I made my second visit to a Cambodian landmines museum in May of 2011 with a group of my Hong Kong high school students. Two other teachers and I were chaperoning a service and learning trip. Here is my journal entry about that visit.
After a six-hour drive from Phnom Penh along a national Cambodian highway that was sometimes reduced to one lane and was always bumpy and full of pot holes we arrived at the Siem Reap landmines museum. I had visited this museum in 2004. The museum moved to a new location in 2007. This new one is much more organized and professional looking but I missed the rustic simplicity of the old one.
The cage in the photo holds some of the thousands of land mines that have been discovered and detonated by Aki Ra, a Cambodian man whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was raised in an army camp with other children, given his first weapon at age 10, and during his career as a Khmer Rouge soldier planted thousands of land mines himself.
When the United Nations came to Cambodia in the 1990’s to try to help restore order in the country Aki Ra began helping them with the removal of land mines. He continued to do this as a personal crusade for many years, until the Cambodian government stopped him by saying he wasn’t properly trained for removing land mines.
Aki Ra went to England and got three certificates in land mines removal even though he had to learn to speak English first to do it. Now he continues with his work. He was one of the top ten CNN heroes of the year in 2010. On the CNN website you can read a lot more about Aki Ra.
These photos which are on display in the museum shows Aki Ra and his wife at work discovering and detonating land mines.
He and his wife also started an orphanage for children who had been orphaned or maimed by landmines. There are 35 children living there now but a new dormitory has been built and soon there will be 50 children living there. Aki Ra and his non-profit organization provide food, shelter, education and medical care for these children.
One of my students is standing beside one of the most common kinds of land mines. There are also many dangerous unexploded bombs in Cambodia. The United States began bombing Cambodia in 1969 saying they needed to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail on its border that was supplying the North Vietnamese with weapons and supplies. By 1975 the US was flying 900 missions a day over Cambodia dropping a bomb every four minutes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 30% of these bombs did not explode on impact and are still buried in Cambodia.
Two pieces of art work at the land mines museum really caught my attention. This simplistic but colorful and disturbing image of two children who are playing and accidentally step on a land mine.
This sculpture was made by a Phnom Penh artist and was created out of materials given to the artist by Aki Ra. Many kinds of land mines as well as the tools a person who removes land mines would use, are welded into the sculpture which stood in the lobby of the United Nations for six months on display.
Here our tour guide Jill Morse is telling us about some of the children who live at the orphanage at the land mines museum. Jill has a very interesting story herself. She and her husband Bill are from Palm Springs, California. They heard about Aki Ra through a friend and decided to visit him in Cambodia to learn more about what he was doing. They were so impressed they began sending him $300 a month to support his work and helping him in other ways. Eventually they decided to move to Siem Reap to help him full-time. Jill who is a teacher, teaches the children at the orphanage. She’d just finished four hours of classes when she gave us our tour. You can read more about Jill and Bill Morse here.
It is sad that despite the best efforts of dedicated people like Aki Ra and Jill and Bill Morse children continue to be the victims of landmines left in Cambodian soil. As yesterday’s article in the Washington Post reports
“An estimated 4 to 6 million land mines and other unexploded ordnance from more than three decades of armed conflict continue to maim or kill Cambodians each year.”