause, much to the chagrin of national authorities.

In an open-air shack situated down an unpaved street that snakes its way from a strip jammed with luxury hotels in Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination, Aki Ra swings in a hammock, waiting for foreigners bored with temple-hopping to drop by his museum.

While the architecture of Angkor Wat’s glorious past seduces with its ancient mysteries, Aki Ra’s museum draws startling attention to the present: here, thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) pulled from Cambodia’s mine-strewn earth are on show.

It’s a humble affair. Tourists wander through a series of shacks packed with a vast array of weapons. Before, the former Khmer Rouge child soldier blithely helped lay the deadly contraptions, but these days he defuses them with his bare hands, hauling them here to warn others of their lethality.

Red danger signs bearing skull and crossbones — seen everywhere across Cambodia — are nailed to a mock minefield set up to show visitors what many Cambodians contend with in daily life. Dogs wearied by the tropical heat thump their tails nearby; ducks waddle up from the adjacent river to preen in the shade.

Cambodia has been busily chasing the tourism dollar as visitor numbers have swelled each year since peace triumphed in this war-weary nation, but authorities have not been impressed with Aki Ra’s efforts. They’ve once closed him down, allegedly extorted money from him and refused him a demining licence. But he pushes on, determined to remind people of the horror lurking beneath Cambodia’s rice fields and wild jungles — and to add to the 20,000-plus collection of defused weapons he has already amassed.

"I want to help. I’ve changed my ideas. Before it wasn’t good and I didn’t understand. Now I know I have to do good things," Aki Ra says, sitting cross-legged in an open-air hut with his belongings hanging in plastic bags on the wall.

Nobody is sure how many mines and unexploded ordnance might still pepper Cambodian territory but nearly 30 years of vicious bloodshed, which only ended in 1998, was enough to give it the dubious honour of being one of the most mined and bombed countries in the world.

In 2004, 171 people were killed and 727 others injured in mine and UXO accidents, nearly all of whom were ordinary people trying to eke out a livelihood in the poverty-wracked kingdom. One in every 240 Cambodians is estimated to be disabled, many simply by taking one wrong step.

Since organised demining began in 1992, about 252 square kilometres (97 square miles) have been cleared. Roughly 2,900 square kilometres (1,120 square miles) of mine-infested land remains. At the current rate, the country will not be cleared of mines for another 150 years.

The first landmines were laid in the mid-1960s as Cambodia was drawn into the war in Indochina. Vietnamese communists opened supply routes through the country to help troops battle the US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem regime, and then US and South Vietnamese troops made incursions into Cambodia to retaliate.

After the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot seized power in 1975, they used landmines extensively for military purposes and to seal off their Maoist-inspired agricultural collectives as they oversaw the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, torture and overwork.

Aki Ra — he dropped his birth name Oun Yak when a Japanese UN worker later gave him the nickname Akira — was born around 1973, and his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge a few years later. He was conscripted as a child soldier and spent his childhood learning how to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make explosives.

"Sometimes I was so hungry that I would eat the earth. I ate coal. I ate insects, any kind, and many times I was sick," he recalls matter-of-factly, a quick smile frequently breaking across his face. "We would drink any kind of water we could get, even water with the blood of the people in it."

In 1979, Vietnamese troops ousted the ultra-Maoist rulers, who had sought to turn the country into their version of an agrarian utopia, but Khmer Rouge remnants retained control in some areas and waged a devastating guerrilla war.

Aki Ra’s village was eventually captured by the Vietnamese and, at gunpoint, he was conscripted to work for them.

"It was still similar — dangerous — but a little bit better because there was more food. We could kill anything — cows, chickens, dogs, and we could eat them. But still, many people died," he says.

He started defusing mines to use the TNT they contained for fishing, or to sell to soldiers from neighbouring Thailand.

"We cleared a lot and when we had one pickup truck full of TNT, they would give us 2,000 or 3,000 baht," which was then about 80 to 120 dollars, he recalls.

Afterwards he was sent to work on "K5", a mammoth plan involving at least 150,000 workers trying to seal Cambodia’s 700-kilometre long, malaria-infested border with Thailand, using probably millions of mines.

"I taught them how to lay mines and booby traps. I was only 13 or 14 but I was a teacher, training older people," Aki Ra says.

Soon after the arrival of UN peacekeeping troops in 1992, the young soldier entered Siem Reap town for the first time.

"I had only known a life in the jungle and we lived without electricity, toilets and roads. Even transport was a whole new world to me," he writes in a short photocopied memoir sold at the museum.

"For a while I thought I was either dreaming or had been transported to another planet."

Aki Ra, who left the Vietnamese army when they pulled out in 1989, later found work with the influx of UN workers, and with his extensive knowledge of mines naturally gravitated to demining.

"I knew more than the UN knew," he says in a manner more matter-of-fact than boastful. Their techniques, however, were completely different.

"The UN taught demining with a metal detector. They taught not to touch the mines. They destroyed them using a lot of protection. I cleared with my feet, with sticks, with knives. I touched them to take the detonator out. Easy."

Using Japanese, English and French language skills learned while with working the UN, Aki Ra became a tour guide at Angkor Wat, but the mines had got under his skin. He hit on the idea of opening a museum to educate tourists, and in 1997 bought a small parcel of land that was, of course, embedded with mines. He cleared the land himself.

"I opened it to teach people. Please don’t play with them, don’t touch, and don’t use landmines. Don’t make war in the future, it’s bad," he says.

But the authorities were not happy and in 2000 shut him down, saying he would scare people away from Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.

Aki Ra was thrown into jail for possessing dangerous weapons and his collection was confiscated. He says he avoided 10 years in jail by paying 3,000 dollars, which he cobbled together by selling off a small plot of land and borrowing.

"One year later they opened their own museum and showed everything taken from here. I asked: Why are we dangerous and bad, but you good? I’m not rich and powerful, but I’ve done this myself."

He says he now pays police — who are accused of rampant corruption in Cambodia — around 50 to 100 dollars a month to let him stay open and welcome the 50 or so tourists who drop by daily.

"They don’t talk about being wrong, or bad, or good, they just talk about money. They don’t want me to explain to tourists, to talk to journalists."

The police chief of Siem Reap district, Phing Chendarith, says he was never aware the museum had reopened and scoffs at Aki Ra’s claim to have collected the mines there himself.

"He’s telling people lies. He’s telling this to tourists in order to make a business … Maybe he just collects the equipment from scavengers," the police chief says, while conceding that the surrounding countryside is still strewn with mines.

"Maybe even in the next 10 years we won’t be able to collect them all."

Today Aki Ra and his wife, Hourt, are focusing on bringing up 20 mine-affected children along with their own sons, Amatak, aged three, and Mine, aged eight months. Some are orphans, others have chosen to stay with him with their parents’ consent.

"I want them to read and write, to have good knowledge in the future. Some of them want to be deminers, some farmers or teachers."

This year he also opened a small "gallery" near Siem Reap’s bustling old market, where tourists browse mine-awareness posters and can buy souvenirs. The children, aged nine to 16, perform songs there every other evening.

One of them is Poiy Yin, 15, who lost his left leg to a landmine as he walked in a field with his mother. He says he came to stay with Aki Ra when a nearby non-government organisation (NGO) that had promised him a prosthesis failed to deliver.

"I’d like to follow my teacher to be a deminer too. Mr Aki Ra taught me that to be a deminer, first you have to be strong, to not be afraid. Second, you have to know how to recognise the mines and then to defuse them."

Aki Ra now spends about five days a month out in the fields and jungles of the most heavily mined provinces along the border with Thailand, steadily clearing whatever he can, despite being denied a formal license to do so.

"My life was always jungle and mines. I can’t stop," he shrugs. "Now it’s safe, it’s peaceful. I never feel worried. During the war, we had to keep an eye out for the enemy, we had guns. Now we can just focus on the mines," he says, adding that he’d be happy to work for a demining NGO.

"They don’t need people anymore. They don’t have enough money to do more."

The world gave Cambodia 17 million dollars to help clear mines in 2003, down on the 27 million dollars it gave a year earlier as donor attention apparently shifted elsewhere.

Aki Ra also teaches desperate villagers how to clear their own land, with the NGOs unable to keep up with demand as Cambodia’s 13 million people clamour for space to grow crops.

The mines "blow up their friends, their cows get blown up, so they want the land cleared fast, today or this year. When they tell the NGOs, the NGOs come and put signs up", says Aki Ra.

"They wait for many years. The people don’t want to wait anymore."

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