|A massive number of landmines and explosive munitions are in this gazebo. All are disarmed.|
But despite its outward appearances, this is the deadliest gazebo on earth. The interior is absolutely filled with landmines. There are landmines of so many kinds. There are anti-personnel mines, and anti-tank mines. There are plastic mines, and metal mines. Most are made for below ground, others for above ground. There are primitive mines that look like drums, cooking pots, and tin cans. Some cost as little as $1 to manufacture.
Then there are the military munitions alongside them. There are mortar rounds of many sizes and styles. There are rockets, grenades, shell casings, and a Kalashnikov rifle. Hanging beneath two of the mortar rounds, is one of the only items inside the gazebo not made of metal. It is a small, simple, wooden cross.
Thankfully, all of these bombs and munitions have already been defused. This gazebo is located in the Cambodian Landmine Museum & Relief Center.
The story behind this center's founder, is almost unbelievable. Some stories you hear about in Cambodia you couldn’t make up. They are beyond fiction. They seem beyond the human capacity to endure. One of those stories involves a child. We know him today as Aki Ra.
When he was young, Aki Ra's mother and father were killed by the radical Khmer Rouge. With the chaos of those years, he’s unsure exactly when he was born. An older acquaintance thinks it was in 1973. Aki Ra was sent to a Khmer Rouge camp for children. By age ten, they had made him a child soldier.
|Former child soldier, Aki Ra (Wikipedia photo)|
The Khmer Rouge soon taught Aki Ra to lay mines and booby traps. They discovered he had a talent for it, even as a small child. He came to like mines. They protected him from enemies. Wild animals would step on them and die, providing him with food.
As a child soldier, he first fought with the Khmer Rouge fighting the Vietnamese Army. In 1987, he switched sides, joining the Vietnamese against the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese left, he joined the Cambodian Army, continuing to fight the Khmer Rouge. All this time, he continued to lay landmines. He personally laid thousands of mines with his own two hands. He doesn’t know how many. It will never be known how many soldiers and civilians died, or lost limbs from all the mines he laid during his many years as a child soldier.
Aki Ra is short, by western standards, his growth was stunted as a child from malnutrition during his growing years under the Khmer Rouge. But he’s muscular for his size. Not surprisingly, he has a serious face.
|Khmer Rouge boy soldiers. Many died. (Arch photo)|
In 1993, Aki Ra went to work for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as a deminer. He already knew a great deal about landmines, and now he had a real peacetime job defusing them. He also learned to disarm unexploded munitions. When UNTAC ceased their work, he continued demining in communities where he had previously fought as a soldier.
I once ran into a grey bearded English deminer named Robert from Siem Reap. An explosives expert, he knew all about Aki-Ra.
"He's an absolute nutter!” Robert told me. He disapproved of Aki Ra's unorthodox, reckless style of demining. He refuses to wear the hot, bulky body armor and helmet that other deminers use for safety. Aki Ra is more content working in loose clothing, like he did when he was a child soldier. Often, the only tools he uses for demining are a sheath knife, and steel probing rod. Using only these two simple tools, he could locate and disarm many types of mines.
|Landmines in his museum. Millions are still buried in Cambodia.|
As years passed, Siem Reap officials pressured him to relocate his museum. They may have been embarrassed to have a landmine museum nearby. So Aki Ra moved his museum far from town, in the protected rural region that includes the Angkor temples, where I am today. Before building began, Aki Ra had to use his expertise here as well. Unexploded artillery rounds and grenades were found here on this site, and he removed them.
Seeking to help others, Aki Ra opened his new home to a few children who had lost limbs to landmines. Others from very poor families soon joined them, and he found himself running his own home for children. Today, his home cares for more than 20 kids. Meanwhile, he continues to work as a deminer for his own organization known as Cambodian Self Help Demining.
Aki Ra's reputation has grown, and numerous stories and documentaries have been done about him. Incredibly, he estimates that he has cleared more than 50,000 mines and unexploded bombs over the years. With more than 5,000,000 landmines left to clear in Cambodia, Aki Ra has plenty of work ahead of him. It will take decades for him and all the other deminers in the country to clear them all.
|Visitors examine uniforms from demobilized soldiers.|
Young Khmer visitors are picking up the shirts, and trying on the helmets. They youth are lucky. Unlike their fathers, they are not being forced to become soldiers. They will not have to go to war, to kill, or die a senseless death.
Along another wall, I find the happiest part of the museum. Here are the photos of happy, smiling Khmer kids that live in Aki Ra’s home for children. The landmine victims now all have prosthetics, they eat balanced meals, and receive an education.
After I depart, I ponder on what Aki Ra has accomplished here. American society tends to write off child murderers. Some end up spending most of their lives in prison.
Aki Ra is proof that children raised in a violent environment, somehow can grow up to lead productive lives as an adult. He is proof positive that people can change.