Outside the city of Siem Reap is the Cambodia Landmine Museum. It was on my list of things to see, but had I not been encouraged by someone on my Facebook page I may not have gone. But, the stars aligned and I’m so glad they did.
Aki Ra had a tough life by any measure. He doesn’t know when he was born, but estimates 1970. He was separated from his family as a child and became a child soldier.
In the museum there is a story he shares from when he was a child. He had a villager in his sights, but just before squeezing the trigger, he realized it was his uncle. He took a shot and missed on purpose. His comrades were surprised he missed the shot as he was a good shot and the target was only 50 meters away. He blamed it on a headache.
His uncle didn’t know it was him though, so his uncle shot at him. None of the bullets hit Aki Ra though. After the war, Aki Ra told his uncle about the story and they both laughed about it. Hard to imagine.
When Aki Ra was ten he was given a rifle as tall as he was. He first fought with the Khmer Rouge, then with the Vietnamese. With both groups he laid landmines. He estimates he planted 4000-5000 landmines per month.
Something like 4-6 million landmines were laid in Cambodia and the results are easy to see. You see amputees everywhere. An estimated 19,000 have been killed by landmines and 63,000 affected in total. Cambodia has the highest amputee rate in the world – 1 out of every 290 people.
When the UN arrived in the 1990’s Aki Ra saw an opportunity to fix his past wrongdoings. He was an expert in laying mines and was a self-taught demining expert. His methods, however, were not by the books at all. He used a knife, a stick, and years of experience to defuse the small bombs.
After a few years, however, the Cambodian government put in place regulations to prevent other amateur mine defusers from harming themselves. Aki Ra was trained abroad and returned to continue demining.
Why Aki Ra Is A HeroNot content with clearing landmines on his own, in 2008 he started a non-profit organization to amplify his landmine clearing efforts.
He employs local Cambodians, many of whom are former child soldiers like himself, some of whom are amputees, with the goal of demining small, rural villages. These villages are often overlooked by the international demining teams for being too small and too remote.
When people find unexploded bombs or mines they call Aki Ra and know he’ll help. It’s estimated that his group has cleared over 50,000 landmines, though the Cambodian government estimates there are 3 to 5 million landmines still buried. There’s still a lot of work to do.
To multiply his impact, Aki Ra started the Cambodian Landmine Museum to teach others the evils of this crude weapon of war – a weapon that doesn’t go away after peace treaties are signed.
Not content with just clearing mines and educating the world about Cambodia’s landmine problem, he also cares for a couple dozen orphans on-site, some of whom have been injured by landmines.
While I was there, there was a display of artwork the orphans created out of recycled materials. The picture are below.
Aki Ra was a 2010 CNN Hero. But he’s a hero and inspiration for everyone. He proves my point that if everyone focused on improving their own community, the world would be a better place as a result. As he said “I want to make my country safe for my people.” He chose a very ambitious goal, but it was one he had, sadly, tons of expertise on.
What are you an expert at, and how could you use that expertise to benefit your community..and change the world?