Modern Cambodian hero Aki Ra has made it his life’s mission to rid his nation of land mines. The one-man army spends most of his day chopping vegetation in fields and delicately prodding the areas that set off his metal detector. More often than not, he uncovers hockey-puck sized antipersonnel land mines, and destroys them with a controlled explosion. “I want to make my country safe for my people,” he said.
There was a time when Cambodia was plagued by over six million land mines buried underground in paddy fields and lush jungles, ready to indiscriminately murder soldiers and innocent children alike. The devices were once used by the nation’s warring factions, including the notorious Khmer Rouge, to finish their enemies.
Aki Ra, who used to be a child soldier for Khmer Rouge, has spent over 22 years of his life single-handedly removing land mines that were left behind unexploded. Between 1992 and 2007, he was able to rid his homeland of a whopping 50,000 mines, armed with nothing but a pocket knife, pliers, a stick, and his bare hands.
Photo: Cambodian Self Help Demining
“I poke my stick in the ground till I find a mine,” he had explained. “Then I dig around it, to make sure that it is not booby-trapped. Then, I unscrew the detonator. And the mine is safe.”
Aki didn’t have any experience when he first started defusing landmines, but later he got Accredited International Demining Training and in 2008 heput togehter his own demining team – Cambodia Self Help Demining. He now uses International Mine Action Standards methods and equipment, and trains community-based demining teams to remove land mines.
Photo: YouTube caption
Born in 1970, Aki Ra’s parents were among the 1 million Cambodians who were murdered in the countries infamous killing fields. At the age of 10, he was recruited by the same organisation to cook, hunt and wash clothes for the soldiers. But he was soon handed a gun and expected to fight. “We believed what they told us, we didn’t have any choice,” he said. “I didn’t know anything of the outside world.”
During his time as a soldier, Aki Ra became familiar with land mines. “Sometimes I would carry around 100 with me in a sack,” he revealed. “Every week I would see someone hurt by them.” During his teenage years, when the Vietnamese invaded and took control of Phnom Penh, Aki Ra and his fellow soldiers were captured. In order to avoid execution, he began to fight for his captors instead, against his former allies.
Photo: Angkor Focus
“I had bad feelings, because sometimes we were fighting against our own friends and relatives,” he said. “I felt sad when I saw a lot of people were killed. A lot of people were suffering from land mines. But I did not know what to do, we were under orders.” Once, when he spotted his uncle in the enemy line, Aki Ra actually shot over his head to avoid killing him.
When the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989, Aki Ra was once again conscripted – this time into the Cambodian army. This was when, at age 20, he attended school for the first time. Interestingly, the man can now speak seven languages – English, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, French, and even some Russian!
Photo: Antonio Graceffo
When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Cambodia in 1992, Aki Ra was recruited to do the job that comes naturally to him – clearing land mines. “When we were shooting during the war, we would always be feeling for mines under our feet,” he explained. Since land mines require at least 10 kg of force to detonate, gentle probing can help in detecting the deadly devices.
By the year 1997, Aki Ra had managed to collect so many bomb casings, weapons and unexploded military supplies that he started the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. Here, visitors learn about the destruction of war in exchange for a small entry fee. The museum also houses Aki Ra’s personal paintings that provide a visual representation of his own unique war experiences.
He has also established the Cambodia Landmine Relief Fund that supports a school and relief center for orphans and young land-mine victims. Over 100 children have passed through the institution so far – 27 of them currently study at school, while nine are at university.
The name that Aki Ra chose for his own son is quite surprising; the boy is called Mine. “As a baby he would sleep with a lot of land-mine casings around,” he explained. “And whenever he woke up he would play with them. The name just stuck.”
Aki Ra’s latest clearance project, located an hour’s drive east of the historic Angkor Wat, has enabled locals to farm bananas, potatoes, rice and coconuts. “I was very scared of the bombs because of my two children,” said 33-year-old Van Pok. But thanks to Aki Ra’s dedication and efforts, she can now build a house and vegetable garden on to the ex-minefield. It is a dream now possible on a land that no longer kills.
“Aki Ra is a real testament of what can be accomplished if people work to make their country safe,” said Canadian photographer Richard Fitoussi, who arrived in Cambodia in 2000 and extensively studied the hero’s work. Fitoussi’s 2010 documentary film, A Perfect Soldier, featured Aki Ra and highlighted his work in great detail. In the same year, Aki Ra was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero, under the ‘community crusader’ category.