When we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Banteay Srei, northeast of Siem Reap, Cambodia, we learned about the man who started the museum and an organization called the Cambodian Self Help Demining. He and other members of this organization go from place to place in rural Cambodia to clear up areas that are still littered with live landmines and unexploded ordnances from the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge era years back. There are more than three million of these live landmines and unexploded ordnances estimated still out there, causing people to accidentally step on them and either causing lost of limbs or, worse, death. Aki Ra had training as a soldier to work with the explosives, so he used his knowledge to help address the problem of landmines. The museum was started as a way to educate people especially foreign visitors about the danger and problem that landmines cause, even years after the war was over. The proceeds from the museum went to an orphanage for children who had been impacted by landmines.
You can read Aki Ra’s own story on his organization’s website, but here is the text from the award given to him by CNN as one of 2010 Top 10 Heroes:
“On any given day, Aki Ra walks where others fear to tread in the remote villages of Cambodia. Dressed in protective gear, he takes careful steps, searching for one of the nearly six million land mines buried underneath the war-torn soil. For Aki Ra, this is his path to redemption. As a child, he was kidnapped to become a soldier with the Khmer Rouge and was taught to lay mines — planting as many as 5,000 every month. When peace finally came, he saw an opportunity to undo the damage he had done and he began to clear them. At first, he used his hands, knives, and other unconventional tools; now, he has formal training and leads the Cambodian Self Help Demining Team, which he created. Since 1993, Aki Ra has cleared more than 50,000 mines and unexploded weapons. He has also opened a museum so the world can see the damage that remains long after a war ends. He often meets children who are orphaned or have lost a limb to a mine and gives them a home at the orphanage he built next to that museum — there are 30 living there. Aki Ra teaches them that to move forward in this world they must “do good acts and love each other.”
Aki Ra wants to make every village in Cambodia land mine-free. While the Khmer Rouge stole his childhood, he works to make Cambodia safe, secure, and strong so that every child has the chance to prosper. Aki Ra doesn’t believe the Khmer people should wait for others to clear the mines from their villages; he believes they should “do it for themselves.”
You can also check out CNN’s story on Aki Ra.
A couple of thoughts after visiting the museum and learning about Aki Ra: 1) Sometimes we take it for granted the ability to walk outdoors. In Cambodia, some of these ‘normal activities’ end up with people losing their limbs or even their lives because of things that were left from the war years ago. 2) It’s very inspiring to hear the story of a man who used his knowledge that was initially taught to him to harm others, but now he uses it to save lives. I wonder if sometimes he might get discouraged by the thinking that there are still so many of these landmines out there to clear, but I hope he’s also encouraged by seeing the lives that he’s impacted, the children who now can play freely out on the field after the landmines have been cleared, and the awareness he had spread to people like me who had never thought about this aspect of war.
The photo below was taken at the museum. It was the poster about Aki Ra’s nomination as CNN Top Hero in 2010.