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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."