We started this story with the Museum of Mines in Cambodia and the tragic history behind it.
The story of Aki Ra’s life closely intertwined with the story of his country. It is impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. Born during the Cambodian civil war and orphaned in the labour camps, he was raised by the Khmer Rouge. The orphans they raised were groomed from childhood to fight. Their education solely comprised of learning to fire rockets, lay mines and shoot. Food was scarce. Like the rest of the population, the child soldiers too subsisted on very less.
With the forced labour camps, the disruption of a social fabric was complete. The institutions that sustained the social and intellectual needs of the people were wiped out overnight. The Khmer Rouge filled the void left behind by these with fear. Fear and starvation were the two things they nurtured in place of everything they destroyed. Summary executions, back breaking labour, and hunger were primary to sustain the kind of social structure the Khmer Rouge sought to build.
A child being moulded in a world like that learns to accept fear too as a way of life. There is very less room for doubt for all the questions in their minds are rooted out early on. Aki Ra fought on the side of the Khmer Rouge until his early teens. In 1979, Vietnamese troops marched in and took back Phnom Penh. With that, the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge ended. Aki Ra, then 14, was captured in an ambush. The Vietnamese, desperate for conscripts, took him into their ranks. With that, life changed very little for Aki Ra except that he was fighting on the side of the force which he once thought comprised of demons. That is the picture his former army gave to its child soldiers.
In 1989, the Vietnamese forces too pulled out of Cambodia. Following this, Aki Ra was conscripted into another army for the third time in his life. He fought the remaining factions of the Khmer Rouge with the Cambodian army deep in the jungles.
For Aki Ra, the series of events that placed him in the jungles had been set in motion years before he was born. In was not until the 1990s that he had the choice of leaving the jungles behind once for all. The UN peace keeping forces arrived in Siem Riep to ensure that the Khmer Rouge do not make a come back after the departure of the Vietnamese. Aki Ra volunteered to join the force that began the operation to find and diffuse landmines that plagued the countryside.
Three years later the UN forces departed but Aki Ra continued to look for mines. Over the years he had managed to diffuse 50,000 mines all on his own with the most rudimentary of tool, a pair of pliers and a stick. His collection of diffused mines grew steadily that decided to open a small museum. Following that, in 2007, he founded a non-profit called Cambodia Self-help Demining dedicated to making the country safe again. The landmine museum is now a part of the organisation.
The mines in the museum are the macabre relics of the Cambodia’s turbulent history post World War II. The conflicts in South – East Asia in those decades have their roots in the Cold War. The larger powers like USSR, the United States, and the people’s Republic of China aided warring groups in smaller countries that were in line with their ideology. This struggle for dominance became an an enormous vortex that engulfed smaller countries like Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Angkor Wat and the landmine museum are milestones in Khmer history; a juxtaposition of ancient splendour and modern conflict, the two parts of Cambodia’s tumultuous journey into the present.