Aki Ra is a Cambodian hero. He has devoted his adult life to ridding his nation of land mines; a Herculean task as the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimate that there could be up to 6 million land mines hidden across the Cambodian countryside.
Aki has been removing unexploded land mines from the earth for over 22 years. Between 1992 and 2007, he single-handedly cleared his homeland of an incredible 50,000 mines. He did this armed with nothing but a pocketknife, pliers, a stick, and his bare hands: “I want to make my country safe for my people,” he said.
The devices were put there by the warring factions that plagued the country through out the second half of the 20th century, most infamous of all the Khmer Rouge against ordinary citizens.
The mines were laid indiscriminately. The Khmer planted them in areas that innocent men, women and children were located; the paddy fields where they worked, the land surrounding the communities they lived as well as in the jungle were the fighting took place.
International intervention has only done so much in aiding the clean up operation. Now, 40 years on from the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge, land mines are still an everyday danger for the rural citizens of Cambodia. In fact, the Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service (CMVIS) shows that the country has one of the highest casualty rates in the world; one third of the reported victims are children.
Aki Ra spent most of his days chopping vegetation in fields and delicately prodding areas looking for unexploded mines. “I poke my stick in the ground till I find a mine,” he 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 did not have any previous experience when he first started defusing land mines. However, in 2008 he passed an Accredited International Demining Training course. As a result, he is able to teach others the methods of demining.
He has since created his own team, Cambodia Self Help Demining, and now uses International Mine Action Standards methods and equipment. He also travels around Cambodia training community-based demining teams to remove land mines.
As of 2014, the amount of potential deadly mines that have been removed from the Cambodian countryside due to Aki’s work and training is now in the hundreds of thousands.
Aki’s story, like many of his generation in Cambodia, begins with tragedy. Born in the early 1970’s (he does not know his own birth date), Aki Ra’s parents were among the 1 million innocent people who were murdered in the infamous killing fields.
At the age of 10, he was recruited by the same organisation that killed his parents to cook, hunt and wash clothes for the soldiers. The Khmer had many child soldiers within the ranks and it was not long before Aki was 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.”
As a child soldier, Aki Ra became familiar with land mines. “Sometimes I would carry around 100 with me in a sack,” he said. “Every week I would see someone hurt by them.”
Aki was a teenager when the Vietnamese invaded and took control of Phnom Penh. He was captured and in order to avoid execution, was forced to fight for his captors instead.
“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.”
Aki described how once he spotted his own uncle in the enemy line. He shot over his head to avoid killing him.
When the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989, Aki Ra was once again found himself as a soldier for his homeland, this time the Cambodian army. Here, at the age of 20 he was given the opportunity to go to school for the first time. Aki can now speak 7 languages – Cambodian, English, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, French and a little Russian.
When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in Cambodia in 1992, Aki Ra was one of the first to join the clean up operation. His years spent in the middle of such bloody conflict, gave him the necessary skills to find the 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 was our way of finding them”.
By 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.
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 areas that Aki Ra and his team clear, provide new opportunities to the people that live there. One of his latest projects, 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. However, as result of 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.
In 2010, Aki Ra was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero, under the ‘community crusader’ category. A deserving accolade no less.