Click. I stood on the landmine, about the size of a can of pop, a container made of lightweight plastic like cheap toy soldiers. I always thought landmines were disk shaped, and that if you could replace your weight, you might slip away unharmed, at least according to Hollywood. “No, you hear click, you explode,” says the Cambodian volunteer guide. The last click you’ll feel with your legs intact, if you survive. Fortunately, this landmine was disarmed, one of the thousands on display at the Landmine Museum outside Siem Reap in Cambodia. The trigger device still worked, so standing on the lid, no bigger than a garden sprinkler, it still had the impact of pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun, aimed directly at my head.
After the U.S invasion during the Vietnam War, the blood-drenched rule of Pol Pot, and the decades of civil war that followed, Cambodia is one of the most mined countries on the planet. An estimated five million mines are still to be found, many by wandering animals, farmers, and children. It is estimated that one out of every 290 Cambodians is a landmine victim. In the game of war, landmines play dirty. They are cheap to make, easy to camouflage, designed for maximum carnage and injury, and patiently hide long after the war they were deployed for is over. Built in a variety of shapes and sizes, landmines do not have a sell-by date. As Cambodia rebuilds itself in a new century, the weapons of the past continue to maim the innocent. Aki Ra’s life mission is to put an end to this, one dangerous mine at a time.
Photo: Landmine Museum
A former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge and later the Vietnamese Army, Aki Ra was laying landmines in the jungle before he reached his teens. Cutting trails in the jungle, he would lay traps, mines and trip wires, carefully camouflaged with soil and foliage. One mine might trigger another so that a single careless step could wipe out an entire platoon. Claymore mines, detonated by tripwires, are loaded with ball bearings that fire in every direction, causing massive harm to anything in the vicinity. US-made Bouncing Betties have a spring mechanism that shoots it up to head height before it explodes, resulting in maximum carnage. Aki Ra was told to lay them all, Chinese pineapples, Russian mines made of wood, salad-bowl anti-tank mines. Today, his Landmine Museum, 25kms away from Siem Reap and Angkor temple complex, is a disturbing glimpse into real-life horror, and the human spirit that defies it. Privately funded without government aid, Aki makes frequent trips into the jungle to disarm the devices that continue to torture his country. He estimates that he has removed some thirty thousand mines, an incredible feat given the fact that Aki doesn’t use modern mine detecting equipment. Drawing on his childhood knowledge of where to hide mines and how best to disarm their fuses, his success rate, and survival, is incredible. It costs about $500US for an aid organization to remove a single landmine. Over 130 countries have banned the use of landmines, but major arms manufacturers like the USA, Russia and China continue to produce and distribute mines for as little as $3 a unit. The human cost is incalculable.
Aki’s museum has adopted about a dozen young landmine victims, missing arms and legs, but making up for it in spirit. They help out at the museum, and a village has sprung up around the museum since Aki successful cleared it of mines in the early 1990’s. Inside a small hut, hundreds of mines are on display, along with information as to how they work and where they are found. A video runs showing Aki walking through thick jungle, the cameraman literally shaking for fear of taking a wrong step. “Look at this small field,” asks the guide. “How many mines can you see?” It’s the size of a vegetable patch, and I can just make out a trip wire connected to a mortar bomb hanging from a branch. I count four mines before he begins to point them out. There are dozens - in the ground, behind leaves, attached with gut-wire above my head. Some are only designed to blow off one leg, others the entire lower torso. You wouldn’t stand a chance.
Photo: Landmine Museum
After the gunpowder has been “steamed” out and the mine is declared safe, Aki displays them in his museum to educate people about their continuing danger in Cambodia, and the world over. On the video, a one-legged survivor kid who lives at the museum scores a goal in a friendly soccer game, his spirit inspiring. The TV is turned off. Click.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.