Aki Ra was a child soldier for Pol Pot, laying mines around Siem Reap. Now he is using his expertise to clear land in rural Cambodia and make it safe again

The rusty tailfin of the mortar round can be seen poking through the roots and mud of a small dirt patch, next to a skull and crossbones sign.

Aki Ra thinks the bomb could have been lying in rural Siem Reap, Cambodia, for 40 years. If it hadnt been found, it may have added another death to the approximately 20,000 people killed by explosives laid in the country from the late 1960s to the 1990s.

Ra, founder of Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD), and his team have found about 100 explosives in the two months theyve been sweeping this 23-acre (9.5-hectare) site in Chi Kraeng district. Despite handling the devices every day since 2008, when the CSHD was formed, none of its workers have been injured by them.

Just by cobras, Ra says. We cut grass, cobra lives there, bites hand. I cut the skin, push blood out. Three times, no deaths.

Aki Ra founded Cambodian Self Help Demining to clear mines in rural areas

Unimpeded by snakes today, Ras team dig around the bomb then carry it to a deeper hole. They move back to the safe end of a 100-metre wire attached to the projectile. Whistles, warning shouts kaboom! Another one down, up to 6m in Cambodia to go.

The Cambodian government wants the country free of landmines and unexploded ordnance by 2025.

But with landmine casualties rising in Cambodia 62 in the first half of 2019, up from 31 in the same period in 2018 the goal seems unrealistic, if urgent.

A woman introduced as Mrs Yorn had her left leg blown off by a mine hidden in foliage a few metres from her house when she was a teenager. She set off another when cutting grass, sending shrapnel tearing through her mouth. Hobbling with a crutch outside her wooden house, which backs onto minefields, Yorn, now 55, says her life is difficult. Sometimes it hurts a lot because there are still fragments [of metal from landmines] in my body.

Ras mine-clearing team offers basic medical help to poor villagers they work near, as an extra service to those who cant afford to travel to hospitals or buy medical equipment and medicine. However, removing metal embedded inside bodies is beyond their skill set.

I had a better life before I lost my leg, says Yorn. I worked hard and had a lot of food. Now her family largely relies on charity Ra sends an associate to his car to fetch a blanket and some money, as a donation. Yorn and a few of her young grandchildren press their hands together in thanks, as he returns to the vehicle.

Mrs Yorn has sustained injuries from mines near her house, including damage to her mouth

Poor villagers such as Yorn are forced to live on land thats cheap because it is littered with mines.

With 40 employees working across 10 provinces, the CSHD, which says it has cleared 175 minefields in the country since forming in 2008, targets villages overlooked by larger NGOs and the governments Cambodian Mine Action Authority.

Another village needs us soon, says Ra, as his team breaks for a quick meal of rice and fish. If we stay too long, other villagers arent happy. So we have to move.

Soldier to sweeper

Its tempting to view Ras career as a story of redemption. In the mid-1970s, aged around 10 (hes not sure of his age, but thinks hes 45), he was recruited by Pol Pots Khmer Rouge. His parents were among the millions of Cambodians murdered by the regime.

Ra waged jungle warfare against incoming Vietnamese forces, laying mines around Siem Reap. He wrote about the brutality of Khmer Rouge communes, but says that after he was handed an AK47 things improved. I was happy to lay mines the guns looked like toys. Machine guns, artillery, grenades, rockets explosions and bangs were like music, drums. We were happy singing songs and fighting.

The CSHD team says it has cleared 175 minefields since forming in 2008

Fun with guns didnt convert to true loyalty to the Khmer Rouges genocidal vision, and in the early 1980s Ra was convinced to join Vietnam forces. After the Vietnamese withdrew in 1990 he joined Cambodias national army, then as fighting subsided he helped civilian volunteers clearing mines.

Metal detectors were not available back then. I made a tool to unscrew mines with, Ra says. Then wed use grass or wood to burn and destroy them.

He was motivated by repeatedly witnessing the devices deadly effects. When some people lose a leg, at first they dont know theres been an explosion. Then the smoke finishes and they understand: Oh, my leg is gone. Then the pain. During the war, some people had both legs blown up then would kill themselves. Id say, Stop, my friend!, but theyd shoot.

Ra cleared mines with the UN when it sent peacekeeping forces to Cambodia in the early 1990s. The UN showed me that the outside world has schools, hospitals, food. Then I understood. I threw out the bad things of the past. I wanted to make my country safe.

Realising he had a knack for handling explosives plus a stockpile of defused mines he charged tourists a dollar to see Ra opened the Cambodia Landmine Museum near Angkor Wat in 1997. He and his wife, Hourt, added a small orphanage, relocating the museum just north of Siem Reap city in 2007.

With funding from US charity Landmine Relief Fund, Ra founded the CSHD. His actions saw him hailed a hero, but recently earned him less welcome attention.

A painting by Aki Ra, inspired by the times he had witnessed landmines deadly effects

In August 2018, a small fire in Ras museum compound led police to discover grenades, bullets and mines that are illegal to own in Cambodia. Ra was detained on firearms charges, and the museum was closed for three months as officials considered its licensed status.

Ra already had an uneasy relationship with authorities. His work, and that of other NGOs, highlighted the governments failure to fully deal with landmines since Prime Minister Hun Sen came to power in 1985. The government says it needs huge foreign donations for landmine clearing. Meanwhile photos of the prime minister wearing a wristwatch worth millions of dollars have circulated online.

With government critics regularly arrested in Cambodia, Ra is understandably reluctant to talk about brushes with the law. He will say that rice meals in jail were not fresh, and that during his detainment he slept or rather didnt sleep in a room with 30 other inmates. Im OK, he says. I follow the rule. The rule can take me to jail.

Avoiding a lengthy conviction, Ra was eventually able to re-open his museum and get back to work. He has many years of mine clearing left in him, but hopes that the CSHD will eventually be taken over by some or all of his three children. He named his second child Mine.

Ra in his early mine clearing days in Cambodia

Ra isnt short of admirers, such as 33-year-old Hak Hort. In the late 1990s Horts right leg was blown off by a mine that killed his brother and sister. He met Ra when he visited Horts village near Siem Reap to clear mines. Hort then went to live in the orphanage.

I was happy to live with him it meant I could go to school, says Hort during a visit to Ras museum. About 100 children have passed through the orphanage so far.

Looking at a painting depicting a group of bodies mutilated by mines, next to sobbing villagers, Hort adds: Hes helped a lot of people.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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