Saturday, August 14, 2010

Aki Ra

Aki Ra is unsure of his age, but believes he was born in 1970. His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Orphaned in the Khmer Rouge camp, he was taken in by a woman named Yourn who raised him and several other orphaned children until he was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army at about 10 years of age. Aki Ra fought for the Khmer Rouge until 1983 when he was captured by the Vietnamese. He was conscripted into the Vietnamese army on threat of his life while still a boy. He later served with the Cambodian army as a teenager and still later received landmine clearance training with the United Nations. Having laid thousands of landmines as a soldier and working for the UN to remove them he discovered he was quite adept at clearing landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance), and decided to make it his trade.

Having no equipment or demining tools, he used what was at hand to reach his goal of making his country safe for his people: a knife, a Leatherman, a stick and his wits. He would de-fuse the landmines and UXOs he found in small villages throughout the areas where he had fought and bring home the empty casings to a house full of de-fused ordinance. Aki Ra began charging them a dollar to see his collection, using the money to help further his activities. Thus began the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

While working in villages he found both many children permanently injured by landmines or orphaned. He brought them home to live with he and his wife Hourt. Some of the children who moved to their home were also street kids from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Eventually he had brought home over 2 dozen boys and girls. The first child Aki Ra brought home was a 9-year old boy who had lost his leg to a landmine and was living on the street. His wife Hourt had no idea Aki Ra would be returning with little boy, but when he returned home she took the child to her family and said "Look, now I have a son".

The one-time guerrilla has cleared about 20 per cent of the unexploded ordnance in Siem Reap province with his bare hands. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre says five million unexploded devices still blight the countryside. They are difficult to find and pose a random threat. The most prolific deminers employ 1000 people and shift 3000 devices a month. Aki Ra, on the other hand, recently cleared his 50,000th land mine in 2006 (remember: that’s still with only just a stick and knife and the figure doesn’t include unexploded shells – Josh).