Cambodia is a land of contrasts. Beside the loads of old temples and ancient ruins, there is a turbulent modern history. In the 70s and 80s civil war rocked the country. Pol Pot’s army, the Khmer resistance, and the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Americans, the French, the Soviets. All of these people were involved somehow-some of them fought the war, some of them provided support, and some of them had their weapons used in the war, with or without their consent.
As the war went on, greater and greater numbers of adults died. Orphans were taken to shelters, where they were trained to work and to fight. Some children were taken away from their families for the same reason-even though they had someone to care for them, they were too useful as fighters. Not all of these children saw combat, but they were trained and prepared to fight.
One of these children was Aki Ra. He was an orphan, but he avoided the orphanages when a kind woman took him in. But, this didn’t last. The army came and took him away to train as a child soldier. He was forced to fight for Pol Pot and then later for the Vietnamese. After the war, he worked for the United Nations.
During the war, he helped lay innumerable landmines. When the fighting was over, he found that he was skilled at disarming these mines. He traveled around Cambodia, digging up and disarming the mines that the official minesweepers hadn’t gotten the chance to clear.
He was ordered to stop his uncertified demining operations. Eventually, he was able to receive certification, and now he can continue to clear the mines.
Aki Ra collected many of the landmines that he disarmed. He has a facility near Banteay Srei where visitors can come and see the many bombs and mines in his collection. He has large mines and small mines. Bombs of all kinds. Inside there are examples of the uniforms worn by the different sides of the war. Rooms hold pictures telling the story of the war and the people it has affected.
But, this is not all that the Landmine Museum represents. Aki Ra not only disarms the mines, but he also helps their victims. Behind the museum there is a facility for orphans, amputees, and the sick. These children come from all over Cambodia to live with Aki Ra and receive the support he has to offer. Posters tell their stories-some lost their parents to mines, others were lucky to lose only their legs. Some of the hardest for me were the ones where a child and their friends and siblings were playing when a friend found a mine. When the child woke up, his or her friends were dead and the child faced recovering from horrific injuries.
In the museum giftshop the children sell their handicrafts alongside more customary souvenirs. Some are simple pictures, some are more like friendship bracelets, and others are more complex woven items. With this money, the facility helps feed, clothe, and educate the children. Funds are available for the kids to go to vocational school or college. They can learn to live for themselves, despite their handicaps.
I left feeling grateful for the life that I have been given and the safety that I take for granted every day. A couple new bracelets in my pocket, I got back into my tuk tuk.
Korean word of the post: 지뢰 (ji-roe) landmine
Chinese word of the post: 地雷 (di4 lei2) landmine
Khmer word of the post: មីន (miin) landmine
Cambodia’s history can be traced back to the Stone Age. The Khmer people formed powerful kingdoms between the ninth and twelfth centuries, constructing a vast capital city and temple complex at Angkor, but their empire then declined and for 600 years Cambodia had feuds with Thailand and Vietnam. A French protectorate from the mid-19th century, Cambodia fell under Japanese authority during World War II, finally gaining independence from France in 1954.
From 1955 to 1970 the Kingdom of Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk had been king since 1941, but he abdicated in 1955 in order to further his aim to establish Cambodia as a constitutional monarchy. Sihanouk formed a political party, led it to victory and became Prime Minister. He was elected as Head of State in 1960. In 1963 left-wing opponents of Sihanouk (including Saloth Sar, who changed his name to Pol Pot) fled Phnom Penh, the capital, for the jungles and mountains of Cambodia and established the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge).
In 1969 United States bombings of Cambodia began, largely in secret, aimed at Vietnamese communist base camps on Cambodian territory.- Brief History of Cambodia