Many Intrepid travellers to Cambodia visit the Land Mine Museum near Siem Reap and learn of the sad legacy of war – the deaths, the amputees and the estimated five million unexploded ordinance (UXO) and landmines still left in the country. They also may meet the larger-than-life character, Aki Ra, who has just been short-listed in the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2010 – out of 10,000 nominations!
At the age of 10, after being separated from his family through the war, Aki Ra became a child soldier and was given his first rifle that measured his height. He fought firstly with the Khmer Rouge (whose genocidal crusade was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians during the 1970s); he was captured by the Vietnamese and fought for them, then when the Vietnamese left he fought for the Royal Cambodia Armed Forces.
While fighting for the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra worked as a mine layer for three years and then did the same for the Vietnamese. Aki Ra estimates he “maybe planted 4000 to 5000 land mines in a single month, we planted them all over the place.” Throughout the many years of war, Aki Ra saw thousands of lives destroyed by the horrific landmines. Aki Ra says of laying land mines that “I had bad feelings, because sometimes we were fighting against our friends and relatives, I felt sad when I saw a lot of people were killed and suffering from land mines. I did not know what to do – we were under orders.”
After the United Nations came to Cambodia in the early 1990′s to help restore peace, Aki Ra trained with them to help clear and de-mine his country. He saw this as his opportunity to begin undoing the damage he and others had done. After one year of working for the UN clearing landmines and UXOs wherever he found them, Aki Ra continued the work independently and in some of the areas where he’d placed them years earlier. But he had no equipment and worked using primitive methods such as a knife and stick.
In 2008, Aki Ra formed his non-profit organisation Cambodian Self Help De-mining (CSHD). The organisation is made up of native Cambodians, including former soldiers and war crime victims. Their mission is to clear landmines and UXOs in ‘low priority’ villages throughout the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Aki Ra estimates that since 1993, he and his group have cleared more than 50,000 mines and UXO, many of which are on display at his Land Mine Museum. The museum is also the location for a centre, where Aki Ra has cared for roughly over 100 children over the years, some without parents and injured by land mines. The centre provides food and shelter for the children and sends them to public school.
We are all extremely proud of Aki Ra and his work for Cambodians. Please help to bring more support to his work and CSHD’s dream ‘to make Cambodia safe for its people,’ by nominating him as the 2010 CNN Hero by 8 November, 2010. (Please note, you can vote more than once – last year’s winner received 2.5 million votes.)