Life of the Land

Once a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra now rids the killing fields of their deadly mines

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Adam Ferguson / VII for Time

Aki Ra, right, at work with a member of his Cambodian Self Help Demining team in northwestern Cambodia

They stand to attention in neat rows, soldiers battling an invisible yet deadly enemy. At the fore, clad in military fatigues, is Aki Ra, all eyes on his cherubic face as he issues the day’s instructions. Upon dismissal, the team dons Kevlar vests and begins the laborious process of chopping back vegetation and delicately prodding wherever the telltale, high-pitched whine of the metal detector betrays something beneath the dank soil. Often it’s a piece of shrapnel — a remnant of decades of savage conflict. But sometimes, a hockey-puck-size antipersonnel land mine is discovered and destroyed with a controlled explosion.

Cambodia was once blighted by up to 6 million land mines — indiscriminate weapons that brook no distinction between marauding combatant and inquisitive child. Made largely in the USSR and China, they were used by Cambodia’s once warring factions, including the notorious Khmer Rouge, to impede their enemies.

Aki Ra has dedicated his life to curing this subterranean plague. About 20 years ago, armed with just rudimentary tools — a pocket knife, pliers, a stick — he set about single-handedly removing land mines and unexploded ordnance from his homeland’s verdant quilt of paddy fields and lush jungle. Aki Ra says from 1992 to 2007 he personally cleared about 50,000 mines. The human cost of this scourge becomes apparent to any visitor to Cambodia — the pockmarked nation has an estimated 40,000 amputees. Today, Aki Ra’s NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD), funded by foreign governments and private donations, works with a team of around 30, mainly in the country’s north, where the majority of mines remain. “I want to make my country safe for my people,” says Aki Ra.

(PHOTOS: International Mine Action Day)

His life and cause reflect the suffering Cambodia has undergone. Aki Ra thinks he was born in 1970, but cannot be sure, as his parents were among the more than 1 million Cambodians slaughtered in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields. He was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge at age 10 — first to cook, hunt and wash clothes for the soldiers, but was soon handed a gun. “We believed what they told us, as we didn’t have any choice,” he says. “I didn’t know anything of the outside world.” It was during this fraught time that Aki Ra first became familiar with land mines. “Sometimes I would carry around 100 with me in a sack,” he says. “Every week I would see someone hurt by them.”

When the Khmer Rouge attempted to reclaim long-disputed territory by the Vietnamese border, they found their battle-hardened neighbors — fresh from besting first the Chinese and then American militaries — unwilling to acquiesce. The Vietnamese invaded and took control of Phnom Penh in 1979. Aki Ra was captured six years later. Facing execution, he started fighting for his captors against his former Khmer Rouge allies. “Once I saw my uncle in the enemy line opposite me, so I shot over his head to avoid killing him,” he says with a grin.

The Vietnamese withdrew in 1989, and Aki Ra faced his third conscription, this time into the Cambodian army, to battle the lingering fragments of the routed Khmer Rouge. Only then, aged around 20, did he finally receive any semblance of a school education — Aki Ra now speaks English, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, French and some Russian, along with his native Khmer.

U.N. peacekeepers rolled into Cambodia in 1992 to help facilitate a democratic transition, and Aki Ra was recruited to help clear land mines — work that came naturally to him. “When we were shooting during the war, we would always be feeling for mines with our feet,” he says, shuffling the dirt by way of demonstration. (Land mines generally take around 10 kg of force to detonate, so are unlikely to explode with gentle probing.)

(MORE: As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed)

By 1997, Aki Ra had collected so many bomb casings, weapons and unexploded ordnance that he opened the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. An adjacent school and relief center for orphans, young land-mine victims and rural destitute followed. More than 100 children have since passed through the organization — 27 are currently at school and nine are studying at university. Aki Ra also has three children of his own — one called, intriguingly, Mine. “As a baby he would sleep with a lot of land-mine casings around,” explains Aki Ra, “and whenever he woke up he would play with them. The name just stuck.”

Because of the vast collective effort of NGOs and government agencies, land-mine casualties in Cambodia have plummeted from about 4,300 in 1996 to 77 in the first half of this year. Since 2008, Aki Ra’s CSHD team has put some 100,000 people back on 180 cleared hectares of land. In a nation where an estimated quarter of the 14 million population subsists on less than $1 a day, that’s an enormous achievement.

Just an hour’s drive east of historic Angkor Wat, Van Pok, 33, farms bananas, potatoes, rice and coconuts next to Aki Ra’s latest clearance project. “I was very scared of the bombs because of my two young children,” she says. Soon the village will build a house and a vegetable garden on the onetime minefield — a dream now possible on a land that no longer kills.

PHOTOS: The Rise and Fall of the Khmer Rouge

25 comments
LauHiengHiong
LauHiengHiong

In a country tortured by decades-long civil wars, there were barbarous monsters and respectable heroes. Notorious Khmer Rouge, a onetime Cambodian tyrant, reportedly slaughtered one million of the population during his ferocious rule. The aftermath of ensuing savage conflicts has brought incalculable sufferings to the nation.

Aki Ra, leader of a demining team in Cambodia, has been a great hero, whose contribution to the safety of his motherland is beyond description. During the last two decades, Aki Ra and his team has reportedly removed more than 50000 deadly mines, which may otherwise have hurt thousands of local residents.

Like most of his contemporaries, Aki Ra experienced inconceivable hardships in his earlier life. What is praiseworthy is his tenacity in fighting off personal miseries. The weathered soldier has been hardened not only in his supreme courage, but also his willpower in tackling apparently insurmountable risky tasks. The perseverance and dedication to the benefits of his homeland is a model for younger generations in Cambodia and beyond.

Lau Hieng-Hiong, Hsinchu, TAIWAN

wmorse1067
wmorse1067

I work with Aki Ra.  I have worked with him for 10 years.  Our charity raises over half the money needed to run his demining team.  I am also the International Project Manager for Cambodian Self Help Demining.   Aki Ra's demining team, Cambodian Self Help Demining has cleared 18 hectares, returning over 10,000 people to fields that were denied them.  We have cleared 60 villages since our inception in 2008. 

Motohiro Sampei
Motohiro Sampei

Always impressive to hear such brave stories. Hope the Cambodian villages of the onetime minefield will produce fruits and vegetables that can feed hundreds and thousands of hungry children.

Lynn Pedersen
Lynn Pedersen

A life's work worth more than a million lives those mines would of taken.

David Atuzor
David Atuzor

Wow...what a selfless service...GOD BLESS HIM...

Angela Gardner
Angela Gardner

That is a tremendous achievement! Thank you to that man!!! The lives he will have saved is immeasurable! Now that's a Hero!

Ageung Darajat
Ageung Darajat

That's amazing work kid. You have to keep doing your job and disarm those mine field and I like your story too.

Nidhi Gupta
Nidhi Gupta

guys plz keep verifying my theories with experiments whether chemicals really follow dem. when i was studying for jee i was told that hybridization is just a mathematical assumption to explain. thr isnt any solid evidence in favour of it

Suresh Kumar
Suresh Kumar

A must read. Aki Ra, the Hero., I salute.

Vagabum
Vagabum

Aki is a real hero and puts his life on the line every day to Right the Wrong he feels partially responsible for helping create as a child soldier. I visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap just last December and donated to his cause.

The International Community should push to eliminate the use of barbaric mines just like they did for Chemical Weapons. They kill and maim many, many more civilians than soldiers in the long run, every time they have been used.

Backroad Bikers
Backroad Bikers

This comes as dire news. A retired Army Captain has got to the point that he is going viral with information of the gravest nature. He states that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is preparing for war against the American People. This is not a something to take lightly. He points to all the ammunition being bought up by DHS. He has been reposting this letter since March 2013 and it hit my wall. I went to look and it is indeed a live link Facebook Account. He has updated the status quite often and the last post he commented on was October 31, 2013. Re: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and that agencies preparation for war against citizens of the United States of Americ Dear friends, the following is a copy of my correspondence with Senator Cornyn concerning the arming of the DHS for war against the citizens of our nation. You are each encouraged to copy and properly amend this letter to send to your own senators and members of the U.S. House. Further, I am somewhat overwhelmed at the response to my posts leading up to this letter on this issue. At this point almost 3,000 of you have shared my original post, I have 994 new friends requests, 61 messages, and 70 new comments to process. Please be patient with me and pray that this window of communication remains open to all of us as we respond to this threat against our Constitution and our people. I am awed by you, by your positive response, and your wonderful support. We each have a role to play in standing against this present tyranny. Part of that proper response is sending them a letter like this from YOU, and following it up to make sure it remains a “hot button” issue that must be resolved. God bless you as you honor your oaths and your obligations as citizens of this free nation. May we once again know honorable leadership and peace at home. With all sincerity and respect–Resolved, Captain Terry M. Hestilow, United States Army, Retired. The Honorable Senator John Cornyn, State of Texas United States Senate 517 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510 Re: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and that agencies preparation for war against citizens of the United States of America. Dear Senator Cornyn, It is with gravest concern that I write to you today concerning the recent appropriation of weapons by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that can only be understood as a bold threat of war by that agency, and the Obama administration, against the citizens of the United States of America. To date, DHS has been unwilling to provide to you, the elected representatives of the People, justification for recent purchases of almost 3,000 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) armored personnel carriers, 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition (with associated weapons), and other weapons systems, when, in fact, the DHS has no war mission or war making authority within the limits of the United States of America. Significant is the fact that at the same time the Obama administration is arming his DHS for war within the limits of the United States against the People of the United States in accordance with his 2008 campaign speech claiming, “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve gotta (sic) have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded [as the United States military]”–Candidate Barack Obama, 2008. the Obama administration is deliberately defunding, overextending, and hollowing the Department of Defense; the only legitimate agency of the U.S. government with a war mission. This act of the Obama administration stands as a glaring threat of war against our nation’s citizens! This act of the Obama administration can only be understood as a tyrannical threat against the Constitution of the United States of America! If left unresolved, the peace loving citizens who have sworn to defend the United States Constitution “against all enemies, both foreign and domestic” are left no option except to prepare to defend themselves, and the U.S. Constitution, against this Administration’s “coup” against the People and the foundations of liberty fought for and defended for the past 238 years. We have no choice if we honor our oaths. The only proper response to this threat against the American people is for the representatives of the People, the members of the U.S. House and Senate, to demand in clear terms that the Administration cannot ignore, that the Department of Homeland Security immediately surrender their newly appropriated weapons of war to the Department of Defense (DoD). Further, since the DHS has assumed a position in the Administration to enforce the tyrannical acts of this president against the People of the United States against the limits of the United States Constitution, it remains for the United States Congress to exercise its limiting power in the balancing of powers established by our founding fathers, to disestablish and dissolve the DHS as soon as possible. One needs only to look to the rise of Adolf Hitler, and his associated DHS organizations, the SA and the SS, of 1932-1934, to see the outcome of allowing an agency of government this kind of control over the free citizens of a nation. The people of Germany could not have imagined, until it was too late, the danger of allowing a tyrant this kind of power. We must not be so naïve as to think it will not happen to us as well if we remain passive toward this power grab by the Marxist Obama administration! Finally, for more than two centuries the nation has lived in peace at home because of the protections of our legitimate military and the many appropriate state and federal law enforcement agencies, supported by Constitutional courts. We stand today at a cross-road. Will we allow this present Administration to overthrow our United States Constitution and its legal processes to amend injustices, or, will we honor our obligations to defend the Constitution against a “domestic” enemy? Our Constitution lays out the proper methods of resolving our differences; and it does not include its overthrow by a rogue agency of a Marxist leadership at home. You, sir, are our constitutionally elected agent to defend our Constitution at home. We are counting upon you. We remain aware, however, of this present threat and will not expose ourselves as an easy prey to the authors of the destruction of our nation. I know that this letter demands much of you. We elected you because we, the citizens of the State of Texas, believe that you are up to the task at hand and will, against all threats, honor your oath and office. We are also writing to your fellow members of the House and Senate to stand in integrity with the Constitution and against this present threat by the Obama administration and his DHS. We refuse to surrender our Constitution or our nation! Resolved, Captain Terry M. Hestilow United States Army, Retired

Ruth Feldman
Ruth Feldman

We were not even at war with Cambodia were we? The USA thought there were some Vietnam camps inside Cambodia so we ruined large part of Cambodia...destroyed the ecology....killed Cambodian people. Cambodia had a communist group, the Kmer Rouge. How was that our business? I met a young Vietnamese guy who, at the age of 5, had to walk through Cambodia...stepping over bodies to get to a refugee camp. Is that what our country is now about?

Roger Foo
Roger Foo

Salute to great Aki Ra the savior. !!

Allen Larson
Allen Larson

Talk about overkill in the land mine department. How many land mines should we use? Ooo idk around 6 million should do the trick.

Cristin16475201
Cristin16475201

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wmorse1067
wmorse1067

@Ruth Feldman The landmines in Cambodia come not just the US, but from Russia, E Germany, Czechoslovakia, China, Singapore, Vietnam.  While Mr. Reagan sent his advisors to meet with the KR after the Vietnamese overthrew them, Mrs. Thatcher also had SAS troops teaching people to lay landmines, and the western world supported Thailand support of the KR.