A former Cambodian boy soldier defuses his past

Aki Ra laid mines with his bare hands for the Khmer Rouge and now takes them away to villagers' delight and official frustration.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Exhibiting his past: Aki Ra, above, in the courtyard of his Cambodia Landmine Museum shows a Russian-made antipersonnel mine that he found in the jungle and defused by hand. His childhood was spent laying such devices.
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Walking through his new land-mine museum, Aki Ra picks up a Russian-made antipersonnel mine. He avoids touching the trigger pad even though he defused the device a long time ago.

"You hold like this, no problem," he says, pinching the sides of the coffee-cup-size mine. It's green, to match the Cambodian jungle where it once lay buried, threatening the life and limb of all who came near. Aki Ra is comfortable handling explosives. He grew up laying minefields for the Khmer Rouge. "I put mines around Siem Reap buildings, Otdar Meanchey, near the Thai border," he says. "I cannot forget that stuff."

He now works to undo that damage. Ten years ago he opened an ad hoc land-mine museum in his home. Back then, it was just a collection of mines that he'd defused, but it drew thousands of tourists who were in town to visit Angkor Wat and other famous temples. Last summer he moved the Cambodia Landmine Museum – to a building that architecture students at Texas A&M University designed to display his collection.

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His willingness to show the mines to tourists has made him the unofficial face of the problem in Cambodia. Photo displays at the new museum present him as the little guy trying to make his country safe.

But in the world of official demining and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Aki Ra is unorthodox. He has had no formal education. He has an e-mail address but rarely checks it. He dislikes planning – if a village chief asks for help clearing mines, he's apt to stop off, impromptu, to help. His removal process involves creeping up to a mine, prodding the side of it with a stick, and plucking it out of the ground with his hands. Then he moves on. He doesn't keep records. Big demining groups, on the other hand, prioritize location and follow international safety standards. They grid minefields and painstakingly check every inch of land using metal detectors. They rarely touch land mines, preferring to blow them up with explosives. They keep careful records of the number of mines they find and the exact perimeter of the land cleared.

Aki Ra's methods irritate these big groups. The government here has temporarily banned him from clearing mines, so he has resigned himself to getting certified. This fall, an American sponsor helped him attend demining courses in England; now he is applying for a license. He has lots of support: At least five foreign groups raise money for his projects, the former Canadian ambassador to Cambodia has lobbied on his behalf, and the Cambodian minister in charge of land-mine clearance is carefully complimentary.

"I admire him," says Sam Sotha, of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. "When he first started, he was very small. He started something from empty hands. From scratch. Alone. Now he has his name. His reputation is all over."

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As Aki Ra's reputation has grown, he's become more reticent. He agreed to a interview only after prodding from a donor. "People ask the same questions about my life and my background," he says.

But bits and pieces of his life do emerge in a conversation that, though foggy and inconsistent in places, reveals a story of survival and success against the odds. As an orphan who became a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge, he hunted deer and wild boar using an AK-47. He laid land mines around homes and farms, sometimes to kill animals for food, sometimes to kill villagers. "My friends, many of them are dead," he says. "Some are still alive but no legs. No arms."

In 1979, as the Vietnamese Army swept through Cambodia, Aki Ra was forced to join them, fighting against the Khmer Rouge and laying more land mines. Later, he joined the Cambodian Army. Then, in 1994, the United Nations taught Aki Ra how to clear land mines.

Walking through the museum, he shows mines he retrieved, including a stack of antitank mines, each as wide as a dinner plate. In one corner are stacks of Bouncing Betties, fearsome bombs that look like soda cans but shoot up from the ground, exploding at waist level.

The mine problem is very real in Cambodia. Between January 2006 and August 2007, 300 people were killed or injured by land mines, according to the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System. In the same time, there were 415 casualties from UXO or unexploded ordnance, like the thousands dropped by US forces on the Vietnam-Cambodia border before Pol Pot rose to power.

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Professional mine clearers view Aki Ra's museum and methods as an affront to their own careful work. Where are the fields he's cleared? Are they really safe? Or is he giving villagers a false sense of security?

"I've received many complaints," says Mr. Sotha.

Tim Porter, program manager for HALO Trust, a Western NGO that employs 1,100 deminers in Cambodia, rolls his eyes when Aki Ra is mentioned: "[He] is promoting himself off the back of a problem that exists. Those people who get involved [with his cause] when they're on holiday in Cambodia don't get the full picture and that is wrong."

While demining NGOs focus on areas considered high priority, Aki Ra has won friends by going to low-priority villages. A few years ago, he cleared unexploded bombs for a neighbor – a Japanese expatriate named Morimoto Kikuo, who hasn't forgotten.

After walking though the museum, Aki Ra takes his family – including a 3-year-old son named Mine, as in land mine – to a party at Mr. Kikuo's farm. Kikuo describes Aki Ra this way: "He's like a soldier still. Someone has ordered him to demine. If he cannot demine, he cannot live."

Toward the end of a meal of rice, meat, fish, eggs, and soup, Aki Ra's cellphone rings. He gestures frantically for a pen. It's "Mr. Bomb," an old friend and demining partner from Australia. Aki Ra writes his hotel room number down on his palm and motions that it's time to go.

Mr. Bomb, aka Tony Bower-Miles, and another Australian are visiting for three months. "We're here to help this country and help Aki Ra," says Mr. Bomb, pointing to four nylon cases in the corner of his hotel room, each containing a metal detector. Mr. Bomb, who fought in Vietnam and has no license to remove land mines here, has arranged for an Australian TV crew to tape them. "You need to tell them your story," Mr. Bomb tells Aki Ra. "It could raise a million dollars."

Aki Ra just looks sad. He's tired of telling his story.

Later, he goes to a simple Siem Reap bathhouse because the running water at his house isn't working properly. He stretches out in a whirlpool and reiterates that it is hard for him to talk about the past. Even though life is better now, he says he has nightmares when he talks about the Khmer Rouge. Unexpected loud noises scare him. He says he's breathed too much TNT, drunk too much bad water in the jungles.

"When I'm finished with land mines in Cambodia, I think I'll forget about all the bad things, the war, the land mines," he says. "I will farm."

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