On a blistering hot afternoon in the Cambodian countryside, we walked into a landmine.
A landmine museum, that is.
About 25 km outside of Siem Reap resides the Cambodia Landmine Museum. This little complex has a big heart for healing war-torn Cambodia and a mission to care for and educate children who have been directly affected by landmine explosions.
As we passed by the rows of mortar cases lining the entryway, we heard a booming American voice from inside the first building. Bill Morse was giving a tour to Japanese students. Justin and I joined their party and listened intently to the facts that Bill – a staff member of The Landmine Relief Fund – shared with the group.
Cambodia does not have a pretty past. Many would call it down right ugly. The 1970s and 1980s were a terrible time across Southeast Asia, and the Cambodian people were caught between internal and external struggles for power. The Khmer Rouge, a leftist political and military faction, was fighting for control of the country. However, the Khmer Rouge found itself fighting against the Vietnamese, who attempted to swallow up Cambodia within its own borders. Thus, they retreated to the western provinces of Cambodia and encircled themselves in a ring of mine fields.
It wasn’t long before landmines became a tool of every side.
As armies swept across the Cambodia countryside, they conscripted children into their ranks. Aki Ra was one of those children who fell under the command of the Khmer Rouge; he was given his first rifle by the age of 10.
Children were often assigned the task of laying landmines. Jill Morse, Bill’s wife who we met while touring the museum, recalled a horrific story from Aki Ra’s childhood:
One day, Aki Ra and his friends were given sacks filled with landmines and told to lay them “anywhere that people might step.” The kids went out and buried the mines. Then they set their packs down and played. When they came back, they didn’t remember where they had placed all the mines… and some of them were detonated.
When the child soldiers who successfully navigated through their own mine fields returned to the military camp, they were asked if all of the mines had been planted. Any who did not complete the job were executed immediately.
In his teens, Aki Ra was captured and conscripted into the Vietnamese military forces, which he fought with until 1989 when their troops began to pull out of Cambodia.
Although Aki Ra grew up knowing only war, he has been working for peace ever since the Civil War’s end. He joined the Cambodian Royal Army in 1990 and learned from U.N. Peacekeeping forces how to detect and disarm landmines.
Aki Ra became passionate about restoring peace to his nation, and making the land safe for his people. For years, he went out with small teams to find and deactivate mines, ordinances, and other explosives – without protective gear and using very risky and dangerous methods. He opened a small museum outside of Siem Reap where he exhibited a growing collection of deactivated mines. With the help of a Canadian journalist, he founded an official NGO, the Cambodia Land Mine Relief Museum, to align with international standards for landmine recovery.
In addition to removing landmines and educating the world about landmines at the Museum, Aki Ra also inspired the Relief Facility, a place to provide care and education to dozens of children who have fallen victim to the mindless metal beasts. These children from local villages are given the opportunity to enter university or trade school. These are the faces of Cambodia’s future – and they have big dreams to bring light to a dark history.
Today, an estimated 5 million active mines remain planted in Cambodian soil. The United States, Japan, and Norway give the most financial aid to the removal of landmines in Cambodia, while teams from international organizations such as The HALO Trust have been working to clear mine fields since the early 1990s. The goal of the Cambodia Self Help Demining NGO, established in 2008, is to remove all mines by 2020. Even with the various teams working to finish the job (including the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces), Bill Morse commented to our group that this achievement will take another 100 years – unless even more people get involved.
The pain of the Cambodian people is still felt today, as an average of 150 people per year are seriously injured or are killed, and the country boasts the highest amputee rates in the entire world.
But Cambodia is not the only country to know this type of suffering. Around the globe, landmines lay as silent killers as a result of current or past wars. Landmines are terrible weapons of senseless violence, and they must be destroyed. Consider donating to or volunteering with one of the many organizations that is working to make our world a safer place – for everyone.
After all, one person can make a difference and shine a light through the darkness.
So, family, friends, and around-the-world readers… do you believe one person can make a difference in the world? How does Aki Ra’s story inspire you? Have you ever encountered someone affected by landmines?