“We humans do terrible things to one another,” I thought as I wandered from display to display at the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The simple sign at the entrance reads “Welcome to the Landmines Museum.” This misspelling of the museum’s name is truly appropriate, a meaningful expression of the sheer volume, variety and diversity of anti-personal devices on display.
The museum is approximately two miles (3.2 km) from the World Heritage site of Angkor Wat and only one mile (1.6 km) from mushrooming luxury hotels in the city of Siem Reap. However, on this bumpy, unsealed road amongst a small, young, rural community, the Cambodian tourism boom feels a million miles away.
Having opened to the public in 1999, the museum is only a few years old. It consists of a simple corrugated iron building, surrounded by a handful of roughly built sheds and open-air sleeping and eating quarters. Its founder and director, the quiet and unassuming Aki Ra, is a 31-year-old mine clearer. Aki Ra is slim and small in stature, but has a commanding presence. Although Aki Ra is softly spoken, visitors hang on his every word as he describes both the museum and his own life.
At the age of five, Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s ruling Communist party between 1975 and 1979, and he was subsequently forced to serve in their army. At age 13, the Vietnamese took over and he was given a choice: join their troops or face death. He found himself part of their army. When he was about 18, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia and Aki Ra joined the Cambodian army to fight against the Khmer Rouge.
In all these bizarre twists of fighting for and then against the Khmer Rouge, the only constant in Aki Ra’s life was his exposure to the setting and detonation of landmines. It is a skill he now refers to as his trade. His later work in clearing the mines, first with the United Nations, who taught him how to use metal detectors and other mine-clearing equipment, and then on his own, relying on nothing more than a stick and his own hands, led Aki Ra to amass an extraordinary array and volume of weapons and mines. It was the simple question of what to do with all these weapons that provided him with the inspiration to establish his museum.
This clearing exercise is far from complete; it is estimated that six million mines remain in the soil of Cambodia. These anti-personal devices are remnants of a series of conflicts that inflicted Cambodia over the past decades, from the various Vietnamese invasions in the 1950’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, to the dark four – year reign of the Khmer Rouge when more than three million people were killed under the reign of Pol Pot. These uncleared mine fields are primarily located along the Thai-Cambodian border, and it is here that Aki Ra regularly journeys to continue his work — unaided by support, external funding or any sophisticated equipment.
It is still a regular occurrence that local farmers, women and children are maimed or killed by landmines that come with “manufactured in” labels reading China, Russia, US, Vietnam and Germany, and date stamps from the 1940’s right through to the 1970’s. The devices have proven to be horrendously effective, exploding immediately on contact with their unfortunate victims, and proving remarkably resilient, remaining in active condition many decades after they were first placed in the ground.
When Aki Ra first moved from his small rented room in the nearby city of Siem Reap to this rural location in the late 1990’s, it was an isolated and lonely landscape, as the local people were too fearful of the mines remaining in the ground to farm and settle. The local village of 500 that has grown up around the museum site is a testament to Aki Ra’s extraordinary work in not only clearing the mines, but in educating his neighbors on mine awareness, safety and first aid. For its simple layout and structure, the museum is a total success in its goal to educate and raise awareness of the continued devastating affect of anti-personal devices not only in Cambodia, but also in other war-ravaged regions of the world.
As first Aki Ra and then an English volunteer leads us through the various mines on display, the sickening variety of ways to hurt, maim or kill a fellow human being become more apparent. It appears in the manufacture, design and placement of landmines; we humans have thought of everything. From the technique of laying mines in water, where a greater impact on the body will be caused by the imploding water, to the lightweight plastic construction of later models that are both cheaper (approximately US$ 5) and easier to carry.
The directional Claymore mines that are designed to spray ball bearings in a specific direction come conveniently labeled with the instruction “Front facing enemy.” Most of the mines are designed to pinpoint a specific body part, such as a hand or a leg. Others cause shrapnel injury rather than to death. This strategy to mine design ensures a more effective strike against the enemy, as an injured soldier requires his comrades to care for and carry him to safety.
If visitors are in any doubt of the reality of the gruesome consequences of the mines on display, the human reminder is ever present by the handful of child amputee victims that live at the museum. A very practical and logical program has been put into place to provide these children with much needed assistance. The museum supports them to go to the local school as well as providing them with English and Japanese lessons courtesy of international volunteers.
The volunteers come from the U.K., Japan, the U.S. and Canada. They are enthusiastic individuals who have sought out Aki Ra and his museum and offer assistance in communicating his work and his message on the devastating affect of landmines. The goal is to give these children the education that will save them from a life as beggars. While the museum can house and care for eight to nine kids at a time, the regular rotation of students back to their farms and families ensures as many as possible can be part of this program.
There appears to be few true heroes left in the world. Upon meeting Aki Ra and learning of both his horrendous wartime experiences — depicted in both stories and paintings throughout the museum — and his continuing dangerous mine clearing activities, you have no doubt of how remarkable this young man really is.
He was blown clear of a tank he was riding upon that was destroyed by anti-tank mines hidden in the roadway. He witnessed friends die from mines who had not learned their dangers as proficiently as himself. His childhood saw a bigger exposure to guns and weaponry than to studying the alphabet. Aki Ra tells us how he was given his first gun at age ten, but was taught the Khmer alphabet at the rate of one character per week. He aptly describes the Khmer Rouge as holding his “innocence in their hands.” It is truly amazing that he survived the starvation, cruelty and danger that he was forced to endure as a child soldier and an orphan. His continuing land mine clearing activities defy belief.
Several times a month, for up to five days at a time, he works without sophisticated detection or safety equipment — usually solo — clearing mines on the Thai-Cambodian border. Providing his own food during these expeditions by hunting, he uses nothing more than his own foot, a stick and his extensive knowledge to safely locate, and then with his hands, detonate the landmines. Aki Ra clears up to 30 mines per day, an amazing feat when compared to the two to three per day of an official UN mine clearer.
The Bouncing Betty mine that he shows us during our visit, an insidious device that is designed to jump upwards to waist height on detonation, was found and detonated the previous day during one of his expeditions. The video footage taken by an English volunteer showed the delicate art of locating and detonating that Aki Ra employs. It is truly a heart-stopping exercise to watch — even on film.
If You Go
The museum is privately owned and operated. It does not receive any government funding. No entry fee is charged, however, donations are gratefully accepted. All the mines on display at the museum have been rendered safe.
The museum will not appear in local tourist literature. You will find details at www.cambodialandminemuseum.org
Siem Reap has an international airport, with daily flights from Bangkok and Singapore, as well as daily flights from Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Tourism Board