When it comes to clearing landmines, Aki Ra is somewhat of a living legend. After all, he has cleared over 10,000 mines using only a stick and a penknife, his record standing at 35 in one hour. He works without pay, without a metal detector and without a shield.

Akisboys

Aki's Boys

Born in Siem Reap Province in 1973, both his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge for petty reasons when he was just five — his mother for calling out to an old man so he wouldn’t trip and spill his food, and his father for allegedly lying about an illness. Aki was then forced to work with the Khmer Rouge, learning how to lay mines, make simple bombs and fire guns and rocket launchers. He didn’t have much formal education, but he quickly learned how to handle AK47s, M16s, bazookas and mortars. Many such weapons are on display in the landmine museum he’s established in Siem Reap, as are small pistols, grenades, gas masks, CS gas canisters, bombs, all kinds of mines and even military uniforms.

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Aki at work

At the age of 10, he began to fight for the Khmer Rouge, remaining with them till the Vietnamese army overran his village, telling him he could either switch sides or die. (The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, but didn’t reach Siem Reap until 1983.) He stayed with the Vietnamese until 1989, when they pulled out of Cambodia, and then joined the Cambodian army. In 1993, he joined forces with UNTAC, and began his mission of clearing his country of landmines.

Estimating the number of mines still lying in the fields of Cambodia is as difficult as determining how many people were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, but Aki suggests there may be as many as 3 million still out there. He started the museum on his own land in 1997 with mines he had collected in and around the area close to the museum and from areas in and around Angkor Wat. He still clears mines today, but his focus is the Thai-Cambodian border, and he works alone.

According to American filmmaker Trent Harris, who made a documentary about Aki called the Cement Ball of Earth, Heaven and Hell: “He’s seen more hardcore fighting than the most experienced Green Berets. It’s amazing, after everything he’s been through, that he’s still functional. He’s really no-nonsense. He’s not a hero. He says, ‘I’m practising my trade. I had to stay alive, and the only trade I had was landmines.’”

It’s ironic that Aki was first taught to lay mines by the Khmer Rouge to kill and maim. He was later to turn that skill set around, becoming one of the most proficient landmine disposal experts in the world today. Who knows how many lives or limbs he’s saved.

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Aki as a UN de-miner

Many de-miners today blow the mines up when they find them (Aki has done this as well). But this can cause more problems down the road, since metal fragments from the mines can become buried again, setting off metal detectors among other landmine clearing teams, who will then painstakingly try to ascertain whether it’s a mine or merely a fragment.

Cambodians contracted to clear landmines make about US$180 a month (team leaders get a little more), but they have little incentive to clear the mines in a hurry, since they get the same pay no matter how many mines they clear. Their guidelines teach them not to rush, to use metal detectors, to clear the surrounding foliage, to lie down and approach the clearing process very methodically. All in all, this may be a safer process, but at that rate it’ll take about 100 years to clear Cambodia of its landmines. Aki, on the other hand, can clear as many as 200 mines a day. He says he could clear the country in five years with 3,000 trained assistants.

But the reality is Aki is doing something many people would rather not publicize. He has run into many problems over the years, among them being thrown in jail, having his exhibits taken from him and being threatened constantly with having his museum shut down. Enter Richard Fitoussi, a photographer from Toronto, who showed up in Siem Reap in April of 2000 to do a documentary on the 25th anniversary of the Killing Fields. “I wanted to cover the implications of the legacy of war on the people today,” Richard recalls, “what the recovery was like, and what the landmine situation was like.” His inspiration was the film The Killing Fields, which he saw in Grade 8, leaving him with a great admiration for Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran.

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Unexploded ordnance

Richard dismisses the idea that people don’t want the landmine issue publicized: “How do you know someone’s been to Cambodia? They’re wearing landmine T-shirts. It’s one of the biggest attractions in the country. There are even some who’d like to keep them in the ground because of all the work and jobs created in clearing them.”

Richard’s plan is to turn Aki’s landmine museum into an NGO, thereby giving him some protection. “We’ve contracted the land, and have begun construction. A prosthetic limb camp and school are being built in the autumn, and Aki will give workshops in the countryside. There will also be a rehab-education centre for landmine victims. We can’t do any clearing yet, so we’ll focus on prevention. Aki can teach people tricks such as walking on grass — if grass is growing it indicates that no explosives are hidden there, as chemical seepage from mines would have killed the overgrowth. He can also teach people how to watch for broken branches in the forest left over from the war, where one soldier would indicate to another where he had planted mines. He basically teaches people guerrilla warfare. Remember that landmines don’t tend to kill soldiers; they kill civilians.”

Richard wants to turn the NGO over to Aki and his people quickly. “Many NGOs here are damaging to the Cambodian psyche. An NGO is supposed to come to town, set up shop, teach the people to fish, and then go away. But you still have many foreigners here clinging to the management of NGOs when it should have been handed over to Cambodians long ago. And that’s what we want to do — to have capable Cambodians running and administering the landmine museum.”

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The Cambodia Landmine Museum

For the design of the museum, Richard cold-called Texas A & M University after reading an article about a boat it converted into a floating hospital, the Mercy Ship, to help landmine victims in Nicaragua and fit them with prosthetic limbs. Ironically, one of the professors at Texas A & M, Dr. Julie Rogers, had visited Aki’s museum and was still sending him donations. She and her colleagues quickly agreed.

Displays in the landmine museum will include the make, origin and anatomy of mines littering the fields of Cambodia, including a description of how they were designed to wound and kill. There’ll also be an exhibit recounting Aki’s experiences. Josh Peace, a Canadian filmmaker, helped Richard put together a 12-minute film for the Telluride Mountain Film Festival two years ago. After the showing, Tom Shaydyac, who directed Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams and Liar, Liar among others, approached him to ask about the feasibility of the project. Impressed, Shaydyac agreed to contribute $85,000. So Richard now has Hollywood on board, and Shaydyac’s funding has gone a long way to making the landmine museum a reality.

Clearing mines is horribly dangerous work, but it needs to be done. People like Aki Ra and Richard Fitoussi are nothing less than heroes, and their efforts will save thousands of limbs and thousands of lives. Someday, one of Cambodia’s biggest tourist items won’t be a landmine T-shirt.

Contact information:

http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org

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