From the good life to digging up land mines in Cambodia
While living in Palm Springs, Calif., with retirement looming, Bill Morse chose to move to Cambodia to help activist Aki Ra rid the country of land mines that kill and maim.
Siem Reap, Cambodia — "We think there are about 5 million land mines in the ground in Cambodia, but we've no idea where they are," says Bill Morse. "Part of the problem is they were laid by 11-year-olds."
He's explaining the lingering legacy of 30 years of conflict in Cambodia to a small group of tourists at the Landmine Museum, a few miles from the crowds drawn by the 1,000-year-old Angkor temples in the northwest of this Southeast Asian nation. The neat little museum is packed with land mines, rockets, and munitions all carefully pulled from the ground by a determined Cambodian man named Aki Ra. In the wet tropical heat, the group listens intently, hooked by Mr. Morse's friendly manner and his story.
"Cambodians are being blown up by the ground they live on, and have the highest ratio of land mine victims in the world, though we've gone from a situation where thousands were being killed or injured every year to 158, so it's definitely getting better," Morse says. "Most of them were laid after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and we're constantly trying to dig them up."
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The Khmer Rouge was a radical communist regime that oversaw the deaths of some 1.7 million people – roughly one-quarter of the population – when it ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s. Vietnam invaded in January 1979, liberating Cambodia and driving the communists to the northwest. From there, the communists conducted an insurgency against the Vietnamese occupiers, and later the Cambodian government, until 1998.
During those years of horrific conflict, every side laid land mines.
While all that was happening, Morse and his wife, Jill, were building their lives and careers back home in the United States. He'd gone from being a schoolteacher, and narrowly missing the draft for military service in Vietnam on a technicality, to a sales manager, to owning his own company. He had traveled all over the world, and the couple had settled into a comfortable house overlooking the Santa Rosa Mountains in Palm Springs, Calif.
Morse is used to seizing life's opportunities. He has the clear blue eyes you usually associate with sailors: eyes that can see the distant shore and know that the quickest route is not always a straight line.
Morse is here because of Aki Ra, who as a child was recruited first by the Khmer Rouge and later the Vietnamese Army, and ordered to lay land mines all over his country. Years later, his desire for penance drove him to devote his life to digging up the mines and defusing them using only a stick and pliers.
Aki Ra's dedication has made him the face of the Landmine Museum and of efforts to rid Cambodia of its vicious remnants of war. Morse has become the quiet force behind that face: managing, fundraising, clearing mines, educating, and leading tours around the museum.
"I first heard about [Aki Ra] when a friend came back from Cambodia in 2003 and hit me up for a hundred bucks to help buy a metal detector for this crazy Cambodian guy," Morse says. "I was intrigued, learned some more, and decided that I had to meet him."
He and Jill went to Cambodia to look for Aki Ra, but no one would admit that they'd heard of him. Undaunted, Morse finally found Aki Ra at the old Landmine Museum not far from the historical ruins at Angkor Wat.
"I spent the whole day there. It was fairly rustic," Morse recalls. "He'd charge people a dollar and would use that to go out and dig up more mines. There were 18 children, land mine victims, living with him and his wife, too.
"I told him I wanted to help, and he actually rolled his eyes at me. Apparently he'd heard that before."
That conversation changed Morse's life.
"When we first met I thought he was only a normal tourist," Aki Ra says. "When he said he wanted to help, I thought, 'Many people say that, and then they go home.' But Bill always does what he promises."
Back home, Morse set up a charity to raise funds for Aki Ra's work. But his involvement kept growing. In 2006 Aki Ra got into trouble with Cambodian authorities over his unconventional methods and his inconvenient mentions of Cambodia's bloody history in front of the growing numbers of tourists. He was thrown into jail. The museum was shut down.
Morse was "over and back [to Cambodia] like a rubber ball trying to deal with it all," Jill recalls. Slowly, it was dawning on Morse that home was no longer California.
"In 2009, we were back in the States, and Jill asked me if I'd thought about staying [in Cambodia]," Morse says. "I said 'yes,' but I hadn't the nerve to bring it up." That was that. They rented out their house, brought the dog with them on a plane, and haven't looked back.
"I said to myself, 'I can either help rich people make more money, or I can help people in Cambodia.' And the people here [in Cambodia], they're just wonderful. Especially the young: They're doing the most amazing things.
"And Aki Ra, you know he could have walked away after all the conflict ended, gone off and started his life with his wife [who died three years ago]. But he didn't."
Together with a team of young Cambodians, Aki Ra and Morse now run the new, relocated Landmine Museum, which opened in 2008; a shelter for 37 disadvantaged children; and Cambodian Self Help Demining, a team of 30 professional deminers.
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Asad Rahman is an American and cofounder of Project Enlighten, a nonprofit group Morse and Aki Ra work with. It gives scholarships to the children who live under the care of the Landmine Museum. Every child who wants it gets a scholarship or support for trade school.
"Working with Bill Morse is a truly humbling experience," Mr. Rahman says. "He understands the fabric of the culture very well and is very astute at facing and solving problems with great attention to the needs of the villages and people we serve. Bill is selfless.... It has been a pleasure to work with [him], and I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship."
"I can't end war or bring on world peace," Morse says. "But I can do something right here, right now, and I can make a difference."
Says Aki Ra: "He's like my brother or my father. Everything is much better with him here."
The partnership seems to work well for both men: "We're both pragmatic idealists," Morse says, though neither man is big on making grand plans. "You miss too many opportunities if you're stuck with a plan," Morse says.
While others might impulsively take a long weekend off, these two men are more likely to impulsively build a school. "We don't seek out all of the stuff we do; sometimes it just happens, and it's hard to say no," Morse says. "When you're surrounded by 130 kids [standing] beside their blown-down school, and Aki Ra says to me, 'Well, are you going to tell them they can't have a new one?' No! I can't do that!"
That's the idealism. The pragmatism means they make sure every school they build is properly equipped, with the teachers' salaries paid.
For now, Morse has no plans to return to the US. But he and Aki Ra do have some ideas for the future, including expanding the number of children they support, training more deminers, and setting up a village for the elderly in need.
Morse says he once asked Aki Ra when he'd stop doing what he was doing:
"He looked at me like I was stupid. 'When my country is safe again,' he said."
Morse plans to be right there with him.
• For more information, visit www.cambodianselfhelpdemining.org.
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• Globe Aware promotes cultural awareness and sustainability. Project: Help land mine victims at Wat Bo temple complex in Cambodia.
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